MY PHONE rang at midnight. "They've taken my sister-in-law," the frantic voice said. "She's disappeared. They acted like they were members of the police, but they didn't offer any identification."
Her mother called the following morning.
"The government says they don't have her. But my grandson's day care center is surrounded by police. They won't let us see the boy. He's a baby; only a year old! We don't know what this is about."
We started our inquiries, trying to find the missing woman, a young mother and teacher at the university. Her name is Elisa.
It was the beginning of a long process. We wrote letters, made telephone calls, and alerted other human rights groups.
At six in the evening of the day after Elisa disappeared, President Zedillo appeared on the national media to say that the government had discovered a plot of the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) to destabilize the country. Names of alleged conspirators included various university students and community leaders. Elisa, whom we were still looking for at the time, was on the list.
We learned later from Elisa that they had taken her to an unknown place, and her torture began. They blindfolded her, hit her, and wouldn't let her sleep or eat.
"Right at the beginning," she told us, "I thought it was just a common assault. Later, I had no doubt that it was not." Her torture stopped when she was forced to sign a declaration in which she admitted being a Zapatista. The police threatened to harm her baby son, who was now in their hands, if she refused to sign.
After her release we took on the uphill legal defense of Elisa and the other 20 people who had been rounded up, all of them accused of being Zapatistas as well. A human-rights matter had turned into the most relevant political conflict in Mexico in recent years. We had no choice; we had already chosen our path.
A year of litigation followed. It became clear that there was no plot and no reason for the detention of these people. It was simply a military and political measure aimed at recovering the territory from the hands of the EZLN through a calculated campaign of repression disguised as a judicial process. Nothing new in our country.
Today, Elisa and a few other presumed Zapatistas are now free, acquitted for insufficient evidence. The process for the others is still ongoing, although it is possible that they too will go free.
This is one of the many cases that we deal with in the Jesuit-run Miguel Pro Human Rights Center in Mexico City. Since its founding in 1988 it has become, through its work of investigation, organization, education, dissemination of information, and judicial defense, one of the principal nongovernmental organizations for the promotion of human rights in Mexico.
My work as director these last two years has been gratifying, but it has not been easy. I have witnessed the center and its staff endure a steady stream of death threats, police surveillance, calculated intimidation, even terrible physical aggression. The suffering has reached inside and become part of us.
In early January, two colleagues at the center were detained by individuals who said they were judicial police. The threats and insults and blows started immediately.
Later, after they had had all their possessions taken away and had given up the confidential numbers of their bank cards, the supposed police began terrorizing them.
They put pistols to their heads, their necks, and inside their mouths. They forced them to hit each other; when they refused, they received severe blows on their ears; when they didn't hit each other hard enough, they were hit on the head with the guns.
Later, there was a sexual assault. In an empty lot, one of my colleagues was forced to strip naked; another was supposed to perform oral sex on him. They both resisted, and that led to ferocious kicks and blows. Their continued refusal simply led to more blows.
One of them ran. Their attackers fired; fortunately, all the shots missed their target.
The persecution continued. One colleague crawled under a car to hide. He felt that at any moment he was going to die, that it was all over for him. He collapsed unconscious under the car. When he finally came to, he had no idea where he was or what he was doing there or even how long he had been there. That feeling of being totally lost is still with him. For him, for all of us, life will never be the same.
Despite the pain and sorrow, we at the Miguel Pro Center are determined to keep fighting, together with the people of Mexico, to obtain justice for everyone who lives in this country.
I recently traveled to Washington, D.C., to explain to the government of the United States what is happening in our country in the whole area of human rights. When I met with members of Congress and the State Department and with nongovernmental groups in the United States that deal with human rights, I found much interest and concern. The help of the Jesuits in the United States was essential and very valuable. International solidarity is very important for us, especially from our neighbors in the States and Canada. It reminds us that we are not alone.
Defending and promoting human rights is, perhaps, the best way we can follow the teachings of Jesus. The path is a difficult one; indeed, it is at times a terrifying one, as my colleagues at the center can attest. But it is the path of Jesus and of those who wish to follow him.
Author Fr. David Fernández, SJ (second from left), director of the Miguel Pro Human Rights Center in Mexico City, and Ms. Rocio Culebro (third), coordinator of a Mexican human rights network, journeyed to the capitol this winter. They and Fr. Robert McChesney, SJ (first), Jesuit secretary for international and refugee ministries; Eric Olson (fourth), with the Washington Office on Latin America; and Joy Olson (fifth), with the Latin America Working Group, informed members of Congress and the State Department about human rights in Mexico.