“Brothers and sisters, I address you from the Amate prision: a place where I have been exposed to terrible cases of injustice.“
Gustavo Maldonado Lopez, blogger and political prisoner.
The arbitrary arrest last August 8 of Gustavo Maldonado, a digital activist in Chiapas, reminds us that the battle for freedom of expression in Mexico never truly ends. The Amate Penitentiary has a new political prisoner. In this country, attempts to exercise freedom of expression are often punishable by censure, imprisonment and even torture -especially if the voice is that of a critical and dissident activist. There is an important social response to this type of abuses: especially if it is directed to journalists and public figures, which makes sense. The response of institutions, public opinion and civil society is meager when it comes to ordinary citizen journalists and grassroots activists.
The history of repression accompanies the linear theory of progress, and turns against us again and again. We thought that after the strong movement against previous attempts at censorship in Chiapas, the authorities would have learned the limits of their arbitrary power. Not so. On the night of Thursday, August 8th, Gustavo tweeted that he was hungry and said goodbye to his followers. After closing his cybercafé, he went to buy a hamburger. On his way back home and at around 10:50 pm, in the darkest part of the street, a person who turned out to be a policeman in in civilian clothes shouted:
-Gaby, hello – how are you? – said the stranger from about three feet.
Gustavo kept on his way, until another man embraced him and said:
- Are you Gabriel? We’ve got you. – Nothing to worry, all we want to do is talk -.
At first Gustavo thought it was a robbery or a kidnapping. He was taken in a white car to two police offices, the latter of which specializes in drug crimes. They took his wallet, personal effects and smart cellphone. Only until 4 am on Friday did they allow him to call his family. The authorities never presented any formal evidence, and to this day have only shown photographs. In less than 24 hours, the prosecutor’s office dispatched him to the Amate prison: an unprecedentedly quick action.
The government of Manuel Velasco accuses Gonzalo in an official bulletin of being a small-time drug dealer (‘narcomenudista’), but the sole basis of that complaint is an anonymous tip absent a single physical witness. The local Justice Department alleges that -as a result of its “investigation”- Gustavo was found to be a security guard at the Red Bull Bar near his home, where he supposedly distributes drugs. As mentioned before, there are no direct accusations coming from reliable witnesses. Moreover, the owner of the aforementioned bar has testified that that Gustavo does not work there.
The accusation establishes that they were looking for a man nicknamed “El Diablo” who is small, thin, and has dark skin. Gustavo is 1.76 meters (approximately 5 ft 10 inches tall), and has a fat complexion with a clear skin. As there is no proof that Gustavo trafficked in drugs, he should not be charged accordingly; the State has not presented physical evidence: only photographs. There is no evidence outside of the authorities’ flimsy claims. The police did not even know his name when they made the arrest.
Gustavo is a young 32 year old who lives with his grandparents. They invested in an Internet café located wthin the same house, which he personally administers. He spends his days in the family business, since opening its doors at 10 am until it closes at 8pm. He is the sole employee, and only interrupts his rountine on Wednesday evenings to accompany his grandparents to religious services. His weekends are devoted to computer classes at the University; the educational institution has given the judge a letter assuring him that he is an outstanding student.
For some time I have followed Gustavo on Twitter and his Youtube channel. He is a part of a group of local digital tribes that are associated with the Anonymus identity. Like him, I might have displayed a Guy Fawkes mask in my avatar, but feel I’m too old-fashioned to do so. Legion Chiapas denounces abuses and disseminates information related to the rampant corruption of authorities, and the excesses of government officials in Chiapas. It is particularly critical of current Governor Manuel Velasco and the mayor of Tuxtla Gutierrez, Samuel Toledo. What Gustavo does is what hundreds of other digital activists -myself included- do in Mexico every single day. Not only is this activity protected by our Constitution: it is an eminently necessary one, in order for our unequal society to change in peaceful ways.
Among his recent tweets, Gustavo featured an RT that spoke about the local goverment’s purchase of a particular type of spyware: “Last night I went to collect the blackeyed PGJE hosting monitor hired to find myself and others … They paid 635 thousand pesos.” Coming after a global intrusion scandal regarding the digital communications of citizens -and the application of research a number of us have brought against FinFisher spyware use in Mexico- Gustavo’s case has all the markings of a systemic persecution foretold.
It also appears that the authorities falsely incriminated him because he is an acquaintance of prestigious Chiapas-based journalist Isaín Mandujano, who is accused of running an account highly critical of the government known as ‘The Uncomfortable’. Colleagues tell me this is an effort at whistleblowing which has raised bureaucratic hackles. Following Gustavo’s arrest, a vicious Twitter campaign has been unleashed against Mandujano’s accounts, thus confirming the hypothesis of political persecution.
In Chiapas one can be an anonymous complainant, but not an anonymous user of social networks. Nameless complaints and false accusations were also leveled in 2010 at webmaster Hector Bautista and the boys in the #Op5Puebla who merely commented on FB about the federal government’s rampant abuse and misguided policies a few months ago. The list is a long one, and grows rapidly. The truth of the matter is that neither Gustavo nor Isaín manage the ‘Uncomfortable’ account. A simple analysis of the filtered data reveals that the origin of the source is at the epicenter of power. Additionally, in his long career Isaín has always signed his notes and follows the commonly accepted guidelines of critical journalism.
Yesterday I spoke with Gustavo’s father. As any family with political prisoners, they are all devastated. Fighting back tears he said to me: “I’m very proud of my son; he is not apathetic, or lazy, or an addict, but merely a young man committed to his ideas.” His Facebook and Twitter accounts are active once more, probably at the hands of someone he trusts. Contrary to what the government wanted, his work as an activist and citizen journalist continues apace.
“It is impossible not to see the injustices that many of my brothers locked here with me suffer daily; believe me brothers, I will soon address each one of the cases that have come to my knowledge.”
As expected, on Thursday Aug 15 Judge Francisco de Jesús Aguilar Zúñiga decided not to free Gustavo (a predictable outcome, given that this happens practically 90 percent of the time). He will hence have to face trial in jail. International networks have mobilized on his behalf, but with the sole exception of Isaín, Mexican media has been conspicuously silent.
We will fight along with dozens of digital activists and citizens for his freedom, and that of his colleagues unjustly held under similar circumstances. Gustavo would surely be doing it for me, if I were undergoing his present travails. In all cases of persecution of free opinion, We are all Legion.
No one should be imprisoned for criticizing a goverment. The most celebrated prisoner in Amate prison is Professor Alberto Patisthán: dean of Mexican political prisoners, unjustly held for crimes he did not commit. The oldest and the most recent case of persecution converge in this sordid jail. Let us all together break the cyclical course of injustice’s history.
Jesús Robles Maloof and Daniel Gershenson.