|English | Español||August 15, 2018 | Issue #41|
“They Ordered Me to Lay My Head In a Pool of Blood”
A Letter from Valentina Palma, Chilean Anthropology Student and Filmmaker Who Was Beaten, Tortured and Deported After the Violence in Atenco
By Valentina Palma Novoa
May 12, 2006
My name is Valentina Palma Novoa. I am 30 years old, and I have spent the last 11 years of my life in Mexico. I am a student at the National School of Anthropology and History, currently in my fourth year studying Cinematography at the Center for Cinematographic Study. I have an FM 3 student visa.
I would like to share with you the events that I witnessed during the violent incidents that occurred in the town of San Salvador Atenco on Thursday, May 4, 2006, which ended with my unjust and arbitrary expulsion from the country.
1.- On Wednesday, May 3, after seeing the news on television and learning of the death of a 14-year-old boy, I was moved by the death of this small child and, as an anthropologist and documentary filmmaker, decided to go to San Salvador Atenco to assess the situation.
I spent the night in the town, documenting the patrol posts that the people of the town had set up, and interviewing the guards. It was cold. I drew closer to the small fires that the people had built and continued to take pictures. The light of dawn announced a new day: Thursday, May 4.
I headed towards one of the patrol posts, where the farmers were looking in the direction of the pack of police who could be seen in the distance. I zoomed in with my camera. I saw that there were many of them and that, covered by their shields, they were advancing with small and nearly imperceptible steps. I was afraid. There were many of them, heavily armed, while the farmers were few and unarmed. In the screen of my camera I saw one of the police point and shoot a projectile towards us; when it landed next to me, I could smell and feel that it was tear gas. More and more tear gas quickly began to overpower the warm smell of the recently baked bread and transformed the narrow alley into a battle field.
The air was no longer breathable and I went to the plaza as the church bells began to toll even louder. Down various streets, I could see the police in the distance, coming nearer. The little resistance that there was from the farm workers disappeared in the face of the attack that the police suddenly launched against the people. I turned my camera off and ran as fast as I could alongside everyone else. In front of the church, there was a public building with its doors open and I went inside to wait in vain for the turbulence to pass. There were two young men also hoping in vain to shield themselves from the attack. The three of us all looked each other in the face, anxious and fearful.
Cautiously, I got up to look at the street and I saw five police officers, devoid of any compassion, kicking and using their clubs to beat an old man who lay strewn on the ground. I became more afraid. I went inside and told the two young men that we needed to hide in a better place; where we were was too exposed. Mistakenly, we went up to the roof and laid down on our backs, looking up at helicopters that buzzed like hornets in the sky, while the sound of shots became part of the town’s landscape of sound. A man’s voice yelled violently, “Come down here, you bastards on the roof.”
First, the two young men went down. I watched them being beaten from above. I was panicked and didn’t want to come down from the roof; then a police officer yelled up to me, “Come down here, bitch. Come down here now.”
I came down from the roof slowly, terrorized by the sight of the boys being beaten in the head. Two police officers took hold of me and pulled me forward while others beat me on the chest, back and legs with their clubs. My cries of pain increased when I heard the voice of someone asking my name for the list of arrested. I responded, “Valentina…Valentina Palma Novoa,” while a police officer ordered me to shut my mouth and another hit me in the chest.
A man’s voice ordered the officers to cover me with shields so people could not see how badly they had beaten me. They paused to one side of the church and ordered me to join the rest of the arrested, then forced me to kneel and put my hands behind my head. They continued to beat us. My cell phone rang and a voice ordered me to turn over my bag. In that moment, I was separated from my video camera, my cell phone and my small purse containing my identification and fifty pesos.
My pants were down when the truck stopped and I was ordered to get off. I got down awkwardly and a female police officer said, “Leave this bitch to me,” then hit my ears with both of her hands. I fell, and two police officers took me through a line of police who kicked us as we moved towards a bus.
Once on the bus, another female police officer asked me my name, while two male officers grabbed my breasts violently and threw me on top of the body of an old man whose face was nothing more than a crust of blood. The old man cried out in pain when he felt the weight of my body on top of him. I tried to move but a kick to the back stopped me. My own shout made the old man scream out again, asking for God’s mercy.
A woman’s voice ordered me to move to the back stairway of the bus. I did as she said and, from there, I could see the bloodied faces of the rest of the prisoners and the blood spreading across the floor. Although I was not bleeding, my hands and clothes were spattered with the blood of other prisoners.
I stayed still, listening to the groans from the bodies by my side, and heard them continue to bring more prisoners onto the bus, asking their names amidst beatings and shouts of pain. I do not know how much time passed before the bus closed its doors and began to move. The trip lasted about two or three hours. The torture began again and whatever small movement we made garnered more blows. I closed my eyes and tried to sleep, but the moans of the old man next to me kept me awake. The old man was saying, “My leg, my leg…¡God, have mercy, please have mercy!”
I wept bitterly. I thought the old man next to me would die. I moved my hand and tried to touch him to calm him a little. A club came down towards my hand, but I begged for compassion with a gesture to the police officer, who then backed off from beating me. Wanting to show the old man a little love, I stroked his leg and he was quiet for a few moments.
I asked him his name and he responded. “If I die, do not cry; please have a party instead.” I cried silently, feeling alone in the company of so many other beaten bodies, thinking the worst – that they would take us to who knows what place and kill us; that we would be disappeared.
For a moment, I fell asleep. But the smell of blood and death awoke me. Upon opening my eyes, I saw the wall of a jail. The bus stopped and a voice ordered us to get off through the back door.
They ordered me to stand up and, as the door opened, my uncovered, crying face looked up to find a line of police officers. I felt another surge of fear.
From below, a voice ordered the door of the bus closed and ordered the prisoners to come off with their faces covered. A police officer covered my head with my jacket and the doors reopened. From outside the bus, a police officer grabbed my pants with one hand and kept my head down with the other. The line of police began to kick my body and the bodies of all of the other prisoners who formed a line behind me.
The door of the prison opened and they moved us through narrow hallways while beating and kicking us. Before arriving at the registration desk, I made the mistake of raising my head and looking into the eyes of a police officer, who responded to my gaze with a hard punch to the stomach that knocked the air out of me for a few moments.
At the registration desk, they asked me for my name, age and nationality, after which they put me into a small room where a fat woman ordered me to take off all of my clothes. She asked me to be quick when she saw my awkward, slow movements, which were the result of the beatings I had received. “Ma’am, I am beaten badly, please be patient,” I said. She searched me. I got dressed again and put my jacket back over my head. I left the room and they ordered us to form a line of women, to move single file and with our heads down into the patio of the jail, which I would later find out was the jail called “Almoloyita” in the city of Toluca.
It must have been about 2pm on Thursday, May 4 by the time we were inside the penitentiary. They brought us to a cafeteria and separated the men and women. In a corner, amidst sobs, we women began to tell each other the abuses to which we had been subjected.
One young woman showed me her ripped underwear and the open, bloody wound on her head. Another told of how they had taken her between two trucks, beaten her, abused her, and threatened her by saying, “We’re going to kill you, bitch.”
Another young woman told me that she might be pregnant. All while sobbing and squeezing each others’ hands in solidarity. The state of shock among the women was evident. In front of us, the men spoke amongst themselves while we observed their bloodied and deformed faces, the product of their brutal beatings. As we looked at the men, a woman approached us and began to list a few names, asking those named to separate themselves from the group.
There were four of us: Cristina, María, Samantha, Valentina. A fifth person then joined us: Mario.
We were the five foreigners who had been arrested. At that moment, a man came who I believe was the director of the jail and he told us that we were safe now, that nobody would beat us anymore, that what had happened before entering the jail did not have to do with him, as if we hadn’t also been beaten while inside the jail. We asked him to make a phone call, but our request was denied.
At this time, the most visibly wounded among the prisoners were taken to the jail’s medical center. They were not merely just one or two prisoners; of the hundreds of people detained, there must have been about 40 with very serious injuries.
One of the first to be taken out was the dying old man who had been next to me in the truck. I never saw him again.
Then it was our turn to be examined by the medical staff. I had bruises on my chest, back, shoulders, fingers, thighs and legs. The doctor recommended that my ribs be x-rayed because I was having difficulty breathing, which has never happened to me before.
The nurse who was taking notes and the doctor who examined me did so with total indifference towards both my self and my wounds. I left the medical office to wait for Cristina, María, Samantha and Mario to be examined. The pseudo medical examination ended and they took us to a room to record our statements.
Strangely, a lawyer appeared from who knows where and recommended that we not give statements, advice that contradicted the people sitting behind the typewriter in front of us.
“It’s OK if you do not want to make a statement, you have the right not to. But it would be good for you to document what happened to you,” a woman lawyer said to me. While we were making our declarations, many men in ties arrived and, while making jokes and being friendly, asked us who we were, how and why we had gone to Atenco, and if we knew how dangerous those people were.
It began to rain, and they took us back to the cafeteria with the rest of the prisoners. They made us sit down and forbade us to make any contact with the Mexican prisoners. If we wanted to go to the bathroom, we had to ask permission. Human rights officials came and took declarations and pictures of our injuries. They took our declarations dispassionately, mechanically.
We were fingerprinted. They took pictures of us from the front and both profiles. They told us that this was not to start a file, that these were necessary registration procedures, that it was very likely that we would be able to leave in the early morning and for that reason it was necessary to register us. Dinner was a pot of cold coffee and a box of rolls.
It must have been midnight when I lay down on a hard wooden bench to try to sleep a little. It was impossible…it was cold and I had no blanket. On the men’s side, a man with dreadlocks noticed my frustration with not being able to sleep and we began to talk, from across the room, using gestures and hand signals. We were in the middle of this when a guard arrived and called out the names of the five foreigners. We got up, said brief goodbyes to the other prisoners, and left.
They took us to a registration office. They gave us our few belongings and took us to a pick up truck, telling us they would bring us to an immigration office in Toluca. Outside of the jail, I heard familiar voices shouting my name. I went to the fence and saw many of my friends asking me how I was. I told them I was more or less all right, and that they were taking us to immigration in Toluca.
They told me they would follow, that they would not leave me alone. My aunt Mónica passed me an envelope that contained my immigration papers and María Novaro, my teacher and mother in Mexico, gave me a jacket for the cold. I got on the bus, the doors closed, and we sped off in the dark. We stopped at an office in Toluca to pick up a lawyer and then they took us to the special cases immigration office in Mexico City.
It must have been about 3am when we arrived at the immigration office. There, once again, a disinterested doctor recorded our injuries. We slept a little because we had arrived before the office opened, so there were not many officials around. At 7am, an assistant brought us cereal and milk.
Then they took my declaration, in an interview during which they not only asked my personal information but also asked me questions like, “Are you familiar with the EZLN? Have you been to University City [the National University (UNAM) campus]? Did you participate in the World Water Forum? Did you meet other foreign prisoners?” and so on.
I signed the declaration that they attached to my other immigration papers, which included a letter from the school where I was studying, a letter from my teacher María Novaro, my passport, my Chilean ID card, and my international student ID. As they were doing this, I received a call from the Chilean Consulate in Mexico, asking me for my name, ID number, and if I had any relatives in Mexico. The ambassador informed me that what he could do would be to make sure that the procedures followed all relevant legal guidelines.
I went back to giving my declaration, and the questions about the EZLN, Subcomandante Marcos and Atenco were repeated. At the same time, friends and family had gathered outside of the immigration office, but I was not allowed to communicate with them. I tried to do so by using hand signals and signs, but they would not even let us do that.
They took me to a room with three men who told me they were there to help me. They took photographs of me from the front and both profile views and recorded every moment of our conversation. They asked my name and if I had any aliases, if I was familiar with the EZLN, if I had visited the Lacandon Jungle; they asked for names of people who could testify to my background, and they asked what kind of documentaries I liked to make.
They told me that “my friend América del Valle” was worried about me, because she had lost track of me while we were trying to run away. Only when I arrived in Chile recently did I find out that this woman was one of the leaders who the police were looking for in Atenco.
When the interrogation was over, my fingerprints were taken with a very sophisticated machine that fed them into a computer. They took me out of the room and to another room where three visitors from the Commission on Human Rights were waiting. When the two Spanish women and I told them what we had experienced, they recommended urgently that we request a lawyer to seek protection in the face of possible deportation. The atmosphere had become tense, so I asked one of the human rights lawyers for a pen and paper to write to a note to “the lawyer,” which I showed to my friends through the window. At that moment, a lawyer from the immigration office entered and said, “Do you need a lawyer? I am a lawyer; what is your problem?” I told her that I wanted to file an order of protection and she told me that would be ill-advised because it would mean that I would have to stay in the immigration station for a month and that we would most likely be released soon anyway. The visitors from the Human Rights Commission argued with her and told her to let me speak to one of the people waiting outside.
The lawyer conceded and I was allowed to speak for five minutes with Berenice. I told her that I need to seek an order of protection, and she told me that it was already in place. I said goodbye abruptly as they took me to have my second medical exam since arriving at the immigration office.
When I came out of the medical office, I saw one of the women from Human Rights and I asked her to tell my friends outside that I was about to be taken to another location. I asked a lawyer there to tell me where I was going to be taken and he told me that I was being taken to the main immigration office. They did not let me keep talking to him; I was taken to a private car where Mario, another Chilean, was already waiting.
I got into the car, followed by three police officers. The doors were closed and one of the police officers asked the driver to close all of the windows. We drove down the highway at more than 100km per hour, in the midst of snarled traffic.
I asked myself where we could be going and had no answer. Once on our way, I realized that we were headed to the airport and that there were two cars ahead of us: one with Samantha, from Germany, and another with María and Cristina, from Spain.
Facing an imminent unjust expulsion from the country at any moment, there was nothing I could do but close my eyes, clench my teeth and think: just another violation.
We arrived at the airport around 6pm. They took us out of the cars and put us into custody in a completely white room, where they detained us for an hour or more. Then they took us, under custody, to the waiting rooms inside the airport. The first plane to leave was Samantha’s. We kept waiting and I did nothing but cry. I felt ill. I stood up and tried to walk down the hallway. A guard approached me and told me I should be seated. “I feel ill,” I told her, “I will not escape, please let me walk.”
I kept crying and a police officer approached, saying, “Don’t be that way. That attitude is not helpful. If it consoles you, let me tell you that you are not being deported, that you are just being expelled from the country, but you can come back whenever you like.” Mistakenly, I let her words calm me.
They took us to a bar so that we could smoke a few cigarettes, because we were all very emotional. The Lan Chile flight, leaving at approximately 11pm, was announced. They called for Mario and me to board. We said goodbye to María and Cristina with big hugs. We got in line and boarded the plane.
On the plane, one of the passengers approached me and handed me letters that my friends had sent as they tried to do everything possible to stop this unjust expulsion. Tears fell down my cheeks; I cried because I knew I was not alone. The guard, who was seated next to me, asked me what had happened. I told her that I had been living in Mexico for 11 years, that my life is in this country, that they never told me what was happening, that the entire procedure had been illegal, and that I had been beaten and abused by the police.
She told me that she had only been told 30 minutes before boarding that she was going to be flying to Chile. She said that they had not told her anything, but that she had noticed irregularities in the proceedings, because usually before someone is deported they spend a month at the immigration station, and that it must have been an order that came from above.
Finally coming to terms with my expulsion, I began to chat with her and I told her which places in Santiago to visit during her short stay. The exhaustion and feeling of powerlessness were too much. I slept. When I woke up, the mountains of the Andes had appeared in the plane window. We landed. We were taken to the office of the international police, where they took our declarations as to why we had been deported and/or expelled from the country.
Outside, my family was waiting. Sobs, kisses, hugs. We went to the hospital to document my injuries and, quickly, we put together a press conference for radio and television, during which we denounced the illegality of our expulsion and the police violence to which we were subjected.
2. After everything that I have told you, I would like to make clear my indignation, anger and complete opposition to:
3. Given this, we are working with our lawyers to carry out actions aimed at:
No to rape, no to the use of women and men as objects! No to brutality and torture! No to the justification of violence!
Valentina Palma Novoa
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