On June 23nd, 1970, José María Velasco Ibarra, an obstinate old man famous for getting elected President of Ecuador and getting kicked out of office by the military, declared himself a dictator. It was a new twist. Why were the same military that had thrown him out of office three times before now behind him during his fifth attempt to govern the nation?
I jumped on the first plane to Quito, and since my editors had asked me to file the story as quickly as possible, I went directly from the airport to see some sources and then to the cable office to check the working hours. The cable closed at 11 p.m. Then I checked into the Hotel Humboldt, a pleasant old place I liked because it was close to the action. It was two steps away from the city's central Plaza Grande and the Presidential Palace. In times of trouble I didn't have to get a cab; I was in a hurry by the time I reached the street.
I made a whirlwind tour of the city, talking to as many informed people as I could and trying to get a feel of the reaction to the end of the democratic government. Feelings were mixed, but I sensed a general sigh of relief that the rioting, which had been going for seven days straight, had finally been put down. The army moved tanks and paratroopers into Quito's Central University, the main source of trouble, and closed it along with the other universities. Agitators by the score were rounded up throughout the nation. The jails and even military barracks were full of those arrested. The story was clear, and the reason for the military's unusual behavior was evident. This time the old man was again failing badly, but the military didn't want him out. They had botched the job of governing themselves so miserably after throwing out both Velasco and his vice president the previous time that they felt the people would not tolerate a military junta again. In view of this, the military had decided to exercise power with and through the old man, who at their behest gladly eliminated his enemies, the Congress and the courts.
I filed my first take at 9:30 p.m. The guy at the cable office counter remembered me and assured me my copy would be telexed immediately. I returned to the hotel to write Take Two, the final take. I finished it at 8 a.m. next morning and telephoned Jorge Jurado of the Associated Press, an old and trusted friend whose judgment I respected. We got together at his office to check out a few facts. From there I walked to the cable office a block and a half away and filed my second take. I noticed it was 9:30 a.m. as I waited for my telex copy from the night before. But the new counter man on duty couldn't find it. He thought it had been sent to the hotel. It wasn't there, but this didn't surprise me: copies of telegrams telephoned in and telex copies are usually given to one messenger and these confirmations usually take a long time before getting back to the sender. The hotel, however, had a cable for me. It was from my wife Anita, who informed me she was rushing off to the States because her mother was undergoing an emergency operation and that Jamie, our daughter, was alone at home in Caracas. I went upstairs and was checking my notes when two plainclothes men walked into my room and asked me to accompany them.
"What's going on?" I asked.
"We have orders from the Ministry of Government to take you to police headquarters."
I held my temper with difficulty. The less trouble the better, I thought, remembering the telegram from my wife.
I was put in the back seat of a car between two cops, one armed with a submachinegun.
"Are you a Venezuelan? What are you doing here?"
"No, an American newspaper correspondent."
We wound up at the main police station, but my stay there was brief. I was left alone, first in the chief's office under the eye of an armed guard, and later moved into a big classroom.
Finally a third plainclothes man who seemed to be in charge asked me to follow him. Back in the car between two cops. This time I was taken to a place high on a hill. My first step inside was enough to convince me I was in a real prison. The soldiers with rifles, the sullen prisoners behind bars at the far end of the hall. Again I protested, asking to know why I was being held and demanding the U.S. Embassy be notified. Again I was told I was being brought here at the orders of the Ministry of Government. They added they didn't know anything else.
"None. They are at the hotel."
I was taken to the warden's office, asked to empty my pockets and frisked thoroughly. A fat plainclothes man whose name I later learned was Freddy García, allowed me to keep everything but my small notebook.
Jailer Gonzalo Espinosa, who limps a little, took me in the jail. Up the hall, towards the corral I had seen on my arrival, and suddenly—to my relief—to the left. He unlocked the barred door. Over it was a sign: "Serie E," which I later learned was the block where political prisoners were held incommunicado. He unlocked another barred door and led me into a musty interior courtyard. It was damp; the stone floor was wet. The large expanse of walls was broken only by regularly spaced solid doors with massive iron bolts, and two narrow, rickety wooden balconies at second and third floor level leading to more of those forbidding doors. Though recently whitewashed, the place had a cold, repressive medieval air.
"This way," said Espinosa, leading me to a ground floor cell.
"Why am I being held? Would you please call someone; I'm a stranger here."
Jailer Espinosa, who turned out to be a kind man with whom I had a brief, revealing conversation later, surprised me. He took down Jurado's name and telephone, but I really did not expect him to call Jurado.
Espinosa called the soldiers and gave them clear instructions I was not to step out of the room even for meals. I would get my meals in the cell. Then the solid wooden door—three inches thick—closed and the bolt clanged with finality. It was very quiet. I began to worry about my copy. Had it gotten out?
My cell was six by nine feet and the curved, vault like ceiling about two feet above my head. There was one window, two feet square with four iron bars one inch thick. The window showed the wall was three feet thick. The room was absolutely bare. The only luxury was a beat up wooden floor, also partly wet.
The hours wore on. I refused to sit down, to take off my coat or tie—in fact it was very cold in the cell. I simply did not want to show I was accepting imprisonment. Also I wanted to demonstrate I was a gentleman and should be treated like one.
Occasionally someone would peer in. The bolt made so much noise that I was warned and took advantage to turn my back to the door in order to be addressed first. At lunchtime, my door was opened and I could see the other prisoners milling around, looking into my cell and eating out of small bowls. I refused the rice offered me in the cell. The surprised trusty returned, this time with a bowl of steaming potato soup. I also refused it—though it sure looked good and I had missed breakfast. The door banged shut again.
Perhaps impressed by the adamant foreigner in the blue suit—or maybe just cautious, the jailer returned and after talking with me for a little while announced he was sending a cot. It was a concession but also a distressing announcement that I was in for a prolonged stay. If my copy had been held up I was in trouble. My deadline was only 48 hours away. The door interrupted my gloomy thoughts. It was another trusty, Juan Ortiz, bringing in a rusty metal cot. He was very deferential, addressing me as "Mi Señor." Obviously I was a strange kind of cat in that clink. Still, I refused to sit down, nor could I for the rust was so thick on the cheap metal cot that the floor would have been preferable. The cot was so rusty that I decided that if I slept it would be on the floor.
The door opened early in the afternoon and a jailer's assistant brought in a paper shopping bag. He announced that Jurado had left it, along with the verbal message that I should remain calm, that the American Embassy was looking into my case and that I would probably be released in the afternoon. I tore the bag open after the man left, ravenously took a couple of bites of a ham sandwich but chose not to eat anymore and not to drink one of the bottles of pop. I would have to pass water very soon and thus be forced to ask a favor, something I did not want to do.
I repeated Jurado's message to myself several times and laughed when I thought about his suggestion I remain calm, for I was still amazed I had remained calm. But I knew I had to cool it in order to finish my assignment successfully and get back to my young daughter alone at home.
Calm, impotent and cold. My nose was dripping. The open window caused a chilly draft. The sun was going down and I remembered Quito lies close to 10,000 feet, surrounded by snow capped peaks. My lips were beginning to hurt; it was very dry and cold. I walked and I walked. There were 29 boards across the length of the floor. One lone nail head protruded about a quarter inch from the east wall about six inches from the floor. The window faced north.
In the meantime, Jurado was busy trying to help me. He immediately notified the U.S. Embassy and some of our colleagues and went straight to Minister of Government Galo Martínez himself. They are old friends. The meeting was stormy. Jurado was already angry; he despises authoritarian regimes. Martínez was piqued. My dispatches singled him out as the eminence grise behind the dictatorship.
"I ordered his imprisonment," said Martínez to Jurado, explaining, "I cannot permit a foreigner to insult the president."
"How do you know what García said?"
Martínez pulled out my files from his desk drawer. He had both takes.
"What did he say?" demanded Jurado.
Martínez was especially incensed with my first take.
"Look at this," said Martínez, holding up my copy as he held his index finger to it. "The coup against himself by the crazy Velasco, and drunkard ex president Julio Arosemena. That is what García says."
"But that is true," argued Jurado. "Everybody knows that."
Velasco is an Ecuadorian household word and people commonly refer to the "loco Velasco," whenever he does something nutty or says crazy things. As for Arosemena, his drunks had been well documented on his state visits all the way from Buenos Aires to Washington. In fact the military threw Arosemena out for not being able to hold his liquor.
The heated discussion went on, Jurado arguing that the international publicity the incident would get would only add to Ecuador's problems, of which it already had more than it could handle.
"I don't care," thundered Martínez. "We're going to let him stay in jail a week or 10 days as punishment."
Jurado's visit to Martínez was followed a few hours by one from U.S. Ambassador Findley Burns. Martínez was still hopping mad, but relented to the extent of limiting my stay in jail to one night. He promised Burns I would be released and sent out of the country the next morning.
My two takes had never left Ecuador, but I still didn't know it at this time.
Later in the afternoon a man came in to "put me some light." He was a trusty with seven years of a 12 year murder rap behind him. He complained he had very little wire and no tools. We talked while he wired the cell.
"This is the García Moreno Penitentiary," he said in answer to my question, "And you are in the political section of the prison along with 26 political prisoners."
Among the prisoners, he said, were the rectors of the Universities of Quito and Cuenca, Manuel Agustín Aguirre and Gerardo Correa, respectively. He added that others were being held in army barracks throughout the country.
After he left I started doing deep knee bends and other limbering up exercises. I was very tired of standing.
The bolt clanged again, I turned my back. An Ecuadorian FBI looking type came in. Dapper, fresh haircut, neat small tie knot.
"You are Mario Díaz?"
"You are Venezuelan? What are you here for? Have you been engaged in any activity?"
I replied negatively to all questions.
"They're at the hotel. The Humboldt Hotel."
He spun around, the soldier standing by shut the door and I resumed walking.
At 5 p.m. we heard the call for chow again. As usual, the others congregated in the patio after their doors were opened. I was kept in my cell. I refused the broth and fried rice.
The electrician came back and hooked my circuit into the main line. His helper started to close my cell door but caught himself. "Oh forgive me," he said, and then closed it slowly and slid the bolt through quietly. He struck me as a recent prisoner still aware of the sensation of a fresh prisoner has to a closing cell door.
Late in the afternoon Jailer Espinosa came in curtly motioned and said: "Come."
Waiting for me in Warden Angel Lara's office was a short man in a gray suit, with a black tie in a neat small knot. Colonel Gustavo Félix of police intelligence produced my passport and other personal papers and a stack of clippings, discarded typewritten pages, which had been rewritten, and other written material. He assured me all of my papers, money, and other things were there. He asked me to check them.
"You will leave the country on the first plane tomorrow."
"On the order of the minister of government. Then he added, "You certainly sent a lot of information."
I was asked to accompany him, again under guard, to a tourist agency. Espinosa went with us. I chose Metropolitan Tours since I knew the owner and often bought my tickets there. On the way I pressed Captain Félix about the reasons for my being deported.
"When did you get here?" he asked me.
"At noon yesterday."
"You sure gathered a lot of information in a hurry. I suggest you don't come back to Ecuador. You might get into real trouble."
At Metropolitan Tours I bought a ticket on the first plane out. It went to Lima. Captain Félix was beginning to relax, but then the pretty girl selling the ticket demanded my address. He finally stammered, "The Jail." He felt embarrassed since the people there knew me. At that moment a man came in wanting to buy a ticket to go on a 10 day vacation abroad. He was surprised when the clerk told him he could only take 450 dollars with him. When he asked why, the clerk replied, "That is the way it is now under the dictatorship." Captain Félix twitched nervously. He started to speak, thought better of it and quit eavesdropping.
While at the tourist agency, Captain Félix allowed me to telephone. I called Jurado without addressing him by name, informed him I was leaving in the morning. The questions came very fast:
"Where are you? Are you all right?
"I am at Metropolitan Tours buying a ticket in the company of agents. From here we are going to the hotel to pay my bill and pick up my clothes."
"I talked to the minister of government. He has your copy..."
"Did both takes get out?" The conversation was in Spanish but I used the English word "takes" knowing it would only mean something to Jurado.
"No, neither one. We had a fight. He was very angry. I'll take you some bedding to the jail, but they won't let me see you.
Colonel Félix drove me to the hotel to pay my bill and pick up my things. Everything was packed, but unreturned laundry gave me a chance to ask for it and to open my suitcase on the excuse of checking my things. Colonel Félix proudly showed me his copy of the hotel receipt he had signed for my passport, money, and other personal papers he had taken to the jail with him after searching my room. I thanked him while discreetly leafing through an old magazine into which I had automatically thrown the carbon copies of my story to keep them out of sight. It was an old habit acquired after long experience on the backward beat.
The two takes were there! My heart raced. There was still a chance to get the copy to New York before deadline.
Much happier, suitcase in hand, I got into the police car between Colonel Félix and the fat young machinegun toting Freddy García. Jailer Espinosa jumped in front with the driver and we began our climb up the narrow, twisting cobblestoned streets back to jail.
The bedding was there when we arrived and Espinosa got a trusty to bring it. Back in the cell I remembered the newly installed light socket and gave the trusty five pesos for a light bulb. Espinosa wanted to talk.
"What do you think of the government? As a newspaperman, don't you think it's a good idea? These communists had been rioting for an entire week."
"One can't judge a government in two days. One good thing is that the military didn't depose the president. This set up could work, at least for a while, if the people feel it is really Velasco who is governing, and if the regime actually does something for the needy and improves the economic situation without excessive repression."
I too asked questions. Espinosa confirmed that 26 political prisoners were indeed in my cell block, brought there the day before. Among them were politicians, labor leaders, the rectors of the Universities of Quito and Cuenca, and students. Espinosa said they were all communists.
"Will someone be around later?"
"To open the door, in case I have to go to the bathroom."
"You'd better go now. I'm going to lock them up now because if I don't they'll be down here and I don't know what they might do to you."
I went to the wretched bathroom and on returning thanked him while he closed the cell door. His steps and those of the soldiers with him echoed down the courtyard.
Espinosa's concern about keeping me separate from the other prisoners bothered me. What if they came down during the night and unbolted the door. I wondered too why they were being kept in the upper floors.
After reading a newspaper Colonel Félix had given me and feeling sure I would not be bothered again till morning, I opened my suitcase, reassured myself both carbon copies of my two takes were complete and decided, following lengthy debate with myself, they were safer in the suitcase than on me.
I didn't sleep and was up before the six o'clock call I was to get to get up and get ready to go to the airport. At 6:30 a.m. trusty Ortiz called "Pan, Pan, Pan... ," opened the door and gave me a small loaf of French bread. Then the trusty that dispensed food began shouting "Coffee, coffee...you have 10 minutes more." I asked young Ortiz for coffee and boldly stepped out into the courtyard. I was immediately accosted by a young prisoner.
"Do you have a newspaper? We don't have any news. They won't let us have newspapers or keep a radio. Who are you?"
He was elated to know I was a newspaper man, told me he was a labor leader and immediately motioned the others over, telling economy student Pedro Butraga to tell me how the students had been "tortured" by the army paratroopers when they raided the university and to show me how they had scratched his girl friend's name on his chest with a needle. Butraga removed a poorly improvised woolen cap to show how his hair had been clipped. Another student pulled off a stocking cap to show how his hair had been chopped off too. Finally, at the urging of the young labor leader and after looking backwards toward the door, Butraga opened his shirt to show me the letters of his girl friend's name, "Yolanda," scratched on his chest. The two inch high letters showed clearly in red.
Jailer Espinosa appeared suddenly. He demanded to know why I had been allowed to step out of my cell. Two soldiers rushed forward, hustled the other prisoners away from me. Espinosa beckoned me to follow him. I grabbed my suitcase and walked after him. Jurado, his wife Luz, and his son Jorge Jr., Hy Maidenberg of The New York Times, and Alberto Rojas of the Associated Press were waiting for me in the jail hall.
Luz embraced me and told me how embarrassed and worried she was about my jailing and what was happening. I shook hands all around and had a few minutes to talk.
"Jorge, please write me something about your conversation with Minister Martínez," I said as Rojas took my suitcase. I remembered it was locked and as we walked out of the jail I passed the key to Jorge Jr.
Waiting for me outside the jail were Colonel Félix and Freddy García.
"You'll have to go with us to the airport," said Colonel Félix. We drove off as Jurado loaded the bedding into his car.
The ride to the airport in the police car was short, but the plane was late. I breakfasted with Colonel Félix at the coffee shop at the airport. Jurado, his wife and the others went upstairs to the restaurant. When the plane came, my friends came dawn and bid me goodbye. Maidenberg said, "By the way, you're in the Times today. I talked to my office by phone. Also, look in your suitcase after you leave. The key's in it."
Colonel Félix escorted me to the plane. When it finally took off I quickly opened my suitcase, found a note from Jorge with the information about his talk with Minister Martínez and telling me Luis Castillo, the telex operator assigned to punch my copy, had been the one who gave my first dispatch to the government. After finding a notebook I began jotting down details before I could forget them.
Peter Kramer of Newsweek was on the plane with me.
"The same would have probably happened to me," said Peter as he worked on his copy aboard the plane.
From Jorge Chávez Airport in Lima we drove to the Hotel Crillon. There I gave one of my takes to the West Coast Cable operator and the other to the All America man in order to get both to New York simultaneously if possible. Once in my room I wrote an "add" to my story. It included details about what I had learned firsthand about the political prisoners in the García Moreno Penitentiary and a couple of new developments gleaned from El Comercio and El Tiempo, the Quito morning papers, which Jurado had given me at the airport.
The hot shower was a real luxury. Afterwards I shaved, dressed and walked up La Colmena to the Hotel Bolívar. Fran Kent of the Los Angeles Times, who had just returned from the earthquake area, was at the bar. He was in town to cover Pat Nixon's visit to Peru; the wife of the President of the United States was arriving the next day. We had a drink and then went out for dinner.