ASUNCIÓN, Paraguay – Each time Romilda Ferreira enters room 10 of the Fundación Solidaridad’s rehabilitation center, she feels the same tightness in her chest that took her breath away eight months ago.
Her greatest wish is to hear the voice of her son, Víctor Martínez.
But it breaks her heart when he doesn’t respond.
“I talk to him, I hug him, I pamper him to see if he will react, but nothing happens,” Ferreira said. “Víctor, wake up, I am your mother, talk to me che memby (‘my son’ in Guaraní).”
But Martínez, 24, is unable to speak. He sustained brain damage, and his colleague, Hugo Romero, suffered minor injuries as the result of a car bomb planted by the Paraguayan People’s Army (EPP) on Oct. 15, 2009.
Martínez took the brunt of the blast, which sent a piece of metal through his skull, causing brain damage and a “loss of brain matter,” according to the initial medical report. Romero, 29, was just a few steps from Martínez at the time of the explosion, but the force threw him about three meters. He spent three weeks in the hospital before rejoining the Concepción police force.
Martínez and Romero were lured to the car because of a crime that happened earlier that day: the abduction of cattle rancher Fidel Zavala in the department of Concepción, 417 kilometers (259 miles) north of Asunción. The officers were inspecting Zavala’s abandoned pickup truck when it was blown to bits.
“We got to where the pickup truck was and the place was very dark, so we turned on our flashlights and looked inside the vehicle,” Romero said to District Attorney Sandra Quiñónez on May 26. “I was next to deputy officer Víctor Martínez when, suddenly, we heard the explosion. After that, I don’t remember much of anything.”
Ferreira said her husband woke her up in the middle of the night to give her the devastating news about the youngest of her 11 children.
“Those were tragic hours,” Ferreira, 64, said. “In the middle of the night the cell phone rang and my husband answered it. He didn’t know how to tell me because I have a heart condition, but I felt that something bad was happening.”
Ferreira has to travel a long way to see her son three times a week at the Fundación Solidaridad, where she sometimes sleeps bedside.
“The accident was in Concepción, there was nothing there, no ambulances or medicine,” she said. “We had to beg until an airplane transferred him to the capital. But we lost a lot of time.”
Martínez spent three months at the Medical Emergency Center, a public hospital, before being transferred to Santa Clara, a private clinic. From there, he was sent to the police department’s Rigoberto Caballero polyclinic. He’s been at Fundación Solidaridad for the past three months.
“He was in intensive therapy for three months, and it was a relief when they took him off the respirator,” Ferreira said. “He used to talk to me, but he doesn’t anymore.”
Sebastián Talavera, chief of the National Police Public Relations Department, said the impairment to Martínez’s psychomotor skills likely is permanent.
“In the past five years we have had [seven] police officers die in combat [with the EPP],” Talavera said. “Martínez is alive, but he is very delicate. What happened to him is terrible, he can’t do anything for himself, he is not aware of reality. It’s a young life cut short due to this event.”
President Fernando Lugo, in an effort to recognize Martínez’s work and assist his family financially, promoted him to second deputy officer this past April. Martínez receives a monthly salary of $2 million guaraníes (US$418), Ferreira said.
“But it is not enough for us,” she said. “Even though treatment and medicine are covered, we still have to eat. We eat only when we can because we are kokueseros (“farmers” in Guaraní) and we have sold everything we had.”
César Cubilla, a doctor at the rehabilitation center, said Martínez has made minimal progress.
“He has been able to recover very little and he is fed through a tube,” Cubilla said.
EPP is suspected in the kidnapping of 27 people in Paraguay from 2005 to October 2009, according to the Ministry of the Interior. Cecilia Cubas, daughter of the former Paraguayan president, Raúl Cubas, was kidnapped in September 2004 and found dead in February 2005 after a ransom was paid.
“I have a lot of hope and I just ask God to give me my son back the way he was before,” Ferreira said.