So Mexico's Justice Is Just, Eventually
Pfc. Robert Peterson, U.S. Army, dropped by my office yesterday on his way back to Ft. Ord.
He was a headline last June. I'd worked on his story. But yesterday, when he walked in my door, I didn't recognize him. I couldn't remember who he was.
In fact, even after he refreshed my memory, I found it hard to believe that this was the same teen-age kid I'd interviewed some eight months ago.
I had talked to Peterson last summer immediately on his release from Baja California's state penitentiary. At the age of 17, he'd been tossed into one of the foulest prisons in the world on the charge of auto theft.
Protesting his innocence all the while, he'd spent 14 months in the prisoner-ruled, barbed-wire jungle waiting for Mexican justice to make up its mind.
While there he was beaten, robbed, starved, knifed and -- more than once -- marked for death by some of the vicious killers with whom he shared his cement floor.
When I met him last summer on his release, he weighed 110 pounds. Knife wounds on his back and arms were still an ugly purple.
Yesterday, he weighed in at 140. The knife scars were still there, he told me, but they were covered by his olive-drab dress uniform.
"It takes time to get healthy again," he said. "In the first four months after my release, I only put on five pounds.
"I couldn't eat. Even steak, I couldn't. I'd just look at it and get sick."
Shortly after his 19th birthday last September, Peterson signed up for a two-year hitch in the Army. He won his promotion to private first class a few days before Christmas.
But now, he said, he was on medical leave. His stomach still hadn't made the adjustment from stale watery beans to normal foods.
There are other scars, too. Some mental:
"Nightmares. The other guys in the barracks wake up sometimes because I'm screaming.
"I'm screaming, 'Alvero, don't kill me.'
"Alvero was one of the real bad guys. He said it wouldn't do any good if I got out of the prison alive. He'd follow me, he said. He'd find me and kill me.
"I suppose I shouldn't worry, but sometimes, I do."
The only visible physical scar is on Peterson's left hand. The large numerals "1-9-5-9" are tattooed, one number on each of his fingers.
"They held me down and did that just before I left. They said they didn't want me to forget my -- my nice vacation in Mexico, they called it.
"I don't need that tattoo to remind me," Peterson added.
Long Year Awaiting Trial
The kid had spent a full year in state prison before he was given a trial. And then, he was never called to testify in his own behalf. He was just told that he was found guilty and sentenced to four years.
His parents, who live in Belmont, Cal., scraped up money to appeal the decision and two months later, the Baja California Court of Appeals decided that he could go out on conditional release for $640 bail. His parents didn't have the money but it came in fast from anonymous donors who read of his plight.
I asked Peterson if he'd ever heard anything further about his case.
He nodded that he had.
"About two weeks after I got back in the United States," he said, "my parents got a letter from the Consulate in Tijuana. It informed them that the Court of Appeals made a final decision. They reversed the guilty verdict against me.
"They said," he added, "that I was innocent."