The Keys | Translation
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Translated by MC Editorial
[Pre Roll – Radio Ambulante Fest]
[Daniel Alarcón]: Warning: this episode contains scenes of gender violence.
This is Radio Ambulante from NPR. I’m Daniel Alarcón.
This story starts in an apartment. In downtown Maracay, in Venezuela.
It is a small place, almost always in the dark: the windows are covered by thick curtains, so during the day there is hardly any sunlight. There are only three light bulbs in the house: in the kitchen, in the bathroom and in the bedroom. The other space, the living room, is always dark.
And for over a decade, anyone looking at it from the outside would think it was vacant, perhaps for rent or waiting to be sold. The neighbors never see anyone, not in the hallway, not even looking out the window. They only hear, sometimes, the whisper of a radio, which sounds very low. And even though the apartment seems empty, a woman lives there.
Her name is Morella León and, for years, her routine has been the same.
[Morella León]: I get up, turn on the radio, go to the bathroom, make the bed, clean the apartment, prepare breakfast, brush my teeth, do the washing, sit down to watch TV, and keep the radio on …
[Daniel]: This routine is interrupted only a few times, when a man comes to visit her. In Maracay, many know him as el Gordo Matías. But to her, he is Enrique. Matías (or Enrique) arrives unannounced. He has his own keys, so he doesn’t need to knock. He is six years older than her and whenever he goes to the apartment he brings her food, toilet paper and cleaning products.
In the apartment, Morella has a cell phone, which she only uses to call him. There are also some keys, which hang on a little nail next to the door. But Morella doesn’t dare to use them. Some days, she looks at them for hours, but she doesn’t touch them, not even to dust them.
The issue is that Morella does not leave the apartment.
Never. Ever. For no reason in the world.
A short break and we will return.
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[Daniel]: We are back at Radio Ambulante. This story was produced by Emilia Erbetta and reported by Mariana Zúñiga.
Mariana continues the story.
[Mariana Zúñiga]: Morella’s life was not always like this.
She was born in 1970 in Valencia, about an hour from Maracay. They were five siblings: four women and one man, and Morella was the youngest. And although her parents got separated when she was still young, she had a happy childhood. Her father took them for walks and the rest of the time was spent with their mother, who made sure that everything in the house was fine. In addition, she had two jobs: she was a teacher and a lawyer, and she handled everything quite rigorously. She was strict with her siblings, but she had a kind of a soft spot for Morella. She was everyone’s darling.
As a teenager, Morella lived with her mother and two of her sisters in a residential complex. During the week she went to school and on weekends she met her friends at the movies or in the malls. Other times she went to the pool or the beach with her sisters. She loved sunbathing.
In July 1987, when she was 17 years old and about to graduate from high school, she traveled to Maracay with a friend. The two had plans to study hotel management there and a friend offered to take them. They arrived in the city, stayed at her friend’s apartment for a while, and then looked for a bus stop to go downtown. They wanted to take advantage of the day to find information about the degree and get to know the city. After all, their plans were to move there together a few months later.
While they were waiting for the bus, a young man stopped his car next to them.
[Morella]: This young man asks us, “Hello, where are you going?” And then I answer, “Look, we’re going downtown.”
[Mariana]: He explained to them that if they wanted to go there, they were on the wrong side of the street, and he offered to give them a ride. Morella and her friend looked at each other and after a moment, well, they got in the car. Along the way they introduced themselves. He told them his name was Enrique and asked where they were from. Morella told him that they came from Valencia and they had plans to study there, in Maracay.
They talked all the way and he showed them around the city. Her friend didn’t talk too much, but Morella was struck by Enrique from the first moment she got into the car… she thought he was attractive; he was 22 years old, with fair skin, green eyes and straight brown hair, down to his shoulders. He was tall and quite large, twice her size.
Something in particular captivated Morella:
[Morella]: He is a man with an impressive voice…. A voice almost like that of an announcer… aside from the fact that he smiled a lot, he was always on the road talking and smiling and very relaxed.
[Mariana]: When they got downtown, he asked for their phone number. Without hesitation, Morella gave it to him. And he gave her a card.
[Morella]: So I see that on the card it says Matías, the initial E., Salazar.
[Mariana]: Matías Enrique Salazar. That was his full name. After exchanging numbers, they got out of the car.
[Morella]: When we said goodbye, he told me, “One of these days I’ll call you, who knows if someday I go to Valencia and then we can go out for a walk!”
[Mariana]: That afternoon Morella and her friend returned to Valencia and that same night, Enrique called her. They talked for a while, and the next day he called her again. He started calling her every day and less than two weeks later he visited her in Valencia.
They saw each other a few times that first month and he proposed they started dating.
[Morella]: I told him, “Look, if you want to go out with me, if you want us to be together, I want to introduce you to my family, because my mom likes to be introduced to my boyfriends.”
[Mariana]: And so it was. One day Enrique arrived at Morella’s house for an official introduction. Her mother was impressed that he was older than her daughter, but Morella seemed happy with him, so she accepted him at first.
But very quickly she began to worry about the relationship. Enrique’s visits were too late. He left Maracay after work, so he arrived around seven and stayed until after ten, eleven at night. When he returned to Maracay, he called her from a public telephone and they talked until dawn.
Her mom started to get more and more upset …
[Morella]: “Morella, this is not the time to be on the phone. Morella, this is not a good time for him to be calling you.”
[Mariana]: And upon being scolded, Morella, the spoiled daughter, for the first time, began to confront her mother.
[Morella]: I used to talk back to my mom. I felt I was being bothered a lot, that no one understood me, that I had a special situation because I had a boyfriend who lived in Maracay and so he calls me when he can and when he can could be just any time.
[Mariana]: Morella says that Enrique began to ask her not to go out too often, because he could call and not find her. She then stopped doing those things she used to like doing so much: going to the movies with her friends or her sisters, to the beach and to the malls. She now stayed at home all day, waiting for Enrique to visit her or call her. This made her mother desperate.
[Morella]: She told me, “Morella, you’re wasting your time, your time is running out, what about your plans? It is not normal for you to be locked up in this house alone waiting for that man to call you.”
[Mariana]: Her plans to study after high school had been put on hold. Enrique told her this was not a good time to start college because if her mother paid for her studies, she was going to control her. And the best thing was for her to start once she moved in with him in Maracay. And he would take care of those expenses.
[Morella]: That’s when he started trying to distance me from my family. And he was managing to do it, because I was distancing myself from my sisters and my mom. At one point I became so isolated and separated from my family that I didn’t talk to them when I was in the same house. As easy as that.
[Mariana]: Enrique’s visits became more and more uncomfortable for her family. He arrived, Morella received him and they spent hours in the living room. Enrique didn’t talk to anyone but her. He never greeted her mother or the sisters, neither when he arrived nor when he left. Sometimes, he barely looked at them. It didn’t bother her, because she was happy he was there.
One day, Graciela, the older sister, confronted him and they ended up arguing very strongly. After that, Morella remembers that Enrique told her:
[Morella]: “I’m sick of your family.” In other words, “I can’t stand those people anymore. I’m not going up to that house again. So we’re going to do something. When I come visit you, I ring the bell and you come down.”
[Mariana]: From then on, he would ring the bell and Morella would come down and leave for hours. When she came back, always very late, she would fight with her mom again.
This is how she spent the whole year 1988, pressured between her family and her boyfriend. The situation in her house was unsustainable and she was very tired. She almost didn’t eat and she slept badly because she stayed talking to him until dawn.
In December, a few days before Christmas, she decided that she was going to talk to Enrique. She had hit her limit. Although she was in love, she felt that her only way out was to get away from him and from her family as well. When she was little, she had lived with her aunt in the country; maybe now she could go there for a while.
On the night of the 22nd, Enrique called her on the phone, and Morella told him what she was thinking.
[Morella]: I tell him, “Listen, I’m very tired of this situation, I mean, I’ve been fighting this constant fight for more than a year. I’m exhausted. So I want to end my relationship with you and I’m going to take some time off from my family as well.”
[Mariana]: Enrique was taken by surprise but he immediately reacted ….
[Morella]: Then he tells me, “But how are you going to break up with me? We have been making plans for too long for you to decide that everything is going to end and that’s it.”
[Mariana]: Morella kept insisting and finally managed to hang up the phone. But about 50 minutes later the doorbell rang. Enrique was at the door of her house. There they continued talking.
[Morella]: And he managed to convince me. He told me, “Get your things tonight, because you’re coming with me tomorrow.”
[Mariana]: He was proposing to go with him to Maracay. At that time, she didn’t think much of it. She saw it as the only way to continue the relationship.
[Morella]: I said, “OK, I’ll pack my stuff and I’ll see you tomorrow.”
[Mariana]: A while later, hiding from everyone, she packed some clothes and makeup in some bags, hid them and went to bed. Her sister Gisela slept in the same room and as she tried to sleep, she saw her moving around her room, as if she was preparing something, but she didn’t pay much attention to her. The next morning, Morella got up very early and left her house. Without saying goodbye, she took a bus to Maracay. It was a journey she had already made many times. But this time was different. She was already 18, she was of legal age, and she was not going for a visit; she was going to stay.
Enrique went to pick her up at the Maracay terminal. When they got in the car, he started talking.
[Morella]: He tells me, “Well, from this moment on, things are going to be just you and me. You don’t have to worry about anything because I’m going to take care of covering all expenses”.
[Mariana]: Morella listened without contradicting him. She remembers that from the terminal he took her directly to a hotel. Enrique explained that he would stay in his house, where he lived with his mother, whom Morella did not know. He also explained that it was better for her not to go out, because the streets of Maracay were dangerous. And finally, he gave her very clear instructions:
[Morella]: He tells me, “Don’t open the door, because you don’t know who’s knocking … It doesn’t matter if they tell you it’s the hotel manager or whoever. Let those people keep on knocking and that’s it”.
[Mariana]: So that Morella would know when it was him, he was going to knock on the door with a key.
At that moment, Morella did not pay much attention to all those rules. She just wanted to be with him and a few days in a hotel felt like a honeymoon.
[Morella]: Of course, I was jumping of joy because I was with the man I was absolutely in love with. I was finally living what we had talked about for months of how things were going to be once we were together.
[Mariana]: She spent two weeks in that room. She never went out; she spent the day in bed, watching television, waiting for him to arrive. Enrique went to visit her at night and sometimes he stayed overnight. He brought food for them to have dinner together and for her to eat the next day. Two weeks later, he took her to another hotel. It was not a luxurious hotel, but it was comfortable, nice. And there, Morella continued the same routine: she did not go out or talk to anyone but him. And when he finally arrived, she was happy.
She spent two more months there, until one day Enrique took her to a place in downtown Maracay. Morella described it to me as a small space, which was not quite an apartment, but rather a room with a separate exit door. It was a different place, but the routine was the same. And she depended on Enrique for everything.
She was there when one afternoon, three months after she left home, Enrique told her they had to make a call. Since there was no telephone in that room, he took her to a public phone booth.
What he asked her surprised her a little: to call her mom.
[Morella]: And I asked him, “Why?” He tells me, “Because your mom came to my house asking about you, so she is bothering my family.”
[Mariana]: He dialed her home number and on the other end one of her sisters answered.
[Morella]: And I say, “Put my mom on”. And she asks me, “Morella, how are you?” I say, “Okay, put my mom on.” I was very arrogant …
[Mariana]: At that moment she was angry with all of them, because Enrique had convinced her that they wanted to separate them. That’s why when her mom got on the phone, she repeated what he had asked her to say.
[Morella]: “Mom, stop going to that house, that is, don’t bother those people, don’t bother that family, because I’m not there, I’m not in that house.”
[Mariana]: That house Morella was talking about was Enrique’s mother’s house. She had never been there. And she didn’t know her boyfriend’s mother either.
[Morella]: So my… my mom tells me, “Well, darling, I just wanted to know how you were.” “I’m fine, I’m fine, I’m happy, I’m fine and I’m determined to stay.” And the last thing I heard from her was her blessing… She told me, “Well, God bless you, darling…”
[Mariana]: It seemed to Morella that Enrique was smiling, but she did not understand why.
For a few more months, Morella’s life in that room continued without much change, until one day Enrique made a new rule. She remembers that they were watching TV together in bed and she got up to go to the bathroom. When she came back, he looked angry.
[Morella]: I said, “Oh, what’s wrong with you?” And he asked me, “Why didn’t you tell me you were going to the bathroom?”
[Mariana]: The reaction surprised her. It was the first time he had asked her something like that.
[Morella]: And he told me, “From now on, let me know.” And then … from then on, I would get up and ask him.
[Mariana]: But it was not enough to warn him; she also had to wait for permission. Morella remembers that, sometimes, Enrique made her wait a few minutes and then authorized her.
That became part of her routine when he came to visit her. But, at the time, Morella didn’t see it as anything bad. I asked her directly if she didn’t think it was weird, and she told me it wasn’t, and at the time she was used to doing what he said.
[Morella]: Well… if he wants me to tell him, I’ll tell him and that’s it…
[Mariana]: Morella isn’t really sure of the dates, but she thinks it was around the year ’90 or ’91 when Enrique took her to another place. It was an apartment in downtown Maracay. It had a single room and a single bathroom. She has a hard time remembering precisely when some things happened. In lockdown, every year feels the same.
What she does remember is that at least a year or two had passed since she had left home. And except for that call she had made to her mother, she had not spoken to anyone else during that time. She had never gone out alone, not even to shop. Enrique was the center of her life. It was his whole life.
Enrique took a key to that new apartment. He told her it was to be used in case of an emergency. Morella was a little surprised that there was only one, because to get in and out of the apartment you had to open a door and a gate. But she soon forgot about it.
[Morella]: I didn’t pay attention to that because my intention wasn’t to go out anyway. All I did was wait for him, so it didn’t seem like anything important.
[Mariana]: One day, Morella took the key and tried it on the door. Since it didn’t work, she put it back in the same place. Later, Enrique arrived.
[Morella]: When he arrives, he asks me angrily, “Why did you take the key?” And I got nervous, because I didn’t understand how he figured out I had taken the key. And since he scared me, I told him, “No, I didn’t grab the key”.
[Mariana]: But Enrique insisted.
[Morella]: He tells me, “Of course you grabbed the key. Why did you grab the key?”
[Mariana]: She kept denying it, but Enrique didn’t believe her. So she ended up admitting it. She told him she had; she only wanted to try it. Enrique reacted.
[Morella]: He grabbed me by the hair, grabbed the back of my neck bending me over, he squeezed me while he had me with my back bent down.
[Mariana]: Morella remembers that everything lasted almost an hour.
[Morella]: From that moment, from that incident with the key, I realized that I was afraid of him.
[Mariana]: And the change was not only in her. Violent incidents like the one with the key became more frequent. Every time he got mad at her for some reason, Enrique would grab her arms and shake her so hard that it left bruises. Other times, he would put his hands around her neck…
[Morella]: And I know that I was suffocating until I almost passed out, because I lost track of what was happening around me.
[Mariana]: Then, Morella began to be much more careful with her movements. She was careful about what she did and what she said. She thought that if she behaved as Enrique wanted, things would always be fine.
And they weren’t just her ideas.
[Morella]: He told me over and over again, “If things go wrong, it’s because you don’t do what you know you are supposed to do.” By that point, I was telling myself, “Behave as he wants, because if he gets upset, it’s your fault.”
[Mariana]: Morella recalls that it was in 1992 when Enrique moved her to a different place again. She was 22 years old and it was the fourth time he had moved her. Every time he moved her, the rules were the same: don’t go out and don’t talk to anyone. That time, he took her to an apartment in the Los Samanes neighborhood that was only slightly larger than the previous one.
And once again, he left the keys.
But those keys already had a different meaning for her. They weren’t a chance to get out. On the contrary, they became a psychological torture. She became obsessed with them. She never cleaned or touched them. She begged for them to get dirty.
[Morella]: When that finally started to happen, I breathed calmly because he arrived and saw the keys were dirty and cobwebbed and he no longer looked at me with suspicion.
[Mariana]: With each passing day she felt more depressed. It was becoming clear that many of the things her mother had told her about Enrique were true.
[Morella]: I saw how the years were passing by and I wasn’t doing anything with my life. I saw how my relationship with him was not even close to what we had talked about for months.
[Mariana]: She couldn’t talk about it with him or with anyone. And she remembers that every time she tried to tell him that she wasn’t happy, that she was always alone, he would get mad.
[Morella]: He told me, “Well, that’s you who is feeling bad, because I’m fine, I’m fine, for me things are fine. Listen, tell me what you lack, you do not lack anything.”
[Mariana]: Around that time, in the mid-1990s, Enrique’s visits were no longer as frequent. He only stopped by two or three times a month to leave food and cleaning products for her. She had no way of knowing when she would arrive.
She spent that entire decade locked up, with no real changes. In those ten years, she only went out a couple of times to go to the doctor. But never alone. Enrique would pick her up in his car and accompany her at all times. She remembers that one of those times she had a hard time getting out of the apartment. Almost as if she no longer knew how to function on the street.
[Morella]: When he was about to open the apartment door, I started to shake, I started to shake and I started to cry and he tells me, “Don’t worry, you’re with me.”
[Mariana]: Morella remembers that in the early 2000s, Enrique left a cell phone in the apartment. It was one of those flip models used to send and receive text messages, but still didn’t have internet access. She had never seen one of those devices before.
Enrique added his number so she could call him with the push of a button. And he told her that when he called her, a message would appear on the screen. So she would know it was him.
[Morella]: And what did the screen say? I love you. Love you very much.
[Mariana]: Morella didn’t quite understand how that device worked, and she was afraid that if she called someone else, he would find out. He had told her himself …
[Morella]: “I am in control of this phone. I know who calls and who doesn’t call.”
[Mariana]: She could have called her family; she remembered the number, but it wasn’t just Enrique’s reaction that scared her. After so many years, she was also afraid that they would not want to see her.
One day in August 2002, Enrique went to see her and ordered her to gather some clothes. She had to leave the apartment while they did roof repairs. As always, Morella obeyed. She put some clothes in a bag, just enough to spend a few days away. And she took the pillows and the radio.
They left the building at night, in Enrique’s car. Morella hadn’t been out in four years, and in the dark, she could barely make out how much the city had changed in all those years.
She had learned about some things on television and radio: the Caracazo in 1989, the attempted coup in 1992, the rise of Chávez in 1999, the street protests… But although her country changed, her life continued the same: from confinement to confinement.
The new apartment was located in a very large residential complex called Los Mangos. There were six towers and she would be on the fourth floor of tower C. When they arrived, it was dark. There was a mattress on the floor and the windows were covered with thick curtains.
Morella told me that Enrique dropped her off there that night and left. The next day he came back to bring her food, and a few days later, he brought her some things to clean the apartment, which was very dirty. She felt uncomfortable in this new place, but every time she asked Enrique how long it would take to go back, he told her that she had to wait a little longer. At some point she realized she would never go back to the previous apartment.
In this new place, Morella moved stealthily, like a ghost. She didn’t peek out the window or open the door, no matter if there were noises in the hallway. When she cleaned, she did it early in the morning, to prevent anyone from noticing her movements. When she listened to the radio or watched television, she did so with the volume very low.
[Morella]: Because he told me, “I don’t want you to bother the neighbors, I don’t want the neighbors complaining about you being a nuisance to them.”
[Mariana]: In March 2003, seven months after arriving at that apartment, Morella turned 33 years old. And then 34… and then 35… and she was still there when she turned 40. And also, when she turned 49. 17 years following a routine she never changed.
She woke up very early, and always listened to the same program, a Venezuelan classic.
[Announcer]: Our unusual universe… Five minutes traveling through our surprising world…
[Mariana]: Afterwards, she listened to the national anthem and the headlines, and so began another day just like the previous one. Her usual routine: turn on the radio, go to the bathroom, make the bed, clean the apartment, prepare breakfast …
That routine was a way to maintain sanity, but also to survive.
[Morella]: I felt that I was constantly being watched by him and I already knew: if I don’t do what he tells me, he will know that I am not following the rules. And for that reason, I lived in an automated way, doing what he told me, to avoid problems, because I already knew what awaited me if I modified my behavior.
[Mariana]: Every day she ate the same: arepa with egg, rice and grains, pasta with tomato sauce. Meat and vegetables had disappeared many years ago from her daily diet due to the crisis in Venezuela. After lunch, she watched some more television and went to sleep. The longer she slept the better.
[Morella]: Because I knew that sleeping was the best way to get through the day, day after day after day.
[Mariana]: And, when she wasn’t sleeping, she watched television or listened to the radio. Some days, changing dials was almost a compulsion. She even damaged various appliances that way.
She doesn’t remember the exact day, but she knows it was midday in 2019, when she started playing with the radio again. She switched from station to station looking for something that caught her attention. She stopped when she heard a man’s voice talking about violence against women and a law that protected them. She kept listening. The journalist asked the interviewee what crimes were typified in this law. And when the man answered, Morella began to feel that he was talking about her.
[Morella]: “Oh, that happens to me, oh, but he does that to me, oh, he does this to me too.” I said, “My God, so many things!”
[Mariana]: She kept listening to the interview, concentrating on everything this man was saying. Until he mentioned a place: the Aragua State Women’s Institute, which was right there, in Maracay. And for the first time in many years, she felt that she had a place to go. She memorized the name of the institute and the area where it was located.
The idea of escaping began to grow stronger and stronger in her head. Besides, Enrique had returned to visit her frequently. He no longer arrived unannounced, but he called her on the phone a few hours before and he always ordered the same thing: that she get ready.
[Morella]: When he told me that, all I thought was, “My God, not again”.
[Mariana]: Now, the sound of his keys made her panic. When he arrived, she had to leave her room, cross the living room, and greet him. Then he walked into the room.
[Morella]: That was the worst period, because we spent a long time without having intimate encounters. And those last few months he came looking for me. I initially rejected him. The first three times, but then he didn’t take no for an answer. I then decided that my way out was that: leave the apartment and go to that place to seek help…
[Daniel]: That place she had heard about on the radio.
A break and we will be back.
[Daniel]: Before the break, Morella was determined to get out of the apartment where she lived locked up, but she didn’t know how to do it. She had spent 31 years of that lifestyle, hardly going out to the street, depending on one man for everything.
But in 2019, when she was 49 years old, an interview she heard on the radio made her understand that her life could not continue that way.
Mariana Zúñiga continues the story.
[Mariana]: From the moment she learned about the Women’s Institute, Morella began to think, for the first time in 30 years, of escaping. One option was to take Enrique’s keys, the ones he used on his visits. But that was too risky. She could also try to leave using other keys, the ones he had left in the apartment some time earlier.
[Morella]: I never dared touch the keys and I said to myself, “Those keys are not for the door. I don’t think that man left me that key for that door.” …
[Mariana]: On the night of January 23, 2020, when Enrique went to see her, Morella felt that she had reached a limit.
[Morella]: I was fed up; I couldn’t take it anymore. I was looking for ways and means to make this meeting or this visit as short as possible. What I wanted was to clean myself, wash myself, take a bath, for him to leave the apartment as quickly as possible…
[Mariana]: When he finally left, it was already dawn. And Morella could only think of one thing: the keys. In the morning she did the same ritual as every day: she got up, turned on the radio, had breakfast, brushed her teeth and cleaned her apartment. Afterwards, she walked over to where the keys were and looked at them for a while, to memorize how they were placed. That way, if it didn’t work, at least Enrique wouldn’t realize that she had touched them.
When she was sure she could put them back in the same position, she took them and walked towards the door.
[Morella]: I started trying the keys one by one. When I saw that the first lock opened, I was very excited and said, “My God. My God, I hope the neighbors don’t go out and see me.”
[Mariana]: Then she tried the second.
[Morella]: When I see the second lock moving, I took a breath, I got emotional, I said, “My God, thank you, my God, thank you, my God, thank you.”
[Mariana]: She couldn’t believe what she was about to do. She felt a new courage. One that, after so many years, she didn’t even remember she had.
Morella closed the door, went to her room, changed her clothes, and then left the apartment. She started running down the hall. She went four floors down the stairs. Downstairs she ran into a door and a security guard sitting at a desk.
[Morella]: I don’t know what he saw in me, but he asked me, “Do you want me to open it?” I said, “Yes, yes, please…”
[Mariana]: When he opened it, Morella walked out, pretending to be calm, without speeding up too much.
[Morella]: As soon as I set foot on the street, I start running towards the avenue. I crossed the avenue, went to a store and asked where Calicanto was.
[Mariana]: Calicanto, the area where she had heard on the radio the Women’s Institute was located.
She asked for directions and began to walk. It was the first time in 30 years she was alone in the city, under the sun. She froze every time a car passed near her. She was afraid that one of those was Enrique’s.
She didn’t know the names of the streets, nor did she know exactly where she had to go. A man told her to go to the Casa de la Mujer, an NGO that was nearby. It was not the institute that she was looking for but they would be able to help her there for sure.
She arrived a few minutes later and was greeted by a woman.
[Morella]: She tells me, “How can I help you?” I tell her, “Look, I need help because I just escaped from an apartment where I was locked up for many years.” The lady asks me questions. “And your family?” I say, “No, I have lost all contact with my family since I left. I don’t know anything about my family, I don’t know anything about my mom. I can only remember her phone number.”
[Mariana]: She gave her the number and the woman dialed. But the call didn’t go through because the telephone codes were no longer the same.
After that attempt, she recommended that she go to the place she had been looking for from the beginning: the Instituto de la Mujer. And she gave her good news: she wasn’t that far away. She had to walk just a few blocks until she found a building with a white facade. It didn’t take her too long to get there.
Once there, she was received by lawyer Ricardo Díaz, who specializes in cases of violence against women.
Ricardo still remembers the impression he got when he saw her.
[Ricardo Díaz]: A white, white, white complexion. I was also surprised by her physical shape, very skinny, thin, 39, 40 kilos, I guessed. Quite nervous, tearful, and depressed…
[Mariana]: When Morella began to tell him where she came from, Ricardo called his partner Rosa Perdomo. At that time, she worked as a lawyer there and was in charge of assisting victims.
Rosa was impressed by the way Morella spoke.
[Rosa Perdomo]: The tone of her voice was hard to hear. It was very, very low, not normal. Because she did it with fear, she spoke with fear.
[Mariana]: For several hours, Morella told them everything we just heard: the years of courtship, the flight from the house, the hotels, the apartments, the confinement, the beatings, the keys, the fear.
A fear so great it did not even occur to her to denounce Enrique.
[Morella]: And I told them, “But I don’t want to have problems with him, that is, I don’t want him to have legal problems.” For me, having problems with him meant getting in his circle of control and aggressiveness.
[Mariana]: Rosa was the first to explain to her that she had been the victim of very serious crimes for years. But now she was safe.
[Morella]: She tells me, “Stay calm, you already got out of that. In other words, from now on your life is different.”
[Mariana]: After hearing her story, they took Morella to file a complaint with the police and with the Public Ministry. The case was taken up by the 25th Prosecutor’s Office in Maracay. For reasons of the process, they asked us not to reveal where they sheltered her, but Rosa and Ricardo confirmed that they were with her all the time that weekend. Rosa remembers that Morella even asked permission to go to the bathroom.
On Monday, when she had already been out for three days, they accompanied her to the Public Ministry, because the prosecutor wanted to talk to her. They entered together: Morella, Rosa and Ricardo. They were sitting, waiting for the prosecutor, when Morella heard someone approaching.
[Morella]: And my surprise was huge because I am in the waiting room and he enters.
[Mariana]: Him. Enrique.
He walked past her and stopped at a desk a few feet from where she was sitting, his back to her.
Fear paralyzed her…
[Morella]: What I did at that moment was look to the sides. I didn’t even look at him. I mean, I was looking at his legs. I didn’t dare to see his face.
[Mariana]: All she managed to do was to stretch her arm to where Ricardo was.
[Ricardo]: Morella pulled me… she pulled my shirt from behind and that immediately set off my alarms.
[Mariana]: Ricardo stood in front of Morella, as if protecting her, and opened the door of the prosecutor’s office.
[Morella]: And I storm into the office. And I tell her “Ma’am, he is here.” She tells me, “Yes, well, it’s fine, calm down, calm down, let me take care of it.” “But look who is here.”
[Mariana]: Just then, Morella noticed that there were other people in the office.
[Morella]: I see them… I see that they are two dark-skinned ladies and they greet me: “Hello, Morella”, they tell me. And I said hi… I didn’t understand why they were greeting me. Then the woman asks me, “Morella, don’t you recognize them?”
[Mariana]: Morella stared at them in silence. She didn’t have many people to recognize: she could count on the fingers of one hand the people she had seen in the last 30 years. And the people she had met before her confinement… well, that seemed from another life.
The prosecutor waited a few seconds and then told her:
[Morella]: “They are your sisters.” And I said, “No, Ma’am” …
[Mariana]: In the prosecutor’s office, surrounded by strange faces, Morella tried to connect the memories she had of her young sisters with these women who were standing in front of her.
[Morella]: The girls tell me, “Yes, Morella, it’s us.” I said, “It can’t be, it can’t be.” They say, “Sure.” I said, “It can’t be.” …
[Mariana]: Until one of them scratched her own face. Morella could lead a life without seeing her sister Gisela, but she had not forgotten the way she touched her face, always the same, since she was a child.
That tiny gesture was like a flash.
[Morella]: I said, “That’s Gisela.” And that was how I recognized my sisters. I mean, if my sister hadn’t scratched her face, I would have kept saying, “No, no, it can’t be.”
[Mariana]: It was too much to process so quickly. Only three days before, she had been locked in an almost dark apartment, and now her sister Graciela, her eldest, approached her with open arms. They melted into that embrace, while Gisela, next to her, looked at them in silence. In a way, she also doubted it was true. This is Gisela:
[Gisela León]: When I turn around to see her and I see that emaciated person there shaking, like an old lady, I see an old lady… We didn’t know the story, but just by looking at her physique you could tell she was a human being in total misery. That was something terrible. I couldn’t believe that human being was my little sister.
[Mariana]: Until she hugged her too. And there she did recognize in that almost unknown woman the energy of her younger sister.
[Gisela]: And we started talking and we started in a rush to ask each other about our lives. A lot…. A very hard morning to describe.
[Mariana]: When she finally understood that these women were her sisters, she got the urge to know everything. Everything that had happened with her family during those 31 years. She was asking especially about one person.
[Morella]: “And mom? Did mom come? Where’s mom?”
[Mariana]: But no one answered her. The prosecutor herself had asked them not to do so; it was too early for that. And if Morella was in shock, in a way Graciela and Gisela were too. In other words, until the day before, when they received the call from the prosecutor, they had thought for decades that they would never see their sister again. It was an overwhelming moment for all.
Before Morella entered the office, they had been talking with the prosecutor. She told them that it was their legal responsibility to take care of her, although she would spend a few more days under the protection of the Instituto de la Mujer.
That morning they also confirmed what they had always suspected: that Morella had been all those years under Enrique’s control. Therefore, they could not believe that he was there, on the other side of that door.
But the prosecutor picked up the phone minutes after Morella entered her office. While the sisters recognized each other, she asked that a police commission approach the prosecution. She had told Morella not to be afraid, that she would deal with Enrique. And she did: when Morella left the office, she remembers they had already taken him to a police station in Maracay.
For several days, Morella kept asking about her mother, but her sisters avoided answering her. They feared that bad news would bring her down and not allow her to continue with the judicial process.
But one day, her sister Graciela decided that it was time to tell her the truth. They were standing in the Palace of Justice parking lot. Her other sisters and a psychologist assigned to her by the Prosecutor’s Office were also present.
[Morella]: That’s when one of them tells me, “Look, Morella, my mom died in December 2011. But… you can be sure of one thing: my mom never stopped thinking about you. Never doubt that.”
[Mariana]: In those first weeks, Morella found out what had happened in her house after she left. She learned that the first thing they did in the following days, when they saw she had not returned, was to go to the police to report her disappearance. There they told her mother that she should wait, that her daughter would soon return with a grandson for sure. They also looked for her at Enrique’s mother’s house, in Maracay, but they didn’t get an answer there either.
Morella’s disappearance completely changed the life of the entire family. Over time, her mom and her sisters stopped going to family gatherings to avoid questions.
[Gisela]: I mean… it’s a very hard blow, because really… The first years I dreamed of her, but there came a time when I no longer even dreamed of Morella. I don’t know how my mom managed. I don’t know how she endured, because she suffered a lot.
[Mariana]: The pain of a disappearance is very particular. A wound that resembles, but is not exactly the same as that of death.
[Gisela]: You feel guilty. You feel like you did nothing. You feel embarrassed. It’s something… It’s something like a shadow, like a cross that follows you even if you don’t want to.
[Mariana]: And that cross followed the entire family, but especially her mother. It was Gisela who one day told her she couldn’t go on like that, that she couldn’t spend her whole life waiting for Morella.
[Gisela]: Because it can’t be that you are going to live only for the sake of Morella’s absence. In other words, the only one who lives in you is Morella. We are here, next to you, and you don’t even look at us. And well, that made my mom… get her life back. She still she cried and stuff, but… but secretly.
[Mariana]: Still she kept looking for her.
They checked with several banks to see if there were any accounts in her name. None. When e-mail became popular in the 2000s, and then social networks, they thought that way they could find something about her. But that didn’t happen either. And when Gisela started working as a criminal lawyer, she too tried to find out more. But there was nothing. It was as if she had vanished.
For a long time, her sisters thought that perhaps she was already dead. But her mom didn’t feel the same way. She even believed that she could one day return. That’s why she never stopped waiting for her, until the end of her life. The day she died, at the end of 2011, Gisela was with her. And she remembers that she kept talking about Morella. She gave her a mission: she had to make sure that someone in the family always lived in the last apartment in which Morella had lived with them. She knew that her daughter would not forget that address and if she ever came back, she would go looking for them there.
And although Morella would not show up until almost ten years later, when she did, the only address she could give the police was the one her mom had thought of. And it worked. One of her nieces still lived there, fulfilling the promise they had made to Morella’s mother.
Five days after escaping, Morella returned to Valencia, the city where she used to live with her family. There she settled with her sister Graciela, her husband and their children. When she was alone in her room, two things occupied her mind: her mother and what was coming with the legal process against Enrique.
He had been detained in a police station since the day she had seen him at the Public Ministry. Later, she learned that he had gone there to report her missing. Two days after his arrest, at a court hearing, the prosecutor officially charged him with four crimes: psychological violence, threats, sexual violence, and sexual slavery in continuous action. And soon the case would become even more complex.
A week after Morella escaped, a married couple appeared before the prosecutor’s office to denounce that Enrique had also taken their daughter, Fanny. They had not seen her since 1997, when she left the family home to go live with him, ten days before turning 18.
At the time, they filed a complaint, but the police told them the same thing as Morella’s family: that their daughter had left of her own free will, and that she would surely return. Three years later they found out that Fanny was about to have a baby, but they couldn’t get close to her. And they never heard anything else. Until nineteen years later they saw in the media that Enrique had been arrested for holding another woman captive: Morella.
The police found Fanny in an apartment in Los Mangos, the same residential complex from which Morella had escaped. Her 20-year-old daughter also lived there and rarely went out, only to school. Enrique spent a lot of time there with them and even several nights a week he stayed overnight.
Morella found it hard to believe. During all that time Enrique had lived so close… The prosecutor confirmed it in one of his interviews.
[Morella]: I tell her, “Ma’am, what are you talking about? He told me that he lived with his mother.” She tells me, “No, dear, he lives in the building across the street, in the apartment across the street, and he has a daughter.”
[Mariana]: But that was not the only thing that Morella discovered about Enrique as the investigation progressed. She also learned that he had been married to a woman named Ana María since 1985. That is, since before she met him.
Ana María’s mother also showed up at the Public Ministry after the news about Morella became known. She denounced that she had not seen her since May 1985, when she married Enrique. According to an interview she gave to El Pitazo, her daughter’s story was not very different from Morella’s and Fanny’s. It all started with a courtship with which the family did not agree. They were married in May 1985 and since that day they had not seen her again.
After receiving the complaint, the Prosecutor ordered that Ana María be removed from the house where she lived with Enrique and returned to her family while they carried out psychological tests. Her mother told El Pitazo that the woman she met was very different from the girl who had run away from home: she said that her daughter was a cheerful, athletic, very active young woman, and that now she saw a lost woman, somewhat absent-minded, who only talked about her husband.
Ana María was with her family for three days, but then she wanted to return home. From there, she recorded a 5-minute video and sent it to the media.
(ARCHIVE SOUND BITE)
[Ana María]: Hi, I’m Ana María, the wife of Matías Enrique Salazar Moure …
[Mariana]: Her version was different from her mother’s…
(ARCHIVE SOUND BITE)
[Ana María]: I mean, I can go out, come in, besides, I have the key to the house. What happens is that I’m not one of those people who go out to the street, because, well, I’m not like that …
[Mariana]: At that point the case was already one of the main news stories in the country, and all the television programs were talking about it.
(NEWSCAST SOUND BITE)
[Journalist 1]: There is commotion in Venezuela over the case of a woman whose partner kept her locked up and kidnapped for 31 years.
[Journalist 2]: An ordeal to which this man known as “El gordo Matías” subjected three more women.
[Mariana]: In this context, in February 2020, Enrique’s then-lawyer gave a press conference. That day, in front of a group of journalists, the lawyer said that Morella and Fanny’s complaints were part of an international plot…
(ARCHIVE SOUND BITE)
[José Briceño]: They are manipulated by certain people abroad.
[Mariana]: He also spoke of a smear campaign orchestrated from Peru, Spain and the United States …
(ARCHIVE SOUND BITE)
[José Briceño]: The revenge against Matías comes internationally from Peru…
[Mariana]: He also said that polygamy is not a crime in Venezuela, that the only thing Enrique (or Matías) had done was having three families. But that none of them had been kidnapped.
(ARCHIVE SOUND BITE)
[José Briceño]: Because… Mrs. Morella had her set of keys, she had her car, she had her cell phone… if you look closely at the file, you can check and verify that she has her two keys. So I don’t understand why that is a kidnapping…
[Mariana]: The truth is that Enrique’s lawyer was not the only one who questioned Morella’s version. In social networks, many asked the same thing: why she had never tried to escape. Many victims of gender-based violence often get questions like these: why didn’t they leave, why didn’t they ask for help. Ana Lucia Jaramillo Sierra, a psychologist specialized in violence, couples and families, has also heard that type of comments many times.
Ana has not treated Morella, so she cannot tell us about her inner processes, nor about Enrique’s, but she has studied well how a courtship can transform into a relationship of control, subjection and submission. The first thing she explained to us is that such extreme control does not appear instantly.
[Ana Lucía Jaramillo Sierra]: It’s usually a gradual process… He isolates you from your friends, he isolates you from your family. He isolates you from your support networks, manages your accounts, manages your movements, manages the possibility of doing the things you like for your professional growth, and that can be education, work or any other occupation.
[Mariana]: And in some cases, the most extreme, that control can become total.
[Ana Lucía Jaramillo Sierra]: It is a relationship in which the gravest thing is not violence, but rather that your life is controlled and all your rights are denied. And many times, this happens not by force, but by manipulation, by coercion, by the threat of things that he will not let you do or you will not be able to do, or because he starts to convince you that you are really worth less and you are not able.
[Mariana]: Each new act of control is added to the previous one, until they become natural: first not to go out, then not to answer the door, later not to go to the bathroom without permission… And this control is very powerful, because at one point it doesn’t even come from outside.
[Ana Lucía Jaramillo Sierra]: There comes a time when… when the control comes from within. There is an internalization of the voice of the other. He becomes the aggressor living inside; he lives inside. And that’s the voice that becomes more and more dominant.
[Mariana]: For that reason, once you get in a relationship like that, getting out is very difficult. Despite the fact that, after 31 years, Morella had managed to physically escape, in the first months of freedom, the confinement, in a certain way, was still part of her. Her sister Gisela, for example, remembers that at first, she continued to behave as if she were still a prisoner.
[Gisela]: And she asked permission for everything and looked down to the floor. Whenever we did something, I don’t know what, but she’d get all coiled up. She felt sorry for everything.
[Mariana]: She spent the day locked up. She had a hard time socializing; she no longer knew how to act when she was with other people.
[Morella]: I had nothing to say. What to say? What anecdotes can I share if I did not experience anything? I don’t have trips to tell, or vacations, or stories, or things about work or colleagues. Nothing. I had nothing to say.
[Mariana]: She also cried a lot. The mourning for her mother was added to the mourning for a whole world that had vanished while she was gone. The relatives who had died. The friends who had left the country.
[Morella]: All the news hit me at once. Over and over and over again I asked my sister what happened to this, what happened to that. And my sister, with all the patience in the world, told me again.
[Mariana]: In March 2020, two months after escaping, Morella turned 50. At that celebration the family she remembers wasn’t there, but she met a new one, made up of her nephews and nieces, who had grown up hearing stories about her and seeing her photos. They taught her how to use some basic things of this new world. Smartphones, for example.
[Morella]: Suddenly I found myself with a touch screen phone and I got very confused… I said you can’t grab this thing because anything you touch on the screen moves.
[Mariana]: Her nephews taught her how to make calls, open email, chat and surf the internet. One of the first things she did was go on YouTube. In the last years of her confinement, she had already heard some of those names on the radio: Twitter, Facebook…
And she was at it, learning how to live in the 21st century, when the pandemic hit. On March 13, 2020, Venezuela declared a state of alarm. Morella was in the car with one of her sisters and her nephews when she heard the announcement of the confinement measures.
[Morella]: And I said, “It can’t be. I mean, it can’t be… I mean, I’m going to have to lock myself up again. That cannot be.” An incredible thing: six weeks was the only time I could supposedly enjoy of not being in confinement.
[Mariana]: Six weeks to go from one confinement to another.
She spent much of 2020 confined. The first months, she hardly left her room. She had a hard time even going for a walk. But little by little, her sisters managed to get her out of that lethargy. The cell phone they gave her also opened up a whole new world for her.
On Facebook, she looked up her high school friends. At first, she didn’t find anyone, and she didn’t dare to put her name on her account either. She only did it at the beginning of 2021, and she immediately received a friend request.
[Morella]: When I saw the name… she is a classmate. I replied to her and she sent me an answer, all through Facebook. And to my surprise, the next day I got two other friends, and then another one.
[Mariana]: In a few days, she got in touch with several of her high school friends and when sanitary measures allowed, she even met them in person. Life began to move again. She got a job as a kitchen assistant in a pizzeria and, little by little, she lost her fear of going out alone.
When I first interviewed her, in May 2021, she was still working there. She got around well in the city, but she still had a hard time making herself heard. She spoke softly, like she did in her days in Los Mangos.
I spoke with her again in February 2022, when we were about to close this story. I wanted to know what had happened during all that time and how she had lived that year of reduced freedom due to the pandemic. It was difficult to arrange the talk, because she had gotten a new job in a small company and had very little free time.
She sounded more animated. I even felt that she spoke louder. She told me that she did not sleep the first week in her new job: she was afraid that she would not do well. After spending 30 years locked up, hardly speaking to anyone, she would have to serve strangers from behind a computer.
Morella told me that it was very difficult for her to get that job, at the age of 50 and with almost no work experience. In the end, a close person helped her find it. Her sisters continue to support her with everything, but there are things that were and continue to be difficult. Especially the lack of psychological assistance, which was cut off when the pandemic began, and has never resumed.
She knows little about the judicial process against Enrique, much less than she would like. Since she now lives in Valencia, her only contact with the Prosecutor’s Office is through WhatsApp and, according to what she told me, the prosecutor tells her that everything is going well, but he prefers not to share sensitive data that way. And Morella has no money to travel to Maracay. She does not know who has testified in the hearings, or when, and that lack of information worries her a lot: she fears that the trial will stall and there will be no justice for the 31 years of the life that she lost.
Thirty-one years since she was that teenager with dark, frizzy hair who enjoyed going to the beach with her friends and her sisters. She saw some of those friends again and together with her sisters she is trying to make up for lost time. But she has not yet been able to return to the beach. That, she told me, is a dream that she would like to fulfill soon: to see the ocean again.
[Daniel]: Matías Enrique Salazar is detained in Maracay while the trial against him is taking place. According to the available documents, when his case advanced to the trial phase, he was accused of the crimes of psychological violence, threat, sexual violence and sexual slavery against Morella, and psychological violence against three other women, including his daughter.
Enrique’s lawyer, Luis Perdomo Franco, did not agree to speak with us for this episode. The prosecutor Daniela Corsini, who is handling the case in this instance, also did not agree to give us an interview.
This episode was reported by Mariana Zúñiga and produced by Emilia Erbetta. Mariana is a producer at El Hilo and lives in Caracas. Emilia is our production assistant and lives in Buenos Aires.
This story was edited by Camila Segura, Nicolás Alonso, Aneris Casassus and me. Desirée Yépez did the fact checking. The sound design is by Andrés Azpiri with original music by Ana Tuirán.
The rest of the Radio Ambulante team includes Paola Alean, Lisette Arévalo, Fernanda Guzmán, Camilo Jiménez Santofimio, Rémy Lozano, Ana Pais, Laura Rojas Aponte, Barbara Sawhill, Elsa Liliana Ulloa, David Trujillo and Luis Fernando Vargas.
Carolina Guerrero is the CEO.
Radio Ambulante is a podcast by Radio Ambulante Estudios, produced and mixed on the Hindenburg PRO program.
Radio Ambulante tells the stories of Latin America. I’m Daniel Alarcón. Thanks for listening.
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