Hector Cerezo, on the day of his release from prison in 2009My name is Héctor Cerezo Contreras, I am 29 years old and I am a human rights defender. I was a prisoner of conscience for seven and a half years, from 2001 to 2009, after I was unjustly accused of having thrown explosives into three banks in Mexico City.

After my illegal detention I was tortured for twelve hours in my own house with my brother Antonio and then transferred to a maximum security prison in the state of Mexico which was then called La Palma. We were there for another three and a half years.

Afterwards, I was transferred to the Puente Grande maximum-security prison in Jalisco, while Antonio was transferred to the Tamaulipas prison, more than 1,000 kilometres away. Then on February 16, 2009, after a long struggle for our freedom, we won. We are now back on the streets, defending the rights of others.

Surviving in solitary confinement

Well, we can divide [my time in prison] in stages: first is the arrival; it is a bit of a shock to be in an unknown place and at the same time not know how long you are going to be there for. Going into a high security prison is a continuation of the torture, because everything in there is designed to undermine your dignity, to treat you like an object… nobody talks to you, they’re all yelling. You always have to answer ‘Yes, Sir’, ‘No, Sir’ and it’s basically three or four hours of yelling and beating until you get to a cell.

They sent us straight to solitary confinement, against prison regulations. We were there for fifteen days, in a small, semi-dark, two-by-three metre cell. It’s all very gloomy, there’s no toilet, just a hole in the floor, and you’re completely incommunicado – you can’t phone anybody, you can’t talk to your family, to any other prisoners, not even to the guards, unless they order you to talk.

So it’s very hard, basically, because you don’t know exactly what you are accused of. You don’t know how many years you will get, you don’t have any resources to draw on, and at the same time you have no experience of dealing with this kind of life.

Our struggle for basic rights

Then comes the second phase, when you learn how to live in a prison, but also how to fight. It became very obvious that, just like we were defending the rights of people on the street, we were facing many human rights violations in prison as well, not only against us, but against prisoners in general.

Our main struggle was to have the basics: access to mail, phone calls, visits. We worked for that for three years, with the help of our family on the outside and the Cerezo Committee, which had been set up to fight for our freedom.

We managed to get a lot of things, including textbooks for our university studies. I was studying philosophy at the time, and I was in my fifth semester at UNAM, the National Autonomous University of Mexico. My brother Antonio was studying for two degrees, in economics and sociology.

And above all, we learned to be consciously aware of the fact that we were not criminals. We had not committed any offence, so they should not have imprisoned us. It was unfair for us to be there.

We had to understand that, although it was unfair for us to be in prison, we still had to learn to live there. We set to studying, reading, writing, exercising, and we even had the opportunity to work alongside the other prisoners.

And another important thing we decided to do from the beginning was to document human rights violations. So the first thing we did was document the way I was detained, how I was tortured, the transfer and arrival to the prison, to provide our family and the committee fighting for our freedom with accounts of what had happened to us.

This was just another reason to be punished. The worst consequence was that we got transferred to special security solitary confinement. But when we had pen and paper again, we wrote the accounts of our stays in other prisons.

And fortunately, because we were educated, we knew about many people whose biographies we had read – writers, artists, painters, social activists from our own country – who had written books about their experiences in prison…

We could think about the fact that some of them had faced situations more serious than ours, had been there for longer, and had kept their dignity, while being able to leave the prison without hatred or bitterness, and continue to be productive and bring something positive to society – they were our role models.

The impact on our family and supporters

Being in prison meant that we were a burden for our family, who were fighting for us, came to see us, spent money and time on us, worried about us… The least we could do was to try to ease the burden of suffering of our relatives and the Committee, also because we knew the political situation was very complicated.  

There was stigmatisation and criminalisation, not just against us, but also against our family, and all those who spoke out for our freedom and for justice and against human rights violations… We were shown on national television during prime time, at 8pm, where they described us as terrorists and criminals.

So it became really difficult for our family and activists out there. What we did was worth it if we could work and manage without our family having to send us money.

However, there were times when we could not even work, so we effectively lacked the means to live in that type of prison, where if you do not have money, you cannot buy toilet paper, soap, pen and paper etc. During those times, you really have nothing – not even water, because you also have to buy water.

Prison: a dehumanising experience

The prison itself is dehumanising, and a symptom of that is that when you arrive, you’re given a number and you have to answer when it is called. This is a vile treatment, and it is above all a struggle to maintain your identity. A struggle to say ‘I am innocent, yet despite that I am here.’

Then you have to show through your attitude that you’re not a criminal, but a social activist, to a point where common prisoners would tell you: ‘You’re not a criminal, because I see that you’re reading, writing, struggling within the prison while others are fighting for you on the outside, that you’re not taking drugs, that you’re not corrupt, you don’t pay bribes and, above all, because you expose them. And not many have the courage to denounce human rights violations, because if you do that, you get punished.’

The common inmates can see that the state’s attitude towards social activists is very tough, a lot more aggressive than towards them. So they ask themselves why that is, because if you want to help people, they don’t agree with you being treated worse than them.

You haven’t committed any crimes by helping people and you maintain that attitude even in prison. Then you have the courage to denounce abuses, and very rarely will common inmates snitch on those who do that.

If you denounce the authorities and get punished for it, at least they see you are a brave man. Even if they think you are insane, or a dreamer with a lost cause, they will still respect you.

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This is an edited translation of an interview with Hector in November 2010.