A Mexican lawyer in hiding


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The wrists of Ernesto Gutierrez still bear the scars of his 2007 ordeal in Gulf Cartel captivity

Photo by Todd Bensman


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By Todd Bensman

MATAMOROS, Mexico — Blindfolded and bound, Ernesto Gutierrez Martinez felt the guards guide him from his cell to an outdoor area.


He caught a whiff of fuel and heard a man crying. The armed men at his sides, who so often had beaten him unconscious, were laughing with sadistic glee.


“This is how we prepare a soup,” one of them quipped.


His blindfold torn away, Gutierrez saw he was in a small courtyard. Another bound prisoner of the Gulf cartel stood in a metal barrel, blubbering prayers. Someone was spraying him with a flammable liquid. Someone else flicked a lighter.


Gutierrez's own scream of horror could not escape the rag stuffed in his mouth. He thrust his head to one side to avert the sight of the screaming mass of flesh and stench. The guard grabbed a fistful of Gutierrez's hair and yanked his head back up. He was next, they kept saying.


Later, back in his cell awaiting his fate, some of the same tormentors started up a friendly banter.


The killers wondered why Gutierrez — an urbane, well-to-do attorney — had come to be a prisoner in this house of torture and murder.


“They said I was not the type of person they normally have there,” he recalled. “They were asking me why I was there. That I must have done something very bad.”


Gutierrez said nothing but knew it had to do with his role as family lawyer for Osiel Cardenas-Guillen, boss of the Gulf cartel.


One day, as abruptly as they grabbed him from his law office, his tormentors let Gutierrez go with a demand that he do legal work for the cartel.


Three weeks of beatings and no food left him emaciated and infected from wounds, but Gutierrez knew what he had to do. He ran for his life.


NOT JUST ANY LAWYER


Now, 21 months later, Gutierrez and his family are hiding in the United States, still feeling hunted and prepared to bolt at any inkling of discovery. The sleeves of his shirt barely cover the handcuff scars on his wrists — a reminder that if the cartel's Los Zetas paramilitary enforcers find him, he won't go free a second time.


While returning to Mexico is risky, staying in America is perilous in another way. Gutierrez is making a long-shot attempt to gain political asylum in the U.S., joining a growing number of Mexican refugees — police officers, journalists and businessmen — in need of protection from cartel persecution.


But the U.S. government is opposing many asylum requests because, experts say, the law doesn't squarely apply to victims of Mexican organized crime. Immigration judges, for various reasons, have sent some of them back.


For Gutierrez, the dread of falling back into cartel clutches has prompted him to abandon or sell everything: the law practice that supported his family, two homes in Mexico, a $210,000 house in Brownsville, a South Padre Island condo, sports cars.


He also left beloved extended family members whom he can't contact for fear the cartel will torture them and find out where he is.


“The government is fighting these cases like crazy, any excuse to deny these claims,” said Eduardo Beckett, managing attorney of the Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center in El Paso, which has lost a number of the cases but doesn't represent the Gutierrez family. “They don't want to open up the floodgates.”


For example, last year only 71 out of several thousand Mexican asylum seekers were accepted.


Gutierrez may face an added hurdle because of his notorious client.



Gulf Cartel boss Osiel Cardenas


As head of the Gulf cartel, Cardenas was Mexico's most wanted fugitive and one of America's when Mexican troops captured him in a 2003 Matamoros shootout.


After the capture, Gutierrez worked for four years with the legal team that failed to block Cardenas' January extradition to Houston in January 2007


In considering asylum, the government will want to know whether Gutierrez ever strayed into criminal activity for Cardenas — and got burned for playing with fire — as have other Mexican attorneys.


Gutierrez insists he was made to pay, in pain and blood, only for the lost extradition battle.





That extradition cost Cardenas his continued power over the cartel. It set up Cardenas for a trial this September in Houston on some two-dozen organized crime charges that could put him away for life in a U.S. prison. And, it ended any hope that Cardenas might buy an escape like the one last month when 53 cartel gangsters walked out of a Mexican prison.


Through his Houston defense lawyers, Cardenas denies having anything to do with Gutierrez's abduction, or the bad luck of some of his other attorneys in Mexico. At least three who worked for Cardenas ended up dead, full of bullets.


“Mr. Cardenas never ordered, directed, nor even implied that the Zetas kidnap or harm Mr. Gutierrez,” said Chip Lewis, who is part of the Cardenas defense team. “He had no problems with Mr. Gutierrez. Whatever the Zetas did or did not do was not at his direction.”


SUCKED IN


Gutierrez agreed to share his story and asylum petition files, which aren't public, with the San Antonio Express-News in hopes that independent scrutiny of his claims might aid his chancy asylum bid.


He spoke only on condition that details indicating his family's whereabouts not be disclosed. He only would agree to meet in public places. He requested that no photographs of him be published in case a cartel operative recognizes him.


Gutierrez lives in an anxious, stateless limbo, burning through his savings from the sale of properties. He won't go near any part of his old life, even on the U.S. side, in the belief that “they” are watching.


“In Mexico, there's no hiding,” he said in Spanish “There's no safe place. I can't go back. Not ever again.”


Gutierrez traces all of his troubles to Jan. 29, 2004. That was the day Celia Salinas Aguilar de Cardenas, wife of Osiel Cardenas, walked into his law offices. The government had seized her house, she said. Would Gutierrez help her get it back?



The shot up vehicle carrying Cardenas the day he was captured in a Matamoros firefight with government police



By then, the 1985 University of Tamaulipas law school graduate didn't need the money. Hailing from a family of Matamoros lawyers and doctors, he'd already built a prosperous civil practice of contract law, divorce and — significantly — cases involving government property seizures.


Gutierrez insists he'd never handled criminal defense cases nor worked for anyone involved with the cartels. Still, he admits he was a bit intrigued by such an infamous client.


The Zetas had a fearsome reputation of not taking no for an answer, but in the end, Gutierrez rationalized: “Everyone knew me in Matamoros; I wasn't scared.”


Those sentiments would change as the Cardenas family pulled him in deeper.


First, Celia's sister came to him with a house seizure case, followed by Osiel Cardenas' father, who also had one, Gutierrez's law files show. Then, in February 2004, Cardenas summoned him to La Palma prison in Toluca to discuss the property cases.


Cardenas asked Gutierrez to join a team of 20 other lawyers gearing up to fight a U.S. extradition effort.


Gutierrez wasn't enthused by the nine-hour drive to Toluca and time away from family. But mindful of the potential cost of saying no, he said he agreed to only a part-time advisory role. This required twice-monthly visits with Cardenas and some special projects for the team.


The deaths of some of his teammates demolished any pretense that his prominence offered immunity from such a fate.


In January and March 2005, the bodies of two Cardenas lawyers that Gutierrez knew were found riddled with bullets not far from La Palma prison gates.


     

Leonardo Oceguera, one  of Cardenas’ lawyers just before and after cartel assassins murdered him in Toluca. AP


The assassinations were reminiscent of a 2002 attack by soldiers on a carload of Cardenas lawyers in front of the prison that left one of the attorneys dead after a chase.


“I was scared, I didn't want to go anymore, but after what happened, what can you do? Not go?” Gutierrez said.


Pressed in interviews with the Express-News, Gutierrez distanced himself from Mexican news accounts implicating other lawyers with helping Cardenas run the Gulf cartel from Toluca.


They allegedly acted as messengers, paymasters and strategists. One account had an attorney smuggling in a TV equipped with a hidden cell phone.


The Mexican government even sent troops and tanks to La Palma in 2005 to stop what it said was a helicopter escape plot possibly aided by the attorneys. All of Cardenas' lawyers were banned from the prison for a time.



A tank sent to foil the 2005 prison escape plot thought to have been plotted with the help of Cardenas lawyers. AP



Involvement could end Gutierrez's political asylum dreams because judges weigh “moral character” in asylum decisions.


Gutierrez insists he was an outsider based in distant Matamoros who never strayed from legal work and had little contact with the Toluca team or its alleged maneuvers.


“There were some lawyers doing that,” he said after a long pause. “But I was never present when they would talk to Osiel. When I would go, we would only talk about that case. There was no trust to talk about anything else.”


Chip Lewis, counsel for Cardenas, confirmed Gutierrez's depiction of himself as having played a bit role with the Toluca team.


“He was not involved in any of the major decisions regarding any of the criminal matters or the extradition.”


The price of losing


Two days before an aircraft flew him to Houston, an unusually agitated Cardenas summoned Gutierrez for a last meeting.


“I had never seen him like that. His eyes were weird. You could see anger in his face,” Gutierrez recalled.


Cardenas queried him — hard — about a missed deadline to file a motion. He said the lawyers had “screwed up.” Gutierrez said he reminded Cardenas of his distant advisory role. Gutierrez wished Cardenas well and went home to rebuild his neglected practice.


A week later, several Zetas barged into his office carrying a Nextel radio phone. On it, they said, was acting cartel chief Jorge Eduardo Costilla Sanchez. The voice warned the cartel was investigating legal mistakes. Gutierrez would be killed if faulted.


Five months later, at about 3 p.m. Aug. 17, 2007, a team of 10 armed Zetas stormed his second-floor office, according to an affidavit from a client who was there. The men hammered Gutierrez with gun butts to the face and head, starting streams of blood. They handcuffed, blindfolded him, then hauled him outside to a waiting vehicle.



Scene of the crime. The law offices stormed by Zetas when they kidnapped Gutierrez.

Photo by Todd Bensman


Some 20 minutes later, the vehicle stopped at what Gutierrez guessed was a detention center. He could tell by the screams and the sounds of beatings, which he would hear from his 6-by-6-foot room day and night.


Too often, he would hear someone scream, “‘Oh my God,' and then you could hear a shot fired and nothing else.”


Over the next three weeks, he ate nothing. He was not allowed to use the bathroom. He was beaten most days, often to unconsciousness, by a baseball bat, iron bar, fists and gun butts.


Pictures taken later show a festering infection on his broken nose. A medical report notes a right eye socket partly collapsed and eye damage. The handcuffs never came off, digging deep into his skin and causing an oozing infection.


But the psychological abuse was far worse. Constant threats that his turn to die had arrived were underscored by murders he was forced to witness.


In addition to the prisoner burned to death, he said he was forced to watch as another prisoner was shot through the head. Morticians were called in to clean up the messes.


On another day, they brought him out to see a man's throat cut so deeply the head almost toppled off. Gutierrez was splattered by blood. The Zetas then put a knife to Gutierrez's throat and cut, though not quite deeply enough to kill. They told him they'd instead concoct an especially creative way to torture him to death. A thin scar runs horizontally across his two jugulars.


Once, the guards sprayed him with a flammable liquid, saying they had finally gotten around to burning him alive.


Then, inexplicably, one day the Zetas said “el jefe,” the boss, had ordered him treated, cleaned up and released.


A Nextel phone was placed at his ear on the drive to his waiting car. Again, a man identified as Cardenas' top deputy, Costilla, told Gutierrez he was needed to represent a forthcoming list of jailed cartel gangsters.


He credits his survival to his victories on the Cardenas land cases.


“I think they needed me. I won many cases for them,” he said.


Gutierrez agreed at once, of course, but privately vowed he never would waste this unexpected gift.


Flight to America


He drove straight to the home of his sister, an emergency room doctor, and her surgeon husband.


She recalled answering the doorbell at 2 a.m. to find the dreadful but wonderful sight of her emaciated, bleeding brother. She began treating his wounds.


“We thought he was dead,” she said. “I know from my work at the hospital that a lot of people go through this and end up dead. But he was here. He was here! We have him.”


After a tearful reunion with his wife, Josephina, and the children later, the couple realized the danger they were in. It was decided that Gutierrez would go to Brownsville the next morning. Josephina would stage a more orderly retreat to join him a week or two later.


Two days later, Zetas showed up at the couple's Matamoros home, demanding Gutierrez.


Josephina, hiding her youngest in a back bedroom, swore he was at the doctor's office. They threatened to kill her and the children if he didn't show up at his office to receive his legal assignments. After they'd gone, she grabbed toys and clothing, piled the kids into the car and fled to Brownsville.


Fear followed the family members, though. They knew they'd committed the unpardonable sin of defying direct cartel orders. It didn't help that one of Cardenas' daughters lived in a Brownsville mansion a block away. The couple turned their house into a bunker of steel storm shutters and a sophisticated surveillance camera system, never turning on an outdoor light after dark. They emerged only for food and school.



The Gutierrez home in Brownsville, abandoned and up for sale, windows and doors still covered by

metal storm shutters in May 2009. Photo by Todd Bensman


The Express-News confirmed a neighbor noticed young men cruising the street in brand new SUVs, pausing at the house. One day, he told the couple about a driver taking photographs. The same week, Gutierrez's father told the Express-News, a cartel operative contacted him with a warning: Gutierrez had to turn himself in or face abduction and worse.


Overnight, the family fled north. The house, with its odd shutters, is for sale. Records show the Gutierrez family members also sold a vacant lot they owned in town. They said they are living on the proceeds.



Every door and window covered by metal storm shutters


In August 2008, they filed an application for political asylum. No hearing has been set. But their attorney predicts long odds because people like Gutierrez don't precisely fit the legal definitions that require judges to grant sanctuary.


Time and money are running out as they wait in hiding for their day in court. They feel no regret abandoning old lives for the greater privilege of simply living. Gutierrez is studying English, hoping maybe one day he'll try for a U.S. law degree.


Whatever hardships the future holds, they are hellbent never to return to Mexico. They'll maybe go to another country if America rejects them.


“They took everything away from us, but we are very grateful toward God because at least he's still alive,” said Josephina. “We'll never be the same people again.”