Night court in Guatemala

Good Samaritan meets up with good neighbor policy

Dan Wolf: "The thing you look for in a dead person is a blanched color."

Dan Wolf: "The thing you look for in a dead person is a blanched color."

[Editor: this story is followed below by "Love and Debt," the saga of an L.A. real estate broker held in Tijuana on false charges.]

"Suddenly a little six-year-old Indian girl decided to cross the road. She just took off like a rabbit. As soon as I saw her, I stood on my brakes. I never want to see that sight again. I’m standing on my brakes watching this little girl come toward my car. Nothing can possibly happen to stop this; she’s going to die, and there’s not a thing in the world I can do.”

Rosa Marina celebrates her birthday one month before the accident.

Rosa Marina celebrates her birthday one month before the accident.

What would you do if you were driving through Central America and you hit a pedestrian and possibly killed her? Pacific Beach resident Dan Wolf thought he did the right thing, the decent thing, that day. He stopped. But then he found himself in the .middle of every foreigner’s nightmare. He was thrown in prison, into the vortex of an alien judicial system, and virtually ignored by his own embassy.

Picture made by Rosa for Dan when she was in hospital

Picture made by Rosa for Dan when she was in hospital

A Ph.D. student in political science at UCSD and a graduate of Harvard Law School, Wolf had spent a year in Nicaragua as a Fulbright scholar. Now he was driving back to San Diego in a white 1975 Citroen purchased in Managua. Late in the afternoon of September 5 last year. Wolf, six foot two, clean shaven, with short dark-blond hair, and younger looking than his 42 years, was headed up the old Pan American Highway west of Guatemala City for a rendezvous with a girlfriend in Chichicastenango, some two hours away. They would travel together to Mexico, then Dan would continue on to the States.

Stan Getz’s soothing tenor sax on the tape player made the highland scenery even more exciting as the car headed up into the mountains. “The countryside looks like Lake Tahoe did 30 years ago,” says Wolf. “Gorgeous. Conifers. Red clay soil. Small plots of farmland.” Soon he passed through Chimaltenango, a claptrap commercial center for farmers, population 60,000, the departmental capital. “It looked like a bedraggled set of buildings,” he says.

It happened when Wolf was 15 kilometers outside Chimaltenango, traveling on a very well maintained, paved two-lane highway. He passed a schoolbus going downhill, and at the bottom of the hill was a wide bend in the road abutting thick groves of trees. Indian peasants walked along both sides of the highway.

This is the story, in Dan Wolfs words.


Thursday, September 5, 6:15 p.m.

She heard the screech and she stopped in the road and stood and stared with a terrified look on her face. Then, wham. I hit her. I decelerated from 50 miles an hour to around 30 to 40 when I hit her. The lucky thing was that I was driving the Citroen. If I’d been driving any other car, it would have been a higher vehicle. It would have creamed her head, and she would have gone underneath and gotten maimed. The Citroen is a very low car, and it’s got this really spongy hood. I hit her above the knees, and she folded over face-first and came up on the hood. Her head hit it between the spare tire and the fender. There’s nothing in that space right there. It just caved in the hood like a pillow. Then she fell off the hood on the left side. She bounced outward and, I don’t know how, but she ended up in the middle of the right-hand lane. I ended up braking to a full stop. The engine just died.

She looked dead. I was confronting the feeling of having killed a child. I’ve had some medical training, and the thing you look for in a dead person is a blanched color. The blood drains out of a person, toward the bottom of their body, so their face gets white; and it’ll get very clammy because the heat of the body is cooling rapidly and the cold air causes condensation. She wasn’t at that state, but having just hit her the way I hit her, I couldn’t believe she was alive.

I picked her up and took her over to the grass and laid her down. Just about then, all these campesinos are running up. The mother is screaming, “Don’t leave me, my only daughter!” She wasn’t the first one to arrive. As I’m leaning over her, comprehending that she’s dead, the first man arrives. Then it crossed my mind, I’ve heard so many stories of people stopping and getting killed or beat up. Instant justice. And here I’ve got a dead child in my hands. Well, it’s too late now, I think. Now we’ll see what happens.

The man asks me, “How is she?” “She’s dead,” I say. I thought she was. She’s lying there absolutely still and limp. I closed her eyes and they didn’t close. Her mother got there about then and grabbed her up, too violently — I mean, I thought she had a broken neck. The little girl’s got blood all over her face. There’s a bone coming through her leg. She’s absolutely out, absolutely comatose. Absolutely lifeless.

Her mother is holding her real close, blowing on her face, screaming, “Don’t leave me! Don’t leave me!” She says, “She’s breathing! Esta viva! She’s alive!” She starts puffing into her mouth in a panic. Instinctual CPR — artificial respiration. The man says to me, “Can you take her to a hospital?” “Sure,” I said.

So the four of us — the little girl, her mother, her aunt, and I — got into the car. The mother is still talking to her, breathing into her. I did a U-tum and drove carefully back to Chimaltenango. It took us a long time to find the hospital. They knew where it was, but we kept missing the turnoffs. They weren’t used to cars. Meanwhile, the mother was panicking.

At one point, I stopped the car so I could feel the child’s pulse. We’re all covered with blood by now. I kept telling the mother, “Lay her down; don’t hold her upright. Lay her down, and keep her feet up, and blow into her mouth. That will help her blood pressure.’’ She does that, but she can’t keep it up. She yanks the child back up again to hold her close.

I stop the car and feel her pulse, and it’s just strong enough that I think we can risk it. I was going to do CPR right away because she didn’t seem to be holding in there. But instead we went ahead and drove the last two miles to the public hospital. As we arrived, I shouted out, “Get some help! We’ve got a badly injured girl here.’’


Thursday, September 5, 6:45 p.m.

They took the little girl away on a gurney. I learned that her name was Rosa Marina. She began to come out of her comatose state. She was starting to scream bloody murder. She screamed for an hour and a half. We took that as a good sign. It’s not great to be in pain, but it was wonderful to see that she still had a pair of lungs.

Up to now, I had been holding myself under control. Now that I knew she was alive, I didn’t have to deal with that. Now that she was out of my hands, I didn’t have to be in control. I broke into tears. I just sat down on the nearest chair and cried. People around me were sympathetic.

The police immediately started asking questions. I had to get my documents for them. These reports were just preliminary. I would have to do final reports at the police station later in the evening. So now the police had my permiso aduanero [customs permit], my driver’s license, and my circulacion [car registration]. The policeman at the hospital — a sort of mestizo-looking patrolman — was very sympathetic. Rosa’s mother came out and told the cop that what happened wasn’t my fault.

What I was to discover — and I could hardly believe it then — was, well, I had heard all the stories about how you’re supposed to hit and run in Central America. Everybody — in the emergency room, the police officer, the hospital personnel, the judicial personnel, the policemen at the police station, the people in the jail — they were just astonished that I stopped. Guatemalans don’t stop unless their car is disabled. They just keep on going. Rosa’s mother and aunt both kept telling me how incredible it was, that I was a man of honor, a man of conscience, for having stopped.

If I had wanted to go on, I would have been in Mexico with my girlfriend the next day, Rosa would have died, and that would’ve been the end of that. And that’s what most Guatemalans would have done. Everybody has stories of how people they know have been hit and the drivers disappeared, and that’s the end of it, and they die on the side of the road. Why do the drivers always disappear? They have heard all the stories — that if you stop, you might get killed, at the very least you’ll end up in jail. And in Guatemala, most car owners are rich. The Guatemalan elite is very Spanish and very arrogant toward the poor Indian peasants.

I told Rosa’s mother I would help with the expenses. Whether it was my fault or not, I felt responsible; I was driving the car that almost killed this child.

There was a long wait at the hospital. They were waiting for the doctors to give some kind of prognosis. They had to have something to write in the accident report. When the emotional intensity had passed a little, I began to try to figure out how to reach my girlfriend Susanna. I didn’t know what hotel she was staying at, so I left a message with the fire department in Chichicastenango. I was hoping to be able to leave; the cops assured me that I would be able to leave. Finally, we got in the car — Rosa’s mother, the cop, the grandfather who had arrived by then, and I — and we drove to the police station.


Thursday, September 5, 10:00 p.m.

When we got to the station, this cop, who had been so nice and was all along assuring me that I'd be able to leave and everything, he comes around to the other side of the car and demands, “Key, please.’’ I said, “What? Are you taking me into custody?’’ And he says yeah. He just changed personalities. Either he had been nice at the hospital to not raise my suspicions, or once we got to the police station he had to go into his hard-cop persona.

From that moment, I knew I was in custody. I had entered the Latin American legal system. The French positivist movement that found its way to Latin America in the 19th Century created this structure of rational law. The jurists of the previous century got it in mind that certain principles had to be adhered to. The point was to achieve an overarching social goal — to punish offenders.

That seems rational enough. But the structure they set up is so rigid and so overwhelmingly dedicated to this end that it leaves no latitude to adjust for circumstances. This is where the “guilty until proven innocent” business comes from. There’s not really an assumption of guilt, but nobody will take a chance; the system is absolutely rigid. You have to lock somebody up until you’re sure they’re not going to take flight or they’re innocent.

It’s 10:00 at night, and we start going through the whole report procedure with a new set of cops. Eventually, Susanna found out where I was and called. It seemed like I was going to be able to leave, so I told Susanna that I’d probably be able to get to Chichicastenango in the next hour and a half. She suggested that I double check on this, so I stopped a sergeant who was walking by and said, “Does it look like I’m going to be getting out of here soon?” And he said, “No, you’re not going anywhere.” I said, “What?” “You’re not going anywhere,” he says. “You’re staying here.” So I told Susanna, “Hang on, I think we’ve got a problem here.”

The police made it clear to me that I was not leaving. I was going to jail as far as they were concerned. The explanation for why I was going to jail changed every five minutes. From the cop’s end there was no controversy, in the sense that I wasn’t at fault. But they didn’t have the paperwork to let me go. Latin American law is so bound up with paperwork. It’s a paperwork system.

There are very few legal investigators; there are no regular, what we would call, D.A.s or investigators for the police. What the police do is go out and beat on heads and maintain social order. That’s actually their real function. They have no investigative function. Lawyers do investigation, and the police collect paperwork and then pass it on to the judges.

The judges collect information. They don’t have trials like we’re used to seeing. What they have is hearings on paperwork. The judges see all the paperwork and the challenges in writing. There’s nothing like grilling a witness or getting testimony and cross-examining a witness in order to judge the demeanor as to whether or not they’re lying. Instead, they’ll have an affidavit from one side, an affidavit from the other; they know one or the other is probably lying, if not both. The judge makes up his mind on the basis of the paperwork, not on the basis of the demeanor of the witnesses.

I didn’t have the slightest idea of what paperwork I needed. It was just, “You can’t go.” There were a lot of games going on in the police station, and I didn’t know what was a game and what wasn’t. I certainly didn’t know what to expect and what I was in for and what was happening. They would allow me to use the phone one moment, but then they wouldn’t the next. They wouldn’t allow me to call the U.S. embassy in Guatemala City. “Oh, no, no, no,” they said. “You don’t have to do that right now. You can make the call later, from the telephone company around the corner.” Of course, when they finally gave me permission, it was all locked up.

I was able to speak with Susanna on the phone when she called. Susanna is from Spain and doesn’t speak English, so we spoke in Spanish. She told me that her hotel manager claimed that “anything could be done for 100 quetzales" [about 20 U.S. dollars]. Suddenly, an angry voice came on the phone from someone who had been listening to our conversation. It was the chief of police, slightly drunk, who declared, “We are not to be bribed. You are trying to suborn the police.” He then stuck his head, with its shock of white hair, out of his office door and screamed for everyone to hear that “this friend of Mr. Wolf has been trying to bribe me. If any of you accept a bribe, you will be in jail with Mr. Wolf.” I said, “Look — I stopped, I saved the child’s life. For being a good citizen and obeying your law, you’re going to throw me in jail?” It was becoming more and more absurd.

At about 11:00 p.m., a guy comes strolling into the station and comes over to me and says, “You got a problem?” I said, “Who are you? Are you a lawyer?” And he replies, “Yeah. What’s your problem?” I don’t know if he just strolled in off the street or somebody called him and said there’s a sucker down here or what. His name is Ruben Jauregui. He’s big, heavyset, hair slicked back, Spanish-mestizo, wearing a cheap Montgomery Ward sort of suit. In Chimaltenango, the only people who wear suits are lawyers.

I tell Jauregui a little about what’s going on. The chief of police comes out, and suddenly Jauregui turns and starts accusing Rosa’s mother. “I know your type,” he says. “You want 10,000 quetzales ’' [$2000]. She says, “I don’t want anything except a little medical help.” At this moment, if I had a good lawyer, I could have signed an agreement with the mother and gotten out the next morning. Well, Jauregui starts bantering with the police chief and telling stories, explaining how the law works. He’s strutting around like a rooster.

Jauregui claims he can get me released to his custody. But then my driver’s license becomes an issue. While I was in Nicaragua, the license had expired in the U.S. and a renewal was on its way in the mail, but I did not have it. The chief of police is very drunk by now, and he says to Jauregui,

“You’ll take good care of him because you know what will happen if you don’t.” With that he pulls his coat back, showing a pistol, and pats the gun with a leer on his face. Then he starts ranting on about how honorable he is, how he’s not like the others, he doesn’t take bribes; he’s in this for his career; Chimaltenango is a clean town, and on and on. He protested his honesty so much, I began to think about Shakespeare — the lady doth protest too much.

Finally, I said, “Look, I’m happy to go home with the lawyer tonight.” I don’t trust this guy, but what else do I have? I mean, it’s pushing midnight or after, and I’ve been through it all a hundred ways. It’s been a long day. I’m emotionally exhausted. I’m physically exhausted. I give Rosa’s mother and grandfather the last of my quetzales to stay in a pension. The police chief has gone home, but I’m stuck at this police station, unofficially in custody.

Jauregui comes back and says, “You’re going to have to go to the presidio” [jail]. I said no way. I got angry and took my stuff back out to my car, which was parked inside the station courtyard. I said, “I’m not going anywhere. I’m staying right here. I’m either going to your house or I’m staying here. I’m not going to jail.”

It’s getting to be three o’clock in the morning. I am absolutely bushed. I haven’t had anything to eat. The cops allow us to go with an armed guard to a chicken place down the street. So we’re sitting in this ramshackle chicken place at 3:30 in the morning, and Jauregui knows he has me worn out. He starts badgering me for 150 U.S. dollars. "Para movilizarme," he says. To get going. He’ll take care of everything in the morning. He’ll pay off this person and that person. He doesn’t say the word mordida [bribe], but it’s pretty clear that the intention is to make a lot of payments to speed the wheels of justice.

“You’ll be taken care of in the morning,” he repeats. “You can come to my house and wait there. I’ll take care of it all.” I’m thinking, I’m going to go down a deep black hole if I don’t compromise and pay the mordida. If I don’t have someone paying off the bribes. I’ll be here forever. So, I’ve got to take the chance.

I give him $100, but when I ask him to sign a receipt for it, he stiffens and says, “But I’m not working tonight!” I said, “Then what are you doing? If you’re not working now, what are you doing?” The last thing this guy wanted to give me was an official receipt. I hand-wrote a receipt and he signed it, thinking that it’s not an official receipt so it’s of no value. It turned out later that everybody, including the judge, thinks he may go to jail for that.

We go back to the police station. A police car pulls up. They want to take me with them. “Where are we going?” I ask. Jauregui says, “To the presidio." I say, “What do you mean, I’m going to the presidio? I thought I was going to your house?” “Oh,” he says. “That didn’t work out because of your expired license.”

Now he’s got my hundred dollars; he wore me out for a few more hours; the whole thing was a ruse from start to finish. He says, “Don’t worry about anything. We’ll bring you back here in the morning. It’ll all be taken care of.” I should not have done this, but I got in the back of the car. It was just going to be for one night. All I took with me was my briefcase with toothbrush and razor, nothing else. It was just going to be for one night.


Friday, September 6, 5:00 a.m.

I arrive at the jail. As soon as Jauregui leaves, the all-night clerk tells me, “You know, he’s not a lawyer. He works for a lawyer.” Great. My lawyer impersonated a lawyer. The clerk asks me, “What did he tell you?” I said, “He told me I’d be going out in the morning.” The clerk says, ‘‘No way. Nobody leaves here in less than three days.”

The news hit me like a ton of bricks. I asked to use the phone and called the U.S. embassy in Guatemala City. I got the Marine guard and told him what was going on, and he said, “We’ll have somebody get back to you in the morning.”

I would be sleeping in the guards’ dormitory. The clerk had given me a choice. If you’re a foreigner or they think you’re a low-risk prisoner and you pay 150 quetzales, they let you sleep outside the cells, in the guard’s dormitory. If you don’t want to pay, they put you in the cells; there are no extra beds, you get a mattress to put on the floor. They assured me that if you sleep in the cells, you will be robbed.

The jail is a lock-in, lock-out arrangement You’re locked in at night and locked out of the cells in the daytime. There’s nothing to do during the daytime, not even any chairs to sit in. Some people hang around and play soccer in the small yard. But, it’s really, really boring. Staying in the dormitory was really the only choice.

So I paid the $30 bribe to stay outside the cells. I then tried to get some sleep, but after only a half hour or so, everyone in the jail started getting up. There was another prisoner in there with me, a young Indian medical student. He had hit a pedestrian, rolled his car, and killed the woman. They went through the whole judicial process and found him not guilty, but he still couldn’t get out of jail because the dead woman’s family had appealed the case, and he couldn’t get bail without paying an exorbitant amount of money to the tribunal in town. The tribunal knew his father had money, so they weren’t going to let him go unless he paid a very big bribe. He’d been there for two months at this stage and hadn’t seen the sun rise for a long time.

There were windows in the jail, but basically you could not go outside, out in the sun. The prison was like an extremely spartan youth hostel, some two kilometers outside town. It’s a cement block building with a high concrete-lamina ribbed roof. It’s cold as hell at night and hot as hell during the day. At 5000 to 6000 feet above sea level, you’re taking freezing cold showers.

After a couple of days, I developed bronchitis and a terrible cough, and I wouldn’t be sleeping at all. I’d spend all night coughing. When I got back to San Diego, I was coughing so hard that I tore a muscle loose from a rib. I found out that I’d probably gotten pneumonia, and maybe pleurisy.

The bed I slept in was military style, metal frame with woven steel net and a thin mattress. It ruined my back. I had knots in my back and neck for weeks afterward. They brought us food from big vats in the kitchen. We paid for the food. It was always the same — basically soup and beans. Once they threw in a drumstick of what must have been the tiniest chicken I’ve ever seen; another time there were some sort of noodles, and one time there was rice. I was surviving.

At one time, Guatemala prisons had been run by guards who were members of the Army. They were targets of the guerrillas. The bed I slept in and all the other beds in my dormitory had some years before been occupied by guards who had been killed by the guerrillas. They’d burst in, blown up the door, shot all the guards in their beds, and then let all the prisoners go. The road outside the jail was still patrolled by guerrillas at night. Nearby was an Army base. You could hear shooting in the mornings; they were doing target practice.

I got a call from the U.S. embassy Friday morning at about 9:00 a.m., from the vice-consul Mary Granfeld and from Jim Dickmeyer, second in command at U.S. Information Service. They were interested, in a way, since I was a Fulbright; I was one of theirs. Mary Granfeld said, “All we can do for you is give you a list of lawyers. But we can’t hire a lawyer for you. We don’t want to interfere in the legal process. You can hire somebody from the list.” They never told me how I was supposed to hire a lawyer while I’m already in jail.

I came out and found Susanna sitting in the clerk’s office. She’d come down from Chichicastenango early in the morning and walked a kilometer and a half from the highway carrying a gallon of water, a roll of toilet paper, and some sweets for me. I was being taken into town, to the justice of the peace, to give a testimonial.

Susanna was allowed to accompany me and the armed guard. We walked hand in hand for two kilometers along the dirt road toward town, with the gun-carrying guard following behind us. The judge’s office was in the center of Chimaltenango. The town looked dirty and dusty. It had a small plaza and narrow streets. It was like a shopping center for local farmers.

We got to the judge’s office, and Jauregui shows up with the real lawyer he works for, Jorge Bonne. Bonne is also wearing a Montgomery Ward suit, but his is all frayed; he looks disreputable.

He wants me to sign documents agreeing to have him as my lawyer and Jauregui as my tramitador [paralegal]. I said, “I’m not signing anything until I talk to the U.S. embassy.” Bonne claims he’s already spoken to the embassy, and they say it’s fine. Jauregui, however, shouts, “If you’re not going to sign, then why are we wasting our time.” With that, he storms out of the office.

I finally call the embassy.

Everyone is out to lunch. But they had not compiled any list. A guy in charge of the Fulbright program comes on the line. I ask him what he knows about this lawyer Bonne. He says that he “understands that Jauregui is the brother of a reputable lawyer in Guatemala City and that Bonne is probably okay, so go ahead and go with him.” So the U.S. embassy won’t interfere in the process, but they will second a lawyer they don’t know anything about. Well, I went ahead and signed the documents.

The justice of the peace is in his early 30s, tall, thin, earnest looking. He’s a stickler to the book. He says I can’t get bail if my license is expired. I explain to him that the extension is in the mail. He indicates that he needs a piece of paper to verify this. I eventually called a friend in Sacramento with my AT&T card and asked him to go to the DMV and have them send a fax stating that my license was valid. The DMV Federal Expressed an extension to the U.S. embassy. But it wouldn’t be until Monday evening that the embassy would visit me and bring the DMV document and the lawyer list.

It turned out that the list of lawyers they brought had 15 to 20 names on it, all of them from Guatemala City, most of them corporate lawyers doing work for the United States. There wasn’t one lawyer on that list who did tort law or transit law. There were no lawyers from Chimaltenango. Basically there were no lawyers who could help me.

The lawyers list reflects embassy priorities. They’re in Guatemala to represent American business interests there. The citizens that pass through and get caught up in stuff are just bothersome. Later, when I could get out and go to the U.S. embassy, I spoke with the consul, Sue Patterson. I told her, “This list is absolutely useless.”

She said, “I know.”

“If you know, then why do you give it out?”

“Well, it’s all we have,” she said. I then asked her, “Why don’t you get names of lawyers who can do this kind of work?” She says, “I’ve been here for two years, and I don’t know a single non-English-speaking lawyer with integrity.”

But back to the justice of the peace office. The other alternative to getting me out was to find the mother and get some kind of agreement from her. If the victim chooses, without being coerced, to sign away their rights, to hold you blameless, then you can go. I now know that’s called a desistimiento, and the judge has to approve it. We finally found Rosa’s mother, with her aunt and grandfather. Rosa’s mother was single; the father had run away after she was born. I offered to take them to lunch so we could sit down and talk and get an agreement. But Jauregui kept stalling; he obviously didn’t want us to talk. He wasn’t happy with any of the restaurants. Finally, after a long search, we ended up in a Chinese restaurant. While we were taking care of business, Jauregui is keeping my armed guard happy by buying him rum and Cokes. He’s getting him pretty drunk. We ate for an hour.

At that point, Jauregui should have asked for a desistimiento. I hadn’t learned what it was called yet, but without that, you can’t get your documents back. You can’t leave the country. Eventually, Rosa’s mother went off, and I went back to jail for my second night, and I understood that something would be done the next day.

Early Saturday morning, Susanna flew back to Barcelona; she had not been able to change her ticket. I called the lawyer Bonne at about 10:00 a.m., and he said, “I don’t work on weekends.” He told me that the judge’s office wasn’t opened on Saturday. But the people in the jail said, “Bullshit. They’re open on Saturdays till 3:00 p.m., just like every other day.” Bonne said he would call the embassy. But what were they supposed to do at this point? So I spent my third night in jail.

On Sunday I called Bonne again. Nothing was happening and I was still in jail. That night Jauregui came by the jail and demanded more money. I told him, “I don’t want you on this case.” We walked outside the jail with the warden and a couple of guards. He started asking me how much cash I have. How much did I have in traveler’s checks? He was trying to figure out how much he could get me for. I told him, “You’re off this case. Get away. It’s your fault that I couldn’t get an agreement with this lady on Friday or Saturday. You put pressure on her and scared her to death. If it hadn’t been for you, I’d have been out of here on Friday.” I almost ended up hitting him.

After that, that same night, I tried to talk with Mary Granfeld at the U.S. embassy. Her attitude had become “stop bothering me. You have a lawyer. Things take their time. You’ve got to settle down and go with the flow. You can’t speed up the wheels of justice in Guatemala.” The embassy knew better than that, but they’d already made their mistake and weren’t willing to admit it.

On Monday, Bonne disappeared.

I was in a bit of a panic.

Meanwhile, I finally get the visit from the U.S. embassy, and the guy who shows up is new on the job. This is his first field job. He brought me the useless list of lawyers, my driver’s license extension, and two Newsweeks. But still nothing is happening.

On Tuesday, Bonne appears at the jail around 1:30 p.m. This is the first time he’s visited me since being hired four days earlier. He says he couldn’t find Rosa’s mother.

I later found out that this was a lie.

I tell him I have my driver’s license extension. Bonne says, “Good. I can go down and get you bail.”

Now it’s not yet 1:30 p.m., and the judge is open till 3:(X) p.m. He can arrange bail in about 20 minutes. I tell Bonne, “Look, you’ve got a couple of hours. Take my license, please go to the judge, get my bail, and get me out of here.” He disappears. By 6:00 p.m. he has not returned. I’ve heard nothing. So I call his office in Guatemala City and I tell his secretary, “Look, I asked Bonne to come back here. If he does not call me or do something right away, in the morning I get another lawyer.”

First thing Wednesday morning, the clerk of the jail comes and tells me I have visitors. I come down and it’s the clerk of the court, and he says, “I’m here to inform you that we are moving ahead with the busca de la culpa phase, which is the criminal fault-finding procedure.” I said, “What? I’m not at fault. Everybody has testified to that.” He says, “Yeah, but that’s that. We have our own procedures. The case has moved to the next level, to the juzgado segundo [second court].” I said, “I thought I had some private accord going.” “Well, that’s your business,” the clerk replied. “This is our business. That doesn’t have anything to do with us.”

I said, “What the hell is going on here? I have a lawyer.” He says, “You don’t have a lawyer. We have no record that you have a lawyer.” I said, “He was supposed to go down to the judge’s office yesterday afternoon with my driver’s license and get me out.” The clerk says, “Well, he never came. We have never seen him. He’s never filed a paper saying he’s your lawyer. As far as we know, you have no lawyer.”

I’m now on the verge of tears. I called the U.S. embassy and said, “What the hell is going on here?

I’m going crazy. They’re telling me they are about to go into the criminal fact-finding phase. I’m still not eligible for bail. My lawyer has disappeared with the only copy of my driver’s license extension. I don’t know what the hell is going on here.” The guy at the embassy says, “Gee, I might call your lawyer to find out what’s going on.” Thanks a lot, buddy. They were washing their hands of me.

At 1:30 that afternoon, Wednesday, Bonne shows up with Rosa’s mother. He says she’s signed the desistimiento, and now I’ve got to sign it. I read through it, and it’s all gobbledygook to me. It’s very ancient legal Spanish. So I said, “I’m not going to sign anything I don’t understand. You’ve totally betrayed my trust in you. I don’t know where you’re coming from. I’m not going to sign anything until I’ve gotten real legal advice.” He says, “This is the way the system works.”

“Well, you’ve never explained it to me before, and if you explain it to me now, I’m probably not going to believe you. I’ve got to talk to another lawyer.” He said, “I’m wasting my time with you. I’m not waiting around.” I told him, “Look, I’m calling the embassy for advice. If you would come back or call me in one hour. I’ll let you know my decision.”

I called the embassy and got no help; but they suggested I speak with a human rights lawyer. From him I was able to get the information I needed. Now I was ready to sign. I sat and I sat and I waited around, and Bonne never came back.

Thursday morning Mary Granfeld called from the embassy and said, “Your lawyer just called and said you’re obstructing the whole process. You’re being extremely uncooperative. What the hell’s going on with you?” This was coming from the same woman who could not give me any advice on which lawyer to choose. When I explained that I needed to know that the document I was signing declared that Rosa’s mother desisted from all charges against me, Granfeld blurted out, “Well, of course. That’s the way it always works.” “Jesus Christ,” I said.

“I’ve been in jail for five or six days now, and you’re finally telling me about this? You knew this all along?”


Thursday, September 12, 2:00 p.m.

Bonne showed up, I signed the documents, and we went off to the judge’s office with the signed desistimiento. I paid Rosa’s mother $300 for her lost income and for the child’s medical expenses. There were mountains of paperwork just for my case. Files a foot thick and everything in sextuplicate or septuplicate, in carbon copies. Page upon page upon page of recitation of facts and magic mantras. As he signed the document releasing me, the judge turned to me and said, “Now do you feel free?’’ I said, “I don’t feel anything.’’ I still couldn’t leave the country until my case was cleared up. I wanted to get out of town as soon as possible. There had been so many ups and profound downs. I called Susanna in Spain, then found a hotel and slept.

The following afternoon I went over to Bonne’s office to talk about the fee. The judge had just told me that a standard fee for this case would be about $125. Bonne wanted $450 in addition to the $100 he’d already been given. I said, “This is bullshit. You’ve put me through all this stuff. You’ve hardly done any work. Now you want another $450? For what?” He says, “Well, I had my expenses. This is what my fee is. If you don’t want to pay it, fine. Take me to court. But I’ve got your papers.” When I went back to talk to the judge who had released me, I told him what Bonne was asking for. He said he wanted to speak with Bonne, but of course Bonne was no longer at his office.

I went to see Rosa Marina before I left to come home. I brought her crayons and toys and a koala bear doll. She’s a very cheerful, sweet little girl. Her condition was improving. She had a cast that went up one leg to her waist and down the other leg to the knee, with an iron bar running across. She recently called me here in San Diego. She’s walking again. But she needs more hospital care. The hip joint is loose, and she’s not walking too well. I’m sending more money to her mother.

Would I stop if the same thing happened again on another highway? Being who I am, I would like to think that I would still stop. It’s just not in my blood to drive away. It’s just not. But I will say, I’ve seen drunken peasants staggering across the highway in a heavy fog, where traffic is moving along at a good clip. They’re asking to be killed. When trucks are barreling down the Pan American Highway, I’ll give you double odds these drunks are horsemeat in 30 seconds. If I were in a situation where I hit someone like that, I may very well cross myself and say this is one I’m not going to get involved in. If I stop. I’m going to go to jail, pay out of my income to this guy’s family for the rest of my life. Thank you very much. I’ll pass.

Love and Debt

Arrested at a Tijuana funeral parlor

Terry Dawson: “I’m broke; and even if I could pay it I wouldn’t."

Terry Dawson: “I’m broke; and even if I could pay it I wouldn’t."

Terry Dawson, 57, was a Los Angeles real estate broker for many years, specializing in second and third trust deeds. His business was conducted solely in the United States; but his wife of 35 years is originally from Guadalajara, and his problems with the law in Mexico began when her relatives decided some ten years ago to invest in trust deeds in California.

“My wife’s uncle, Ranulfo Romero Rodriguez, owns a glass factory in Jalisco,” Dawson explains. “Back in the early ’80s, he sent his daughter up to Los Angeles to stay with us and to make some investments. I recommended a number of deeds to them, and with most they made some good money, but I guess there were a few that went sour. It’s a high-profit but high-risk investment.”

Once the investment losses became known, Dawson’s wife began hearing stories from her family in Mexico that Romero Rodriguez had hired thugs to cross the border and beat up Dawson and that there was a contract out on his life. Dawson says he shrugged off these rumors, and when his friend and brother-in-law died in Mexico in May of this year, he ignored the pleas of his wife not to cross the border to attend the funeral. Dawson was arrested at the Tijuana funeral parlor and taken to jail on charges that he had received a check for the peso equivalent of $40,000 from Romero Rodriguez in payment for a lot that he claimed Dawson owned in Tijuana’s Zona Rio. Dawson insists that he owns no property in Mexico and conducts his business only in California.

A Tijuana public defender took Dawson’s case — for $12,000. “Actually,” says Dawson, “they’re supposed to defend you gratis, but, you know, I’m American. He told me I’d be out of here in three weeks, but the case wasn’t won for almost seven months. It was finally thrown out of court because the supposed crime was committed too long ago. And to top it off, Romero Rodriguez finally admitted that he, not I, had cashed this $40,000 check they placed in evidence against me. Hell, I should file fraud charges against him. ’ ’ According to a legal advisor at the Baja Tourist Office in Tijuana, felony charges can be brought if two or more witnesses go to the Mexican equivalent of the district attorney and swear that someone has committed a crime. This official is then supposed to investigate, hear the accused’s side of the matter, and then bring it before a judge if he feels prosecution is warranted. The magistrate then sends out a notice to the accused to appear and answer the charges. If the accused ignores three such notices, a warrant is issued for his arrest.

Dawson claims that none of these procedures was followed in his case. According to the Tourist Office aide who explained the law, it does not matter if the accused is a foreigner who may be at high risk to leave the country — the law is the law. “If a person has their rights violated in that matter,” says the legal advisor, “then that person should appeal to both the state and federal human rights committee.”

After the charges against Dawson were dismissed, the papers authorizing his release arrived at the Tijuana jail. However, it was noted on the bottom of the release that the prisoner was to be held for transport to Guadalajara. Romero Rodriguez’s son-in-law had filed new criminal charges against Dawson in Jalisco. These stated that on September 6, 1985, Dawson had been in Guadalajara and had taken, in cash, the peso equivalent of $400,000 from the son-in-law as a down payment for a large lot that Dawson had falsely claimed he owned in that city.

“This is where they made a big mistake,” states Dawson, “because on that very date I was in San Diego getting a trust deed notarized, and I have the document and the sworn statement from the notary public who issued it that it’s genuine.” Dawson says that his wife’s uncle wants $190,000 for these new charges to be dropped, the same sum that was demanded for the withdrawal of the original charges.

“I’m broke; and even if I could pay it I wouldn’t, because that would mean that I’m admitting guilt, and I haven’t committed any crimes.” Dawson says that his wife’s family in Jalisco has reported that her uncle has stated that the American must pay if he ever wants to get out of jail alive.

Dawson’s attorney in the U.S. is San Diegan Richard Henderson. “The Mexican judges have not followed Mexican law,” says Henderson. “Terry was put in jail illegally, and then they phonied up another charge after the first one failed, a charge that could have been easily disproved in a hearing, what with the notary documentation that Terry was in San Diego on the date in question. This whole thing is nothing more than extortion.”

Henderson says that aspects of the trust deed business “operate just inside the law” and that Dawson probably “sailed pretty close to the wind, but he does have this uncle’s investment completely documented, and it’s legitimate. Probably the uncle wants back what he lost, but I doubt it’s anything close to $190,000. It just looks like they’re taking a delight down there in skinning a gringo.”

Early in his incarceration, Dawson had complained to the office of Representative Duncan Hunter that the American consulate in Tijuana was very slow in assisting him in obtaining documents and other matters. Paul Klein, a consulate staffer, says that Dawson received all necessary assistance. “It looks like an old family argument where the other party would seem to be abusing the Mexican system of justice by filing what Mr. Dawson says are frivolous charges against him. But there’s probably a lot more frivolous lawsuits filed in the U.S. than in Mexico.” During a recent meeting with visitors, just before he was transported to Guadalajara, Dawson didn’t seem too inclined to view his ordeal as an exercise in frivolity.

It might be thought that the Dawson case is an anomaly, an unfortunate derailment of justice that could happen in any country’s legal system. But during the summer, Dawson had an American cellmate for a month, Ed Kozlo of Chula Vista. Kozlo had also been arrested and transported to jail without warning on charges that he had misappropriated $400,000 while head of the Horsemen’s Association at the Caliente Rack Track in Tijuana.

Kozlo declined comment for this story, but those familiar with his case believe he was charged because several Mexican horse trainers at the track wanted his profitable tack shop and figured the fastest way to get it was to scare Kozlo out of Mexico. One of the trainers who signed the complaint against him is the man who trains horses for the track’s owner, Jorge Hank Rhon.

Lawyers from the racetrack visited Kozlo in jail several times, offering his release if he could pay $40,000. When Kozlo rejected that, they lowered the sum to $20,000. He turned down that offer as well and hired a Mexican lawyer. A month later, the charges were withdrawn and Kozlo was freed.

Sources state that his release was likely a result of pressure brought to bear upon Caliente officials by the influential Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association in California, which had done Caliente some favors in the past.

— Bob Owens

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