Note: this telling of real event includes strong language and descriptions of torture including sexual assault.
The cartilage connecting my ribs to my sternum is badly bruised after one of the men hit me in the chest with the butt of an AK-47.
Self portrait of the author, taken in Western New York.
I’d been forced to stand against a wall and my back took as much of a blow as my rib cage. There is a burning straight through my chest to my spine and Advil doesn’t touch it. Nor does tramadol.
There’s a scab on the top of my head where the same man ground the barrel of a 9mm pistol into my scalp, saying he was going to sodomize me, kill me, cut off my lips, fingers, and dick.
I grew up with guns. I’d never been beaten with guns before. Dozens of beatings with dozens of guns. And fists. And feet. And words. Guns at my head. Guns in my ribs. Guns in my mouth. Guns for endless games of Russian Roulette. Guns as heavy as hammers.
And which testicle did I want shot off, the left or the right?
My jaw doesn’t move the way it should and it aches all the way to my inner ear when I try to sleep. That came from being kicked in the face by another cartel member in steel toe boots, a kick that rid me of a few more teeth.
The cuts on my wrists after being handcuffed too tight for too long are fading but the injuries to my psyche are just starting to appear.
I have nightmares. I’m being chased. I need a taxi from West Palm Beach to Homestead, Florida to escape drug cartel assassins. I am with either my ex-girlfriend or some other woman. It’s never clear. But the panic flows like cold mercury in my blood and when I wake up I can feel it in my veins as my heart pounds and sweat runs down my face. I wake up feeling like Martin Sheen in the opening scene of Apocalypse Now.
Nearly a month after being kidnapped in Cordoba, Veracruz — along with a female friend — I’m at home in the United States. Outside the lawn is covered with snow. The slate gray sky promises that despite our optimism, winter is not nearly over. Indeed, the forecast for tonight calls for freezing rain. The shelves in my room are stuffed with books on contemporary art, as well as a few on the Holocaust and other grim topics left to us when my father died, all of which seem appropriate.
My father would have disapproved of the risks implicit in my photographic work, which takes me to some of the most dangerous places in the world: San Salvador, Guatemala City, and for the moment, Southern Veracruz. But he would have secretly admired the spirit of what I do. A painter, he often said brushes were sabers to slash and kill all the evil in the world. He said a camera could either be a “cheap fucking toy” or a weapon to make the world a better place.
I was not kidnapped because of my photographs as far as I know. But I’m not sure. My work focuses on people and their struggle to survive in an increasingly cruel world. That has put me in the cross hairs of governments, gangs and cartels. First, nobody wants the stories of marginalized people told. Second, a man with a camera who hangs around in three of the most dangerous “peace time” countries on earth — Mexico, Guatemala and El Salvador — is often mistaken for an informant. I narrowly escaped an effort by Salvadoran gang members to kill me in 2012. And I’ve had forced “meetings” with cartel bosses across the region, patient, powerful men who gave me a fair chance to explain who I was and why I was wandering around bars, in their territory, with a camera. I have never revealed their identities or discussed those meetings. I would never rat. As Bob Dylan said, “To live outside the law you must be honest.” My pictures are not illegal but they are harvested in places that exist outside the law.
Under age girl working as a prostitute at a bar in downtown Cordoba, Veracruz. Photograph by John Sevigny.
A friend in El Salvador’s Barrio 18 gang once gave me some very good advice:
“The tongue is the strongest muscle in the human body. It can send people to prison or to the morgue.”
The kidnapping was a case of mistaken identity, they said later. But first they accused me of killing someone called Carlos. Just when did you meet Carlos? And is that when you decided to kill Carlos? He had a family, you know.
“Who in the fuck is Carlos? In fact, fuck Carlos.”
That question earned me the rifle butt to the ribs.
They accused my friend of killing a woman called Cristina from Ciudad Juarez. They accused me of financing drug sales in Cordoba despite the fact that there were neither drugs nor money at my friend’s house — and apart from kidnapping us the fuckers stole everything. I had eleven dollars in my bank account and had just bought two pounds of tangerines which would be our impoverished staple for a few days.
Here’s how the thing went down.
On January 8, 2019, I was at my friend and sometimes-photo assistant’s house on the sleazy side of Cordoba a few doors down from a slaughterhouse. I’d been living at a hotel in Mexico City when she suggested I come stay with her in Veracruz for free.
“You remember how to get here?” she asked before I boarded a bus for the five hour ride past Puebla to Cordoba. “It’s right next to the slaughterhouse. So be careful. They kill animals like you here, you fucking animal.”
Her sense of humor is marvelous but was tragically prophetic. We both came very close to dying like animals in a slaughterhouse made for people.
That morning I was looking at my phone, reading whatever nonsense was flowing across Twitter. I looked up and saw more than a dozen armed men who looked and acted suspiciously like cops pouring through the front and back doors. They were in fact, as a high-ranking Cordoba police official confirmed to me later, city and state police officers working off the clock for a drug cartel.
“I can’t control what my men do when they’re not at work,” he said.
Fuck you, chief.
He can’t stop forced prostitution of children either, I guess. Or the daily killings at the market downtown, full of women and children. If you’re a cop and you can’t do anything about crime, there may be better ways for you to serve the community. There is no reason a small city like Cordoba should be a near war zone with kidnappings in just the past week of a public school teacher and a government medical chemist. The impunity and corruption that make these crimes possible can only exist with support from politicians and local law enforcement.
Or to quote a friend who lives in the Texas border city of Laredo:
“What Americans don’t understand is that in Mexico, the government is the cartel.”
I decided to fight back.
I thought I’d die in the struggle but it would beat having my skin peeled off with pliers at some torture chamber on the outskirts of town. Or boiled alive in acid. Or having to choose which testicle I wanted to keep.
I took some shots to the head with a fist and a pistol. Handguns are as heavy as hammers. I didn’t quite bob or weave but I put one foot in front of me, ducked a big shot from a bigger son of a bitch, bent my front knee and came back up with a leg-driven uppercut to his chin, just as the late Middleweight Champion Billy McNeece taught me when I was a kid learning to box in Brooklyn.
The gods knew what they were doing when they gave me these big fists. They knew I’d need them because I am not a tough guy. I was a bad boxer. I’ve fared better in bar brawls.
Scene from the market in Cordoba, Veracruz, where members of rival cartels kill each other almost every day. Photograph by John Sevigny.
But in my mind the punch was as beautiful as the uppercut Tyson threw against James Douglas at the Tokyo Dome in 1990. I’m sure it lacked all grace but I was lucky: that little man was no Buster Douglas. I knocked him out cold and he wasn’t getting up. Which pissed the rest of them off and earned me the worst beating I’ve ever gotten. They were fit to kill me then and there and I was hoping they would. Whatever came next, in some other place, would be worse. And it was.
Somebody grabbed me by the neck. I punched him in the balls. Somebody hit me on the head with a pistol, and someone else fired a bullet into the ceiling. The next think I knew I was being carried by four men to a waiting sedan outside.
It was 11 am. The “fight” had lasted maybe 20 seconds.
“Fucking gringo is strong,” the guy I’d hit in the balls said as the car squealed away from the house and mouth-breathing neighbors looked on. My friend was put in a different sedan and we were taken to the torture chamber, or rather, complex of torture chambers on the outskirts of town.
In the backseat they held my head to the floor and fought to put handcuffs on me.
“Oh hell no,” I said, and somebody kicked me in the jaw. I didn’t have to spit my teeth out. There they were on the floorboard. I glanced up and three men had guns on me.
“She already ratted you out,” one of them said of my friend. “This is going to get a lot worse for you, gringo.”
She hadn’t, of course. But it did get worse.
In the past two years 2,000 people have disappeared in Veracruz, a lush, tropical state on Mexico’s Gulf Coast. Officially, 20,000 people have vanished, likely kidnapped and probably killed in recent years. It’s a tragedy that gets little to no coverage in the international media but is reported daily in newspapers south of the border. For 38 hours, I was one of them. In a more general sense, the two of us came very close to sharing the same fate as the 200,000 people who have been killed since ex-president Felipe Calderon, in an act of idiocy typical of his six years in office, turned the military loose on Mexico’s cartels. You might say the military lost. But working mothers, students, journalists, and other everyday people bore the brunt.
Over almost two days, my friend was gang-raped repeatedly, I was beaten to a pulp, and we were both were tortured in numerous, imaginative, well-practiced ways. We did not sleep or eat. We were not allowed to stand up, walk or ask questions. And when we were released there were no apologies from the men who’d held our lives — or was it our deaths? — in their hands.
Where were we, anyway? Was it a house or a warehouse? I never really saw it. We were blindfolded and cuffed from the first minute to the last. I wouldn’t recognize the place if I returned. My memories are based almost solely on what I felt, what I heard, the images my stressed, sleepless mind constructed from behind the blindfold, and every single blow my 49-year-old body received from any of several dozen gunmen who guarded us, taunted us, and worked to break our spirits.
In the end, as an American, I was able to get out of the country with help from the US Embassy in Mexico City, and more directly, my family.
After I spent a week at a hotel in Mexico hoping my physical recovery would be swift, I realized I wasn’t getting any better. I could barely descend the stairs to pick up tacos across the street. Climbing those same stairs was more difficult. Worse, depression was kicking in. I was alone, brain-rattled, and badly injured.
My family brought me home where I have set aside the month of February to recover. It will take at least that long. My friend, now hiding far from Veracruz, has no visa and cannot get to the States, and definitely not in the age of Trump.
I’m writing this because the situation in Veracruz, the details of which scar my body and haunt my mind, must be told. FBI agent Scott Dunn, who debriefed me at the embassy in Mexico City twice after I escaped Cordoba, declines to speak to the media. Which is part of his job — protecting victims. He declined a request by a US newspaper to discuss my case or even confirm that I existed.
There are surely people out there who think I’m making this up. The chief of police in Cordoba is not one of them. Nor is Dunn. Nor is my friend, who is recovering from a sexual assault so vicious and sadistic that it surprised even embassy officials when told about it.
While we were held. Time was compressed. And yet it went on forever. And we never actually knew what time it was. So much happened. And yet there were hours of extreme boredom in which all I wanted to do was sleep. I forced myself to stay alert believing a moment would come when I could crack somebody’s skull and escape.
Mostly there was activity and noise. Mexican music pounded constantly. We were interrogated, separated, then placed together again. At least two men were dragged off and killed, crying and begging for mercy in some nearby room until a single gunshot ended their pleadings. At least 10 women were sexually assaulted.
I remember one of the thugs saying, “Did you fuck the fat one? She’s really wild.”
There was some kind of Satanic ritual, criminals being, as Batman once said, a cowardly and superstitious lot. But that’s Part 2 of this short series. That and being forced to inhale crystal meth at gunpoint, getting soaked in ice water, and a lot of other ugly details straight out of the Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib playbook.
Thank you, George W.
And now there is only recovery. There is no choice, no other option. I don’t get to shrug this off and move on. I must confront it for the life-changing tragedy it was and is. I am telling a story few Mexican victims can tell. They have to go on living with these scumbags. They’ll keep their mouths shut and are wise to do so.
(The friend with whom I was kidnapped is a victim of repeated sexual assaults and suffered in ways I cannot comprehend. I would have done anything to protect her, but I was powerless — handcuffed behind my back and physically broken. I still We became friends the moment I met her. We stayed up at late at my house sharing stories, jokes and meals. She is safe now but not eager to talk to the one, known witness to the crimes against her. I am no longer a friend, I suspect, but a reminder of a life-changing tragedy. What happened to her is not my fault but her experience is part of mine and vice versa. It is cruel that criminals would destroy our friendship in the name of greed, power or whatever they were looking for. If I have written little about her it is because her story is not mine to tell. She will tell it when, if, and to whom she chooses. I would only note that she was targeted in the way she was precisely because she is a woman. There was no practical reason for it. That alone shows how far our societies have to come before they are worthy of being called civilizations).