Friday, March 23, 2007

Janet Phelan: Experiences in Political Detention

From Janet Phelan: Target of Political Persecution

Frankly, I figured I was in jail for life. No charges. Simply detained. They're doing that now. It's called "containment of adversarial behavior." I was languishing in a Mexican jail as a courtesy to the U.S. Government. Vice Consul Hannaberry of the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City came to visit me after about ten days.


"We can't find your passport," he told me. "Turn over your passport."

I informed him that if I did so there would be no record of my legal entry into Mexico, and I could face charges. Understanding the importance of this document, I had hidden it in my underwear when scooped up by the Federales.

"Turn over your passport," he repeated, "or you'll be here til hell freezes over." When I refused again, he suggested he simply "take my passport downstairs," where he could photocopy it. I pointed to an adjacent room, which contained a Xerox machine, and suggested he copy it here, in my presence. He declined, apparently more interested in getting my passport away from me than in photocopying it.

"Fuck you," I said, and walked back into lockdown.

The next day, the bird flew in. I was in my cell on the fifth floor of the facility on the outskirts of Mexico City, gazing at the pastel stucco buildings when the bird flew in.

Actually, the bird flew down. The windows were recessed and covered with chicken wire, but the top of the window was uncovered, and the pigeon had flown straight down. It sat there a few minutes, assessing the situation, then began to fly into the mesh. For hours it plummeted against its confines.

There wasn't any food in its trap. There wasn't any water. And the bird had definitely separated itself from the social network of the flock.

I watched the bird. It was a non-descript grey pigeon, with a few streaks of shiny lavender on its wings. As I watched, the pigeon began to fight for its life.

For hours it heaved itself against the wire, its wings beating convulsively. And then it grew still. The enormity of its situation may hae sunk in. It appeared stunned, helpless, immobilized. It sat motionless the rest of the day, its black eyes occasionally blinking, and the pulse beat in its breast visibly quickened.

After dinner, I pushed a capful of water and a few scraps of tortilla between the window sill and the bird's accidental home.

And I began to pray. "Fly up," I invoked silently. "You can get out if you fly up. You can get yourself free, but you have to do it alone. You have to figure it out alone."

The next morning, I took up vigil in front of the window. It was seven a.m., and already the bird was crashing against the wire, against its impermeable membrane. Several birds flew by in formation. And after hours of hurtling against its cage, the pigeon again grew still. Shock. Dread. Despair. Numbness in the face of certain death.

That night after lights out, I slipped into the block bathroom. I climbed up on the row of sinks, and removed the panel covering the fluorescent lights. With a purloined lighter, I tried to set the electrical wires on fire.

I was unsuccessful.

There were footsteps outside the bathroom. I scrambled down and dashed into a stall. Minutes later, when the footsteps receded, I climbed up again and flicked the disposable lighter in a fruitless attempt to start a conflagration.

"If there is a fire," I thought, "there might be a panic. A stampede. Maybe I can slip out in the confusion."

Fly up, the voice told me. You can get out if you fly up.

The next morning, I again took up my post by the pigeon. It had eaten the strips of tortilla, and the bottle caps of water were empty. I pushed another cap of water through the crack in the window, and crumbled up some bread.

And I began to talk to the bird as if it were my last chance for speech.

Fly up. You can get out if you fly up.

Janet C. Phelan
Note: I was released from detention on November 4, 2003, after a month of confinement and torture. I had been able to sneak out a message through a concerned and willing Mexican woman, named Lydia Blanco. She took the phone numbers I gave her and called two parties in the States--a journalist in Arizona and the sister of a former boyfriend, who lives and works on the Westside in Los Angeles. I had been disallowed the opportunity to contact anyone, and upon receipt of the phone call from Blanco, my Westside friend took action. She made a couple of phone calls, including to the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City. I was immediately trundled into an SUV, and driven to the border town of Brownsville, Texas, where I was simply dropped off, penniless and quite ill from the repeated physical assault.