Dead Man Walking: 1843 Economist

On a late spring day in 2000, Manuel Ramírez was hosting a dinner at his home in Tepexpan, a dusty industrial town near Mexico City. His firstborn son was one month old, and his family and friends had come to meet him. The guests reclined in wicker armchairs with drinks in their hands and fawned over the newborn.

At around 9 pm, several men – no one present can remember the exact number – burst into the house. They claimed to be police officers but didn’t produce identification or a warrant and gave no reason for the intrusion. Instead, they crowded the front room, waving guns and spouting threats. One man knocked Ramírez’s Dobermann unconscious.

“Who is Manuel Ramírez? Where is Manuel?” shouted the leader of the group. Some of the guests knelt in crouches to protect themselves. Others put their hands in the air. Shrieks and whimpers filled the air. Ramírez, who was 22 then and stocky as a bulldog, with dark hair, a broad, triangular nose and a wispy beard, cowered in the corner of the room. He was as terrified as everyone else.

The police officers rapped on the furniture with their weapons. One of them pointed his gun at Ramírez’s wife. “She had my little son in her arms,” he recalled. Then, without thinking, he shouted, “I’m Manuel Ramírez!”

Ramirez claims that the police officers pounced on him and beat him half-unconscious with the butts of their pistols. They then hauled him off the floor, dragged him out of the house into a grey Contour saloon and sped off up the rutted track that led to the centre of Tepexpan.

The car roared and skidded around the bends of the dirt roads. Ramírez was forced to remain face down. He was handcuffed, and a jacket had been thrown over his head. The only sensation he could feel was the engine’s throb through the seat’s fabric.

The car stopped abruptly at an abandoned warehouse. Ramírez, disoriented by fear, had no idea where he was or how long the drive had been. His captors lugged him out of the back seat and marched him into an empty, dimly lit space. “It looked and smelled like a brewery,” Ramírez said. The apparatus he saw did not bode well. There were two huge steel drums, car batteries, handcuffs and buckets of ice.

Two other men, similarly handcuffed, were also led in. One was Carlos Alberto Sánchez, whom he knew from town, and the other was his brother-in-law, Gabriel Vera, who had been in the other car.  According to all three, the police stripped them naked, bound their hands above their heads and dunked them in the ice-chilled water that filled the drums. Ramírez’s skin puckered at the cold. “I was submerged up to my shoulders,” he said. The officers punched his head with the heels of their hands and kept insisting, “You killed Emmanuel Martínez Elizalde, didn’t you?”

The name was familiar. Ramírez’s father, Francisco, and Martínez Elizalde’s father were acquaintances. Francisco later told me he had even helped the family with a small loan. There had never been any discord between them, let alone violence. 

As the punches, slaps and accusations rained down, Ramírez continued to deny everything. He couldn’t tell how many people were in the warehouse, but he picked up a few identifying details. One of the officers talked in a hoarse voice as though speaking through gravel; another went by the name “Lic”. 

Then a policeman hit Ramírez so hard on his left ear that he lost his hearing. The sound seemed to be filtered through layers of wadding. He could still smell the sweet stench of alcohol on his captors’ breath, even though his mind was overpowered by the high-pitched ringing of his burst eardrum.

“All right then, motherfucker, we’ll see who’s tough now!”, one of his captors said. An officer fetched a battery, connected it with wires and dropped it into the water. Ramírez’s body fizzed and shuddered. He lost consciousness as the policemen continued to demand answers. 

When he came to, the officers dressed him and threw all three prisoners back into the cars. They drove them to a police station in San Juan Tenochtitlan, about 14 km from Tepexpan.

Ramirez claimed there was an unexpected figure present. Martínez Elizalde’s father, Rafael, was talking to the head of the police unit. Ramírez didn’t have the strength to speak and could barely hear anything. But as he passed through the door, he recalled overhearing Rafael say, “No, not Ramírez. I didn’t want you to detain him. He’s my friend’s son.”

 ‘Well, it’s not going to change now,” the commander replied. “You ordered us to find a culprit, and here he is.” 

The police officers dragged Ramírez to an interrogation room. “You will confess to this murder,” they kept saying. There, he slumped, bloody and delirious, in a chair. His entire back throbbed dull pain, but he still refused to comply. Ramírez’s family and friends were waiting with great concern outside the station. His mother, who was briefly let in, was so shocked by the sight of him that she began to cry. The police threatened to beat her if she “didn’t shut up”.

The police continued to threaten Ramirez. “That’s when they told me my little son and wife would pay the price for my stubbornness,” he said. The threat restored him to partial lucidity. Ramírez pressed his shaky index finger onto an ink pad and made a print on a blank sheet of paper. Later, he alleged, the police filled in a confession.

There was no lawyer present. Instead, Elizabeth Romero, a cousin of Sanchez who had come to the station to find out what was happening, was brought to the interrogation room to witness the confession. According to statements she gave later, she was not allowed to see any documents. When she insisted that Ramírez should be allowed to give his version of events, one of the officers said that he would rape her.

As he stumbled into his cell, Ramírez had no idea what crime he had confessed to. But a year later, after what Ramirez estimates were almost twenty separate hearings, the court would convict him for murder and sentence him to more than forty years in prison. Such miscarriages of justice are all too familiar in a country where a corrupt police force often resorts to torture to extract confessions. Former inmates told me that Mexico’s prison system is bursting with innocents. 

Even so, Ramirez was a remarkable prisoner; while his other co-defendants, Sanchez and Vera (Sanchez died in 2014), would give up, Ramirez fought to clear his name for over two decades. Indeed, he had to; his case was extraordinary: the man he was accused of killing might still be alive…

Read the rest of this story at 1843 The Economist :

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