Latin America

The mental scars of Mexico’s Dirty War

Torture victim Enrique Chávez is kept in chains by his family for fear of his violent actions

Enrique Chávez, a torture victim of the Mexican army, now lives 24 hours a day chained to a post.
Enrique Chávez, a torture victim of the Mexican army, now lives 24 hours a day chained to a post.SAÚL RUIZ

Enrique Chávez Fuentes looks like a castaway – he has a long white beard, dark tanned skin and scabs on his knees. But rather than being lost at sea, he has been set adrift in his own mind.

The 61-year-old Chávez was arrested by the Mexican army in 1974 after he was accused of being a member of a guerrilla group led by Lucio Cabañas, a rural teacher who organized an armed movement in the mountains of the poor and violent state of Guerrero – the same state where 43 students from a rural teaching school were kidnapped and massacred last September.

Chávez was jailed and tortured. To this day, he is unable to forget the beating he was given by an officer using a military helmet. He feared that his skull would split open like an overripe piece of fruit.

To this day, he cannot forget how an officer beat him on the head with his military helmet

One day in 1978, his neighbors saw him returning to his mother’s home, in a town located in the mountain coffee fields.

“It wasn’t him. It wasn’t the same person that they took away. They destroyed him,” explains his frail mother Virginia Fuentes, who is aged 94.

According to local doctors, Chávez has since suffered from convulsions, loss of memory, paranoia and schizophrenia. He has also been aggressive.

One day he picked up a machete and began swinging it at his mother. Another time he attacked his neighbor Josefina Álvarez with a knife, and also injured a street vendor with a rock.

Last week, the United Nations asked the Mexican government to pay “adequate compensation” to the victims who suffered the brutal violence committed during those troubled years. However, help for Chávez has never arrived.

The UN asked Mexico to pay “adequate compensation” to the victims of those troubled years

His family has no money to place him in a psychiatric institution, and they fear that he will become more violent. As such they keep Chávez chained to a post, with just enough space for him to lie on a hammock and access the bathroom of his home in Atoyac de Álvarez.

Chávez is a victim of the Dirty War that took place in the 1970s, when Mexican authorities arrested anyone they considered an enemy of the state. Torture, kidnappings and forced disappearances were common.

He was one of thousands that suffered under the Mexican government, whose aim was to destroy rebel groups such as the one headed by Lucio Cabañas. According to a Truth Commission report, more than 500 people were forcefully disappeared in that area between 1969 and 1985.

More than 500 were forcefully disappeared in that area between 1969 and 1985, says Truth Commission

“You see that field over there?” asks Enrique Acosta, a local politician, as he points to a hill. “That’s where they arrested my father, Macario Acosta Serafín. He was on his way to his cornfield and never returned. An officer told my mother some days later not to search for him because they threw him from a plane into the sea.”

Acosta never paid attention to what that officer said, and to this day he continues to search for clues to what really happened to his father. He heads up an association that collects all the accounts of the repression in that quiet mountain region that time has almost forgotten.

One of the most disturbing stories – according to Acosta – is the one about the man without proper medication who must be chained to a post 24 hours a day, like an animal at a circus.

Chávez passes his day swinging in his hammock, inside his own world. He isn’t aware of visitors.

The military believed that he was a member of the Poor People’s Party, which was organized by Cabañas as a political association but later became a clandestine group. The rebels would visit towns and ranches recruiting members to take up arms in the mountains.

When he goes crazy, he sometimes runs down the street yelling: ‘please stop hitting me’”

Chávez was accused of killing four soldiers in a massacre at a place known as “the dark brook.”

“The torture began in the jail. It was terrible,” explains his sister, Margarita. “When he goes crazy, he sometimes runs down the street yelling, ‘Please stop beating me!’”

To this day no organization has tried to help the mentally ill man, nor are there answers about his case.

“One day an officer told him that if he didn’t plead guilty he would die in jail,” said the sister. “That’s why he said he killed those officers.”

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It has been 38 years since Chávez returned home looking frail, with his head shaved. On October 20, 1978, the public prosecutor in Guerrero pardoned him after he served a four-year sentence, unsupported by any actual evidence that he was involved in the massacre.

When Chávez returned, he was carrying his pardon with him, but his mental state was left behind.

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