AHUEHUEPAN, Mexico (AP) — The kidnappers promised Yolanda Alvarez Antunez they would free her husband after she paid the ransom. The mother of five, grandmother of 13 saw no other option.
Around 10:30 p.m. on that Wednesday, Yolanda and her brother-in-law drove the old family truck to a mountain town in the southern state of Guerrero, where they were stopped by two pickups full of armed men. She handed over a plastic bag full of bills, but instead of buying her husband's freedom, she was taken captive, too.
"You're going to stay because your husband escaped and you're not leaving until we find him, or he comes back," said a gunman called El Nico. "And we don't want you to scream, because we don't like women who scream."
They drove out of town, then hiked a mountain trail into the darkness.
"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.
In front and behind them, armed men walked surefootedly. Clearly, this was not the first time they had been up this path, Yolanda thought.
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.
When they arrived at the camp the kidnapers blindfolded their captives, gave each a blanket and a series of orders: Lie on the ground. If you have to go to the bathroom, ask. Don't get up without permission, or you'll be shot.
Yolanda told herself that her husband had not escaped, that they had sent him home. "Lord, how good that I came to relieve some of his suffering," she thought as insects crawled beneath her back.
Her beloved "Beto" was abducted more than 1½ years before 43 college students disappeared after a clash with police in nearby Iguala, provoking international outrage. Armed men grabbed her husband on Jan. 10, 2013, pulling him out of the small grocery they ran on the shoulder of the highway in Ahuehuepan, a town of about 500 people with one public phone and no cellphone service. Within hours the first call arrived to that pay phone with a demand for 500,000 pesos, or nearly $40,000.
After a week, Yolanda had gathered only a fraction of that amount, but kidnappers were growing impatient and told her to bring what she had. "We're tired of taking care of this old man," they warned.
Now it was her turn. Her blindfold slipped and she saw that there were 18 armed men, most of them in their 20s. Some of them 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 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 guarded a silver rosary in her pocket but thought they would steal it from her if she took it out to pray, so she used her fingertips as beads, silently mouthing "Our Father" and "Hail Mary."
"Them saying such things and me praying and praying ...," she said, her voice trailing off.
The men 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." And now, here she was, a prisoner in the midst of it. She couldn't believe it.
They pressed her to find out if the family had any more money. No, she said, they'd taken out a loan for Beto's ransom. She needed to find work.
"We'll give you a job. And you could pay your debts," El Nico said. She could become one of them, "kill, cut off heads, torture..."
"Oh my God, I was not born for that," she said.
Then they asked who to call for her ransom.
Suddenly, gunmen complained about a police operation in town and wondered aloud what to do with their captives. They moved Yolanda twice, and then on Saturday morning drove her and her brother-in-law back to the highway, where an old Volkswagen Beetle approached. At the wheel was Yolanda's youngest son and beside him her nephew. 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, the man she had negotiated her husband's ransom with, 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."
Yolanda climbed into the car. "And your father?" she asked her son. "Is he at home or with your grandparents?
"No mom," he said. "Dad has not come back."
He still is not back, and is now one of more than 25,000 disappeared in Mexico since 2007. Yolanda still awakens every morning hoping for a miracle, that Beto will come home. But of course, he is never there.
Now 56, 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 it is such a great sorrow, God knows which hearts to give it to, because we are the ones who can overcome."