Translation: The 43 + 11
Laurence Maxwell: I’ve been arrested at protests before here in Chile. And the police, well they take you to the station, you stay there around three hours and then they let you go.
Daniel Alarcón: That’s Laurence Maxwell. And this arrest wasn’t in Chile, but in Mexico. And this time it wasn’t that simple. To begin, he wasn’t released.
Laurence Maxwell: It was all very shocking, right? A lot of emotional intensity from which I haven’t been able to get over yet.
Daniel Alarcón: Welcome to Radio Ambulante. I’m Daniel Alarcón. Today, The 43+11. The story of Laurence Maxwell and the Mexican justice system.
Now, to contextualize this, to better understand who Laurence is, one has to know that in the 80s, he was a student leader in Chile, a very charismatic guy, a seasoned fighter, well-respected. His activism came about in a moment in which Pinochet’s dictatorship was starting to shake. Anti-government voices were getting stronger and one of those voices was Laurence’s.
But this story, as we mentioned, is not set in Chile.
Our producer is Dennis Maxell, Laurence’s younger brother. Here’s Dennis.
Dennis Maxwell: I always admired my brother. I remember one day well, when I was 13, I saw him in the local paper. It was after a high school was taken over. Maybe it was the cover, I don’t remember. Even though he had a bandana over his face, I recognized him. He was at the door of the school. You could see the gate was open and, behind him, several students. The picture was taken over the policemen’s shoulders. You could see Laurence’s eyes, standing there, firm, keeping the police from coming in.
When the dictatorship was over, in 89, my brother was not that involved in politics anymore. He had turned to studying. First, economics but he didn’t finish the major. Then philosophy, which he also didn’t finish. When he finally finished his major in sociology, I was living in the United States. In San Francisco, California.
And when everything that I am about to tell you happened, Laurence had also left Chile. To Mexico, to do what he liked to do best: study, be creative, make music. He went to Mexico City, to the famous UNAM, first to get a Master’s degree and then a PhD in Literature.
I was at work one Friday in November of last year, 2014, when I got an email from a friend in Chile.
Hi Dennis, I hope you’re well. I’m writing because I’ve received some news from Mexico that your brother was detained yesterday at the march at the Zócalo in Mexico City, although it is not clear if it’s serious or not…
Dennis Maxwell: The marches the email was referring to were marches in solidarity with the 43 students from Ayotzinapa, attacked and disappeared by the police. By the state.
Newcast: Nothing is known about the 43 disappeared “normalistas” … a violent and indescribable night that ended with 6 dead…an event that happened after they were attacked, shot at and chased by the police that also murdered 6 young guys, while another 25 were hurt.
Protest: We know they are alive!
Dennis Maxwell: This act of wild and arbitrary violence had set off wave after wave of protests against the government. The night of his arrest, Laurence had arrived to downtown Mexico City, blocks away from the Zócalo, to participate in the march. He found hundreds of thousands of protesters. He was locking up his bike to a pole when suddenly a group of police approached him.
Laurence Maxwell: So I said, Well what one can do here is to try and walk away as calm as possible…I guess nothing will happen,” right? I try walking, I walk 3,4,5,10 steps maybe, and I feel that a cop, like the one who was in charge of the operation apparently, says “grab him too.”
Dennis Maxwell: With a beating and threats they took him. They covered his face with the hood on his jacket and dragged him through the entire Zócalo.
Laurence Maxwell: They told me “now you’re screwed cabrón, now it’s our turn, now you’ll see,” or “you’re going to end up in jail,” or, I don’t know, like “terrorist” they called me, “criminal.”
Dennis Maxwell: The cops that first caught him were local, from Mexico City, and at the other end of the Zócalo they handed him over to the federal police. There, the feds grouped Laurence with 10 more detainees, 7 men and 3 women he’d never seen before.
Laurence Maxwell: Up until that moment, let’s say, I didn’t know how serious the situation was, until they took us to the SEIDO.
Dennis Maxwell: The SEIDO. The office specializing in the research of organized crime. Here is where the Mexican state had detained some of the most notorious narcos in their history. The mayor of Iguala and his wife, the allegedly responsible for the killing of the 43 Ayotzinapa students, had been in those same prison cells just weeks before.
The SEIDO was a warning of what my brother and the other detainees could expect. Everything indicated that it wasn’t going to be a normal detention. In a matter of hours, the authorities were already commenting in the media about the supposed dangerous criminals they had captured during a protest.
Televisa Newscast: Secretary, this…will be a long night, I suppose, right?
Well, there’s detainees and it’s interesting that among the ones that acted with the most determination in these violent acts is a foreigner.
Dennis Maxwell: This is Miguel Ángel Osorio Chong, the current secretary of the governance in Mexico, in an interview that was aired on Televisa. And the foreigner he is referring to is my brother.
Dennis Maxwell: That night and the next day, my brother and the other 10 detainees were interrogated over and over again. Laurence had to endure the most intense questioning, in part because he wasn’t Mexican. According to the police who interrogated him, my brother, foreign as he was, had no right to get involved in Mexican politics. “You came to harvest chaos, to make a mess, you’re a terrorist,” they told him. Why the hell did you get involved in that protest?
Laurence Maxwell: I told him, look I felt it was my ethical responsibility, a moral responsibility to attend the march even though I know I am a foreigner because the problem of the 43 students from Ayotzinapa is not a local problem, ok? it’s a problem for all of humanity and if one has a little sensibility we should have all been at the march, right? So he told me, “My wife, for example, was not at the march.” So I told him, “Well, that’s wrong of her. That doesn’t speak highly of her…” And that’s when he started yelling, “You’re stupid, an imbecile, take him away from here…”
Dennis Maxwell: That was the first round of questioning. A few hours later, they handed Laurence and the other detainees a piece of paper where their charges were listed:
Laurence Maxwell: Terrorism, illicit association to commit terrorist acts, attempted murder, rioting and criminal association.
Dennis Maxwell: There were five serious charges, which could mean decades in jail.
Laurence Maxwell: So that’s when I start thinking that this thing can get increasingly bad, right? It can get increasingly more complicated.
Dennis Maxwell: Meanwhile, in San Francisco, I was already very worried.
After Laurence’s arrest, I spent hours calling friends, lawyers, journalists, trying to understand what was happening. They were surreal moments, and it would be the first of several.
Meanwhile, at the SEIDO, my brother and the other detainees had to take a series of tests: blood tests, urine tests and writing tests. They recorded their voices, and they even got swab tests done, the kind cops do to see if you have any traces of explosives you’ve been handling with your hands.
Laurence Maxwell: They were under a mandate, I don’t know from where, from the government, I imagine, of only taking a few detainees, right? And give those detainees heavy charges. So to us 11 who were captured at different spots around the Zócalo, at different times, they accuse us of being a group, right? An organized group.
Dennis Maxwell: And the story that the authorities were coming up with was really absurd. They accused all of the 11 of being inspired by the Unabomber, the American terrorist of the 90s. According to their file, the detainees yelled “Death to Peña Nieto,” Death to the PRI,” and other similar phrases. That they called each other “compa,” as if using that common word were proof of anything.
At the SEIDO, the cops forced him to make a statement, without giving him the right to an attorney but they did allow the presence of the Chilean consul, Mr. José Jaliliye. The consul’s participation was fundamental. Unlike the other detainees, Laurence wasn’t alone.
He signed a paper, recognizing he was aware of the charges against him. And soon after they were informed that the terrorism and the organizing for to commit terrorism charges had been dropped. In the prison cell, Laurence and the other 10 celebrated. Maybe they would be out soon.
Hours later, agents arrived dressed in civilians clothing.
Laurence Maxwell: We thought it was because were going to be released, right? And they start handcuffing us again, they put us in front of a wall, and we see there’s a group we hadn’t seen before of civilians, armed civilians, with long weapons, who are told, “OK, you take care of them now.”
Dennis Maxwell: These agents were very drunk. And they were very aggressive. They weren’t going to be released.
Laurence Maxwell: At that moment, all hope came down, all the…what we’d believed that we’d get out, and they put us in a truck, in a large van with no logo, no branding, nothing official.
Dennis Maxwell: And they removed them from the SEIDO, without telling anyone, not even their lawyers, or the Chilean consul, or the detainees themselves.
In front of the SEIDO there was a gathering of people asking for the release of Laurence and the others. That’s why the agents made them leave with their heads down, between their legs, so no one could see them.
Dennis Maxwell: The detainees went in the back seat. There weren’t 11, but 8, the men. The 3 women had been separated from the group. Six agents, all armed, were guarding them, and there was one that was particularly aggressive. While they drove, away from Mexico City, this agent would tell them:
Laurence Maxwell: “We will take you to Ayotzinapa and there we’ll cut you into little pieces and we will burn you” and then he says: “But really we better just toss you one by one out the van and shoot you and we’ll save time” and whatnot..
Dennis Maxwell: “Here there’s no human rights,” they would tell them. “Here we can do with you whatever we want.”
They didn’t really know where they were being taken, but at one point, my brother was able to see they were passing the toll on the road towards Puebla. The cops joked that they were going to have a ceviche that afternoon and so Laurence concluded they were going to the coast, probably to Veracruz.
Laurence Maxwell: I think in large part that trip was to instill terror, to scare us, so we would be unsure of what our destination was, what was going to happen to us, our future. So to keep us in the greatest doubt possible.
Dennis Maxwell: It was a special group from the PGR, the Attorney General’s Office, but according to Laurence they behaved like criminals.
Laurence Maxwell: They talked about the drugs they had seized and had tried and that it was really good. They talked about robbing houses, of distributing the money among themselves, they were criminals in uniform, with a badge, let’s say, right?
Dennis Maxwell: One of the agents, known as The Raven (El Cuervo), had it especially against my brother.
Laurence Maxwell: And he kept telling me: “We’re going to stop the truck and I’m going to beat the shit out of you. Why are you in Mexico? Why do you come here to do things that are not your business?
Dennis Maxwell: One time he switched places with an agent, to sit in front of Laurence. He started hitting him over and over again..
Laurence Maxwell: Then he pulled out his cell phone and while he was hitting me, he was recording a video and telling me: “Say hi to your Chilean compatriots, say hi to the Chilean students because it’s the last time you’ll be able to do so…I’m putting this up on Facebook,” he’d say.
Dennis Maxwell: That was how it was, the whole trip. The only thing that gave Laurence some peace was that he’d met with the Chilean consul. He thought: “No. This son of a bitch isn’t going to kill me. He can’t. If the consul knows I’m here it wouldn’t be logical to kill me.”
The other detainees, the Mexicans, didn’t even have that. The memory of the disappeared from Ayotzinapa tormented them.
It was 4 hours of terror until they got to Cefereso 5 Oriente, a high security prison in the state of Veracruz.
The next day, on Sunday, I was traveling to Mexico. The most important thing to me was to see my brother. But it wasn’t that simple. I got there late and I met up with some of his friends who were organizing. When I got there, they already had important evidence: a cell phone video taken the moment Laurence was detained.
They showed it to me that same night I got there. It’s dark and a little chaotic.
But you can clearly see the police trying to clear out the protestors and Laurence, just as he had described in his statement, locking up his bike next to the cathedral. Looking at the images I felt calmer and with the hope that we could prove his innocence.
But I had to be realistic too. A blurry cell phone video wasn’t going to get him out of jail.
When they got to the high security prison they were able to talk amongst themselves. They decided to take care of each other, to not separate, to stay alert. They only had a few minutes to themselves, and soon after, the bureaucratic paperwork of their incarceration started.
They had placed shackles on their feet and hands, then they took off the clothes they were wearing, took their pictures, their fingerprints and they cut their hair. Then they were assigned a prison cell.
Laurence Maxwell: There we were calmer because they didn’t put us immediately with the general prison population but instead in a sort of isolation unit, with two of us per prison cell.
Dennis Maxwell: And they told them they didn’t know how long they would be in there. It could be a week or a month.
My brother shared a cell with Juan Daniel, the youngest of the detainees. He had just turned 18 and he was devastated.
Laurence Maxwell: So I was tasked with, you know, lifting his spirits.
Dennis Maxwell: Laurence’s lawyers told me my duty, when seeing my brother, would be the same. They told me over and over again that it was most important I didn’t break down in front of him, that I show him no weakness. I had to make the effort of transmitting to him a certain optimism.
Early on Monday we headed to the prison.
The small village just before the prison was like a ghost town in a Western, forgotten in the middle of nowhere. To go into the prison we had to sign a series of paperwork. Time, date, signature, the name of the prisoner you’re visiting, documents. And not once, but 10 times. Then, they scanned me with metal detectors, I walked a couple of blocks and went into pavilion number 5.
It caught my attention how clean everything was. There were women mopping and the smell of disinfectant was dizzying.
They made me pull down my pants to my knees, pull up my shirt to prove I wasn’t carrying any guns. You can’t wear shoes with laces, so I had to go in with borrowed sandals, huge, that fit like clown shoes. And after walking through several hallways I came to a stall where there was another guard behind a thick bulletproof glass. He opened another gate and I finally went into the room where I had to wait for my prisoner. My brother.
Laurence Maxwell: They take me out of the cell and tell me: you have a visitor. And fuck – very happy, happy to see someone from my family. Aside from the emotion of meeting, of seeing each other, right? of…well, not touch each other because it was in a booth where we could only talk through the small openings in the panes of glass.
Dennis Maxwell: We had only 45 minutes.
Laurence Maxwell: I had no idea what was going on. So it was a good opportunity to know how the arrangements were going…what was going on in Chile.
Dennis Maxwell: And that was the news I brought to him. In Chile, my brother’s case was everywhere. In the news. On social media.
Newscast in Chile: Freedom for Laurence Maxwell was demanded by family and friends outside of the Mexican embassy in Chile.
Dennis Maxwell: His reputation as a student leader in the 80s was very useful. People remembered him and his partners in struggle from those years, they’re older, and are in positions of power in the government.
Newscast in Chile: We reject the way the Mexican state treats protesters…we join Laurence’s family in this tough moment, this great injustice…But the acts haven’t just been on behalf of civil society, but also from the government of Chile…
Dennis Maxwell: It was the most important thing I could tell him. That the country had remembered him. That a lot of people were mobilizing for his freedom. My sister in France, friends and family in Chile, his mates in Mexico, our sister and my wife in San Francisco. A big human chain working out his release.
That was the information he took back to his cell, and to the other detainees.
Laurence Maxwell: So when they take me back to the cell, everyone wanted to know, all the other kids wanted to know. We yelled across the backyard – we couldn’t see each other, but we could hear each other. The people are mobilizing, mobilizing for all of us, not only for the Chilean, but mobilizing for all eleven.
Dennis Maxwell: This was already being discussed high up, between governments, between chancellors. That was clear. In fact, the option of deportation was considered to speed up his release, but ultimately that proposal didn’t go anywhere.
Still, the Mexican government wouldn’t release them.
After visiting my brother we headed, with the lawyers, to Xalapa, the city where the jury that would try the case was located.
We were running against time. It was Monday and we only had until Friday morning to present evidence, find witnesses and prepare defense arguments.
The days that followed I hardly slept. Between meetings with lawyers, interviews with the Chilean and Mexican media, there was no chance.
On Thursday, my father arrived from Chile, and he was a big support. I don’t think I would have survived until the end of the trial without him. But we made it. On Saturday, the judge had to decide if he let the eleven detainees go or if he left them in jail, tied to a process that could take years.
I could see the exhaustion and the worry in my father’s face. I was the same. There were only a couple of hours left until we would hear the judge’s decision, but those hours were endless because of the anguish we felt.
We were in front of the courthouse in Xalapa, with the families of the other detainees and their lawyers. The consul was also there, the ambassador, a lot of journalists, and a large number of people that had showed solidarity with the detainees and had been protesting for several days. They had music and were chanting for the release of the eleven. They named them one by one. It was exciting to feel the support of the people.
At one point I saw the consul, very nervous. He ran into the courthouse. We tried to follow him but the security guards didn’t let us in. We spent several minutes, my father and I, waiting. Until finally the phone rang. It was the consul and he had news.
Dennis Maxwell: Tell me, which one…which? Free of all charges? Really?!
Confirmed by the judge…
Alberto Maxwell: So, he’s free.
Dennis Maxwell: He didn’t mention anything official but you were told that, that he was free of all charges. You don’t know…it’s the best news you could have given me Mister consul. I really appreciate it.
Alberto Maxwell: Wow..wow..I’m sorry [crying]
Dennis Maxwell: Minutes later, the Chilean ambassador read the judge’s final resolution:
Chilean Ambassador in Mexico: This ninth hour of November 29, 2014 freedom is dictated because of a lack of elements to process in favor of, one: Roberto Cesar Jasso de Angel, two, Isaac…, six, Laurence Maxwell Ilabaca…For insufficient evidence to prove the crime of…
Dennis Maxwell: At the same time news reaches the jailhouse, to the ears of the eleven.
Laurence Maxwell: So the court clerk tells us: well, I bring you good news. The latest update – what the judge just said – is that you’re all free. And then, well, we were all together and we hugged each other. There were some that were very excited. I always had my reservations. Until I wasn’t out I wasn’t going to be completely sure and confident.
Dennis Maxwell: And we went to wait until they were let go. All of us who were in front of the courthouse – including the consul and the ambassador – left in a caravan to the jailhouse, which was an hour away driving.
On our way the ambassador told us about the time he was imprisoned after the military coup in Chile.
Ambassador of Chile in Mexico: One never forgets the moment you’re let go. It stays with you for the rest of your existence. The exact moment when you’re told: “You can go now.” And I imagine what your brother must be feeling, when he knows perfectly well that in a few more hours he will feel freedom as a substantial part of his life.
Dennis Maxwell: But the nightmare wasn’t over. When we got to the jailhouse we’re told that because Laurence is a foreigner he would be taken to the city of Veracruz, so the National Institute of Migration could verify his legal status in Mexico.
Laurence Maxwell: That’s when they separated me from the other eight and they tell me: “You leave first,” and they take me out and put me in a patrol car, and they make me wear black sunglasses and a helmet, and they take me away at high speed, avoiding the families in front, through a side road. And they speed, and get on the road to Veracruz.
Dennis Maxwell: It looked like the authorities intentionally wanted to prolong our anguish. So we headed to the institute of migration. The mood in front of the building was very tense. The people that came to support my brother, his friends, the press, started to pile up on the street in front of the institute. We could hear the sounds of a protest several blocks away, at the Zócalo of Veracruz. It was a march for the disappearance of the normalistas.
Then, an officer came out of the building and told the consul he could come in, but alone.
Soon after my phone rang. It was the consul, and he told us my brother was there, with him, and that we could be calm, that we’d see him soon.
An hour later, Laurence came through the door of the building. His clothes were dirty, they were the same he was wearing when they detained him, nine days before. He looked exhausted.
Laurence Maxwell: For now I just want to say that I’m very excited for all of the support I’ve received, the support I received in Chile. Especially my family, my dear family. The consulate too, the consul who does an excellent job, to the ambassador. And to conclude, I am very tired, I want to rest, and maybe later reflect some about all that has happened and later make other statements. It has been a very intense week…
Dennis Maxwell: Two days later my brother was returning to Chile with my father. Finally justice had been served. Still he felt he had to leave.
Laurence Maxwell: All of that was very shocking, right? Like of a lot emotional intensity that I’ve had a hard time recovering from. I mean, obviously, those threats were up in the air, floating in the air. And it’s not, it’s not pleasant to live in fear or permanently worried, right? That’s also why I decided to leave Mexico.
Dennis Maxwell: The day after dropping them off at the airport, I went back to San Francisco.
The eleven were free, but since that afternoon in November, I’ve had this lingering doubt.
What would have happened if Laurence, a foreigner, wouldn’t have been among the detainees?
How much influence did the international pressure have? Without it, would the Mexican justice system have reacted the same way?
Those questions are impossible to answer but it’s not hard to imagine that the Zócalo detainees would still be in there, locked up and forgotten in a high security prison.
Daniel Alarcón: Dennis Maxwell is a journalist and a documentarian. He lives in San Francisco, California.
In Mexico, the protests in solidarity with the 43 disappeared students from Ayotzinapa continue. Their families are taking the case to a United Nations committee.