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AHUEHUEPAN, Mexico – The kidnappers promised that nothing would happen to her, that after she paid the ransom she would see her husband. Yolanda Alvarez Antunez believed them. The mother of five sons, grandmother of 13, saw no other option.
Her brother-in-law drove their old truck to the intersection where she had been told someone would be waiting, but no one was there. They debated whether to turn back and decided to go on.
Around 10:30 p.m., they arrived at a mountain town in the southern state of Guerrero. Two pickups full of armed men pulled out to block their way. A man approached on foot.
"You're the one from the phone," he said.
She recognized his voice, too. They had been talking for a week.
He asked for the money and she handed him a plastic bag full of bills, but her husband was nowhere to be seen.
"Get out!" yelled the man.
"But why?" she asked. "You told me that I had your word and you wouldn't hurt us."
He ordered Yolanda into one of their trucks and her brother-in-law into another.
Two gunmen sat beside her. The man she would come to know as El Nico got behind the wheel. "You're going to stay because your husband escaped," he said, "and you're not leaving until we find him, or he comes back."
He started the engine.
"And we don't want you to scream," he said, "because we don't like women who scream."
EDITOR'S NOTE: More than 25,000 Mexicans have disappeared in recent years, and a lucky few have survived kidnappings. When Luis Alberto Castillo was abducted, his wife tried to gain his freedom — and fell into her own harrowing ordeal. Most survivors are unwilling to tell their stories. Yolanda Alvarez Antunez is one of the few to step forward.
"Give me your hand, ma'am," the young man said. "Give it to me, don't be scared." He was as polite as the others were aggressive. They started up a small trail that began at the highway and climbed a mountain into the darkness.
In front and behind them, armed men walked surefootedly. Clearly, this was not the first time they had been up this path, Yolanda thought.
When they arrived at the camp they blindfolded her brother-in-law and tied his hands; her, they only blindfolded. They ordered them to lie on the ground, and gave them a blanket.
Before dawn she felt someone rifling through her pants pocket. A man asked her what she had there. "Two hundred pesos that I brought in case we ran out of gas," she said. He took the bill and did not check her other pocket, where she hid a silver rosary.
Their captors said if they needed the bathroom they should ask and not get up without asking or they would be shot. At some point, someone asked her to lift her head and placed two pairs of folded overalls under her like a pillow.
That night she could not sleep. The same idea kept coming to her, more a hope than a certainty: perhaps her husband had not escaped, perhaps they had sent him home in a taxi.
"Lord, how good that I came to relieve some of his suffering," she said to herself. She felt crawling insects under her back. At least her "Beto" was home now.
They had met in the late 1970s in Iguala, a city that sits in a valley surrounded by mountains in the northern part of Guerrero, about 110 miles (180 kilometers) south of Mexico City. Yolanda was studying there to be a teacher; Luis Alberto Castillo had just given up the same course of study in Mexico City to be with his recently separated father. Soon, she would leave school, too, to marry him.
In 1991, Luis Alberto lost his job and the couple decided to move to Ahuehuepan, a community of slightly more than 500 people with one public phone and no cellphone service. They opened a small grocery on the shoulder of the highway, next to a handful of restaurants catering to travelers, and they had five sons. They led a quiet life and made a decent living, even as Luis Alberto developed diabetes, which began to cost him his eyesight.
But in 2012, sales fell as fewer people traveled the highway that connects Iguala and Altamirano, two cities where rival drug-trafficking gangs imposed terror through killings, extortion and kidnappings. Their aim: to control key routes for moving opium paste from poppy fields in the surrounding mountains to the U.S. market for heroin.
According to the government, more than 25,000 people have disappeared in Mexico since 2007, many of them drawing little attention — until Sept. 26, 2014, when the disappearance of 43 college students after a clash with police in Iguala provoked outrage.
Nationwide, hundreds of bodies have been discovered in mass graves, although most of those remains have not been identified. The rest of those kidnapped off of buses, abducted from roadsides or dragged out of their homes, simply are missing. In contrast with the missing students, they are known as the "other disappeared."
On the morning of Jan. 10, 2013, a Thursday, Yolanda headed to Iguala to see if the public hospital had an appointment yet to treat her husband's diabetic retinopathy. Luis Alberto stayed behind in Ahuehuepan to tend the store.
That's when a red pickup pulled up out front, and one of the men burst in, ordering Luis Alberto to come with them.
Beto, as he was called, was broad and tall, still strong at the age of 54. He tried to resist and grabbed onto a pipe outside the store. When a second man got out of the truck and stuck a gun in his side, he stopped fighting, a woman who watched from a few meters away told Yolanda later that day.
Hours later, Yolanda received the call: "I'm the one who has your husband. If you want to see him again alive you must give me 500,000 pesos," the man said.
That was nearly $40,000. Yolanda told him it was a fortune for a family like theirs. He repeated that if she wanted to see her husband alive, she'd get the money.
The pattern repeated itself over the next week. The man demanded money, and Yolanda told him she had some, but could not meet his price.
Around 6 p.m. the following Wednesday, the phone rang again. This time, she heard another voice — her husband's.
"You know what, Shorty?" he said. "Do what you have to do, sell what you have to sell." He could barely see, Beto said, and his captors didn't care.
Yolanda urged him to have faith, to pray, but before she could say more the kidnapper's voice blasted in her ear.
"We're tired of taking care of this old man," he said. The phone went dead.
The phone rang again three hours later. How much more money did she have? Altogether, 120,000 pesos (about $10,000), she said.
"Bring me what you have." He gave her directions and assured her that after she paid, her husband would be sent home in a taxi.
Yolanda put the money in a plastic bag, changed her sandals for tennis shoes and put on a warm vest. She and her brother-in-law set out in the pickup.
As time passed, the blindfold slipped. She saw that there were 18 armed men, most of them in their 20s.
El Nico, the one with whom she had negotiated the ransom, was a thin man, tall, dark-skinned and with shoulders that slouched forward. The one who had been in the front passenger seat was called the Toucan, a man of medium height with light brown skin. He acted as second in command and was directly responsible for the men in the camp.
They had fired questions at her in the pickup: Who are the richest people in town? How much had her parents given her? Did she have more money? Yolanda was sure if she gave more details it would put her family and others in danger.
No, they didn't have money, she said. She told them they had taken out a loan to pay for Beto's ransom, that they already had debts. Before the kidnapping, they even had gone to Nayarit, another Pacific state north of Guerrero, to see if she could find a job, because her husband's illness was worsening and his deteriorating vision made it difficult for him to work.
"If you want to work, we'll give you a job. And you could pay your debts," El Nico said. They offered to let her become one of them. "Kill, cut off heads, torture ..."
"Oh my God, I was not born for that," she told them.
The first night, some of the young guys smoked marijuana and she heard them snorting something through a straw. They showed each other pictures of naked women on their cellphones and suddenly some of them started fighting.
"There was an intense argument among them and it scared me," Yolanda said. The 53-year-old grandmother had no experience with drugs but heard they made people do crazy things. These boys were younger than some of her children. Would they touch her? "I was scared that they were doing drugs and were going to do something to me."
Yolanda feared that if she took the silver rosary from her pocket they would steal it from her, so she used her fingertips as beads and began to pray silently, the Lord's Prayer and the Hail Mary.
"Them saying such things and me praying and praying ...," she said, her voice trailing off.
But they did not mistreat her. And in the morning, the men shared a breakfast of cheese in chili sauce, beans and handmade tortillas, food that had been prepared in a nearby town, she learned. Later, she and her brother-in-law were fed instant soup and pork cracklings in salsa verde.
Yolanda is a short and thin woman with curly hair that falls to the middle of her back. Her eyes are a brown so light that when they catch the sunlight they could pass for green.
"Ah! The woman is pretty! She has light eyes!" one of the men said on that first morning. "Don't you have daughters?" he asked. "No! I only have sons," she said, twice. And she thought: What must my sons be thinking? How are they? And again, she thought of Beto, and she prayed.
The men usually talked about gunfights, about having to watch out for the police, about the territory they controlled, the area they had to avoid because it belonged to rivals. They said they were from La Familia Michoacana, a drug cartel based in the neighboring state of Michoacan. All of this drug business and the violence she heard about on TV had been distant problems for her — "Nothing more than you would hear rumors that it was bad, that there were armed men." Then her husband was kidnapped. And now, here she was, a prisoner in the midst of it. She couldn't believe it.
After she was captured, El Nico complained the ransom she had brought was 5,000 pesos short. She denied it — she had counted. Perhaps, he said, she was nervous and she had miscounted. She would have to explain it to "El Patron," the boss.
The next morning they brought her a telephone. She heard the voice of a man who she would not meet, nor hear from again — El Patron.
"What happened with the money, ma'am?" he asked.
Again, she was struck by the odd mix — an implied threat and a polite 'ma'am.'
"Maybe because I was nervous I counted wrong," she answered.
What else could she do?
When El Toucan asked her who he should contact to negotiate her ransom, she was astounded.
"How is that possible?" she cried. "I told you that we don't have money."
He raised his voice, and insisted. Would it be one of her sons? "No, my brother," she said. The same number, the phone booth in Ahuehuepan.
Mostly, unless she was asked a question, she did not speak. She sat on a rock, watched and listened. She heard the sound of a helicopter pass overhead, blocked by the treetops.
"If I could signal them that we are here," she thought. "Like in a movie." But she could not.
She obeyed when they told her to stay seated or to go to bed, though she did not sleep. She did not complain when she had to ask permission to go to the bathroom and the man who accompanied her stayed close by. She believed that by being agreeable, she was improving her odds of survival.
Though they were high on a peak, it seemed like a regular camp: the ground was clear of leaves and rocks had been placed to form low walls around the perimeter. Occasionally, she would hear a far off hum carried on the wind, the sound of cars from a highway. The scent of plants and earth hung in the air until it was overtaken by the odor of sweat and cigarettes from the men guarding her.
Her own odor began to bother her. She was used to bathing daily but in captivity she could not clean herself, except with a bit the water they gave her to drink in a plastic bottle. "To get up and feel like your clothes, well, are already sweaty... You're in the countryside, there on the mountain...." This was not how she lived, how most human beings lived.
The hours passed slowly, as though in a nightmare from which she could not awaken. Her mind was blank from shock and fear. But there was resignation, too: "What do you do, other than give yourself over to what's coming?" She thought of her husband, and she prayed, convinced that her faith would protect, if her good behavior failed to do so.
On Friday, El Toucan had a new complaint: What was going on in her town? She didn't understand. "I don't know what you're talking about. I'm here with you," she said.
After her abduction, the people of Ahuehuepan had closed the highway and demanded a police checkpoint to prevent more kidnappings. The kidnappers were not happy with all of the commotion while they were trying to negotiate a ransom for their captives, whom they called "squirrels." All she knew was that, suddenly, they were on the move. They went down the mountain, then back up again, higher this time.
Night settled over their new camp and Yolanda whispered to her brother-in-law that he should stay awake to keep watch for a scorpion. She knew that if they were stung or bitten, they would never make it to a hospital in time and would die. But the kidnappers forced them to lie down and after two nights without sleep, Yolanda was overcome with exhaustion.
Saturday morning they awoke to news that they would be moved back to the first camp. But before midday the radio crackled again. They were loaded back in the truck and taken down to the highway.
"You're going, ma'am, it appears as though you're going if they give us the ransom," one of the guards said.
Hours passed. They went to a cemetery where the men collected their pay. Then they were taken to a highway intersection where an old Volkswagen Beetle approached. At the wheel was Yolanda's youngest son and beside him her brother-in-law's son. They had the money — 100,000 pesos, bargained down from the kidnappers' initial demand for 500,000.
But the ordeal was not over. El Nico came over to her. "They are 2,000 pesos short," he said. "Who stays, you or the boys?"
"Let them go already, what's 2,000 pesos?" said another gunman. "That's it, let them go."
El Nico hesitated. "Get out of here."
She climbed into the car. "And your father?" she asked her son. "Is he at home or with your grandparents?"
"No, Mama," he said. "Dad has not come back."
When Yolanda was freed, her mother and sister hugged her and cried, but Yolanda could not. The next day, she moved to Iguala with her youngest son and only then, safe but far from her old life with Beto, "when I felt the weight of loneliness," the tears finally flowed.
Eventually, Yolanda moved back to Ahuehuepan, and reopened the store, where rumored sightings of her husband reach her from time to time. Once, two people said they'd seen Beto in a drug camp. Another time, a former customer told her that a friend who was kidnapped reported having seen Beto — that he was ill, they took him out for air, and he never came back.
She still awakens every morning hoping for a miracle, that Beto will reappear. But of course, he is never there.
She still struggles to make sense of a world in which good people routinely are abducted, where one victim survives and another does not. But there is no sense in this random violence, no victory in having made it home from her own kidnapping to suffer the eternal pain of her husband's. So Yolanda turns to her faith — a faith tested by God.
"I asked myself if I could handle this situation alone," Yolanda said. "And yes, I said, 'I have to do this because it happened to me for a reason.' And, because they have told us in our religion that God doesn't test weak hearts. When the pain is so great, God knows which hearts to give it to, because we are the ones who can overcome."