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Did this man spend 20 years in prison for murdering a man who is still alive?

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Matthew Bremner

On an early summer’s day in 2000, Manuel Ramírez was hosting a dinner at his home in Tepexpan, a dusty mining town near Mexico City. Family and friends had come to meet his month-old son. Guests reclined in wicker armchairs, drinks in hand, and fawned over the newborn.

At around 8.30pm, several men burst into the house. They claimed to be police officers but produced no identification or warrant, and gave no reason for the intrusion. They crowded into the front room waving guns and spouting threats. One man knocked Ramírez’s Dobermann unconscious.

“Who is Manuel Ramírez? Where is Manuel?” shouted the leader of the group. Guests knelt or crouched to protect themselves. Others put their hands in the air. There were shrieks and whimpers. Ramírez, who was 22 and stocky as a bulldog, with dark hair, a broad, triangular nose and a wispy beard, cowered in the corner, as terrified as everyone else.

The men rapped on the furniture with their weapons. One pointed his gun at Ramírez’s wife. “She had my little son in her arms,” he recalled. Immediately he shouted, “I’m Manuel Ramírez!”

Two of the men pounced on Ramírez and beat him half-unconscious with the butts of their pistols. Then they hauled him off the floor, dragged him out of the house into a car and sped off up the rutted track that led to the centre of Tepexpan.

As the vehicle roared around the dirt roads, the men forced Ramírez to stay face down, handcuffed, with a jacket over his head. The only sensation he could feel was the engine’s throb through the fabric of the seat.

The car stopped abruptly. Disoriented by fear, Ramírez had no idea where he was or how long the drive had been. His captors lugged him out of the car and marched him into an empty, dimly lit space. “It looked and smelled like a beer cellar,” Ramírez said. The apparatus he saw did not bode well: two huge steel drums, car batteries, handcuffs and buckets of ice.

Two other men were also led in, similarly handcuffed. One was Carlos Alberto Sánchez, whom Ramírez knew from town. The other was Ramírez’s brother-in-law, Gabriel Vera. All three tell the same story: their captors, who turned out to be police officers, stripped them naked, bound their hands above their heads and dunked them in freezing water. Ramírez was submerged up to his shoulders. The officers punched his head with the heels of their hands and kept insisting, “You killed Emmanuel Martínez Elizalde, didn’t you?”

The name was familiar to Ramírez: his father and Martínez Elizalde’s father were acquaintances; Emmanuel and Ramírez were around the same age. As far as he knew, there hadn’t been any discord between the families, let alone violence. Ramírez’s father later told me he’d even loaned money to the family.

Through the punches, slaps and accusations, Ramírez continued to deny everything. Then a policeman hit Ramírez so hard on his left ear that all noise seemed to be filtered through layers of wadding. “All right then, motherfucker, we’ll see who’s tough now!” one of his captors said. Ramírez could smell the sweet stench of alcohol on his breath. An officer fetched a battery and connected the electrodes to Ramírez’s testicles. Ramírez’s body fizzed, shuddered and he lost consciousness.

When he came to, the officers dressed him, threw all three prisoners into cars and drove them to a police station 20 minutes away. He saw an unexpected figure talking to the head of the police unit: Rafael, father of Martínez Elizalde, whom the police said Ramírez had killed. Ramírez didn’t have the strength to speak and his ears were still ringing. But as he entered the building he recalled hearing Rafael say, “No, not Ramírez. I didn’t want you to detain him. He’s my friend’s son.”

“Well, it’s not going to change now,” the commander replied. “You ordered us to find a culprit, and here he is.”

The officers dragged Ramírez to an interrogation room. “You will confess to this murder,” they kept saying. He slumped in a chair, bloody and delirious, his back throbbing, but refused to comply. Ramírez’s family and friends had been waiting anxiously outside the police station. When his mother was let in briefly she began to cry. The police threatened to beat her if she “didn’t shut up”.

The intimidation escalated. “That’s when they told me my little son and wife would pay the price for my stubbornness,” he said. The threat restored him to partial lucidity. Ramírez pressed his shaky index finger onto an ink pad and made a print on a blank sheet of paper. He then signed at the bottom of the page. He says that the police filled in the confession afterwards.

No lawyer was present. The cousin of another prisoner was brought to the interrogation room to witness the confession. According to statements she gave later, she wasn’t allowed to read any documents. After she insisted that the men should be allowed to give their version of events, an officer said he would rape her if she didn’t shut up.

As he was locked in a cell, Ramírez struggled to digest what had happened A year later, after what Ramírez estimates were almost 20 separate hearings, the court would convict him of murder and sentence him to 40 years in prison. He would spend the next two decades trying to clear his name. To do so, he would try to prove that the man he was convicted of killing was still alive.

Manuel Ramírez was born in 1978 in the heart of Mexico City. His father was an engineer and, though the family wasn’t wealthy, Ramírez was encouraged to follow his twin passions: baseball and music. On the field, he played second base or shortstop, positions that required agility and a strong throwing arm. But music was his true calling – the guitar, mandolin, piano and, his favourite instrument, the accordion.

His local priest and first boss both described him as “honest” and “honourable”. He studied hard, went to church assiduously and tried to live up to his parents’ high expectations. Each of his parents had children from previous marriages, but Ramírez was their only offspring together. Though they were strict, they also indulged his whims and spoiled him.

In 1999, aged 21, Ramírez moved to Tepexpan, where his father had grown up. He married a local woman, though both families disapproved of the fact that his new wife was ten years older than him. Nine months later, their first child was born, also named Manuel. “It seemed to settle people’s nerves,” Ramírez said.

Ramírez was optimistic about his young family’s future. He taught music and joined a band that played traditional romantic ballads, touring the country and even playing gigs in America. But less than a year after getting married, he found himself sitting in a prison cell, mulling a single question: “Why would they stitch me up? I barely knew Emmanuel.”

At the time of Ramírez’s arrest, Mexico’s inquisitorial legal system meant that the judge played a role in investigating the case (in adversarial systems such as in Britain and America, the judge presides over arguments between prosecution and defence). Though many democratic countries operate their judicial system on inquisitorial lines, in Mexico this often meant the accused didn’t get their day in court: there was no presumption of innocence, trials were often closed to the public and the defendant had few rights.

The trial for the murder of Martínez Elizalde began almost immediately after Ramírez’s arrest, even though Ramírez retracted his confession and told a judge how the police had treated him. At each hearing, he and his co-defendants stood in the prison courtroom behind thick metal bars, handcuffed and shackled.

Over the course of several months, judicial police laid out the state’s case, painting a picture of cold-blooded revenge. According to this story, the accused held a grudge against Martínez Elizalde’s family and spent weeks planning the murder of the eldest son. On May 25th at around 10.30pm, the night before Ramírez’s party, the three men had spotted Martínez Elizalde, a pale, skinny 19-year-old with dark brown hair, standing by football pitches in the centre of Tepexpan. Martínez Elizalde was notorious in town. Many locals told me he was always spoiling for trouble.

The three men supposedly invited Martínez Elizalde to help taunt some nearby villagers with whom they were in a dispute (the police statement says little else). Martínez Elizalde agreed, but said he first had to drive some friends home. The last person he dropped off that night was his friend Francisco Villa León, the state’s only witness. According to Villa León, Martínez Elizalde said he was going to help beat up the villagers, warning his friend that if anything happened to him, Ramírez, Sánchez and Vera would be responsible.

Sometime after midnight, Martínez Elizalde rejoined Ramírez and his friends and the men headed off in Martínez Elizalde’s pickup, a burgundy Ford F-series, drinking mezcal and planning their attack. According to the police, the men stopped at a former colonial villa where they set upon Martínez Elizalde, “stabbing the victim in the chest with a screwdriver…moving it back and forth in the way you might kill a pig”. They also tried to strangle him with an electric cable. Then they threw him back in the truck; still alive, Martínez Elizalde continued to struggle until, eventually, the final blow came. Afterwards they dumped the dead body at a rubbish tip, set it alight and fled.

“She said that her husband had set up Manuel – and asked for forgiveness for what he had done”none

The police testimony includes a number of discrepancies, according to Ana Martínez Naquid, a forensic consultant. It says the victim was attacked by more than one person, but includes no fingerprint identification, dna test or injury analysis to suggest this is true. In addition, the wounds described in the police report don’t match those mentioned in the autopsy.

There were further inconsistencies. An initial police report said bullet casings were found near the body, but there were no signs of gunshot wounds. No casings were ever presented as evidence and the suspects’ clothing was not tested for gunshot residue. Officers said the dead man was stabbed in the pickup several times, but no traces of blood were found there. In their confessions, the accused said that they stabbed the victim three times on his left-hand side; a medical report indicated the injuries were on his right.

Even the time of death was fuzzy. The coroner said the victim was murdered between 9-11pm on May 25th. Yet Martínez Elizalde’s friend said he’d been dropped home at 12.30am – at least 90 minutes later. Ramírez’s wife told me that Ramírez had already returned home by 12.30am.

But the biggest problem with the prosecution’s case was the body of the victim. Martínez Elizalde was slim and smooth-skinned, but pictures from the morgue showed a thick-set man covered in body hair. Though the victim’s face had been badly burned, the photos in the police report “looked nothing like Emmanuel Martínez Elizalde”, said Ramírez.

Ramírez’s lawyers raised yet more questions. The coroner recorded that the dead man had bleached blond hair, yet Villa Léon, the last person to see him alive, described his hair as black. Official documents stated that Martínez Elizalde’s father and uncle inspected the body in person; when questioned in court, the uncle said he’d only been shown photos. Martínez Elizalde’s father declared that he couldn’t remember when he had gone to the morgue.

As the trial dragged on, Ramírez’s anger morphed into despair. When questioned, a policeman denied that Ramírez had been tortured: “It’s a lie. You weren’t threatened at any point.” Despite the scant evidence against him, Ramírez felt that his lawyers weren’t advocating forcefully on his behalf – and the few times they did so, the judge chastised them for “inadmissable” questioning. Ramírez became increasingly certain that the case was not being conducted fairly.

Mexico’s legal system certainly has a long history of corruption. Ramírez’s father, Francisco, claims that he saw Rafael Martínez, Emmanuel’s father, hand money to the judge outside the judge’s office. (Rafael died in 2019 so was unable to respond to these accusations.)

In May 2001, nearly a year after he was arrested, Ramírez was given his verdict. He and his alleged co-conspirators were taken to a near-empty courtroom – neither his lawyer nor his parents were present. Ramírez and the other two men were declared guilty by the judge, and sentenced to 40 years in prison.

Tepexpan is a town of great rivalries, burning envies and plentiful gossip, exemplifying the Mexican saying, “Pueblo pequeño, infierno grande” (“small town, raging hell”). After Ramírez was convicted, his parents returned there less often. On the rare occasions they did so, they heard some surprising rumours: people claimed that Martínez Elizalde was still alive and that his father had faked his death. Some even said that Rafael had taken out life insurance on his son shortly before he disappeared. Ramírez’s father, Francisco, says Martínez Elizalde’s mother approached him one day when he was shopping in town. “She said that her husband had set up Manuel, and she asked for forgiveness for what he had done,” Francisco told me. But what was a father to do with such a revelation?

More tangible evidence emerged the following year, according to Francisco. In the spring of 2002, Ramírez’s mother, Guadalupe, received an anonymous phone call telling her to go to the Tepexpan gardens and pick up a yellow envelope with her name on it on a bench. Inside she found photos of Emmanuel Martínez Elizalde, overweight and with long hair, but very much alive – these appeared to have been taken recently. There was also a document with details of his new identity.

Guadalupe was so excited, she said she went straight to the prosecutor’s office to hand in the new information. That turned out to be a mistake. The pictures then disappeared.

Nevertheless, the new information impelled Ramírez’s mother and lawyers to search for other evidence – effectively doing the authorities’ work. It was emotional, arduous and mostly inconclusive. Then they made a discovery that helped explain the most important mystery in the saga: why Martínez Elizalde might have wanted to stage his own death.

One night in May 2000, some three weeks before Martínez Elizalde was supposedly killed, a young man called Juan Vásquez was out drinking in central Tepexpan with a bunch of other boisterous youths. A burgundy Ford F-series pickup was parked nearby and Vásquez decided to steal what was inside: he smashed the truck window, grabbed the items and returned to drinking with his friends.

At that very moment, the vehicle’s owner emerged from a nearby building, having seen the robbery. He threatened Vásquez, who tried to flee. Witness accounts about what happened next are confusing. But it seems that while his friends hid, Vásquez was stranded, trying to mount his bike. The driver of the pickup caught up with him, ran him over and sped away. Vásquez was dead.

“The authorities did nothing,” Vásquez’s mother told me. The police files contain few interviews with witnesses or suspects. “We’re nobodies,” she said, “and the system doesn’t work for people like us.”

“If my brother is alive then bring him to me”none

Two years later, in 2002, one of Vásquez’s friends testified in Ramírez’s appeal that Emmanuel Martínez Elizalde had been the man driving the burgundy truck that killed Vásquez. I met that friend, Julio Cesar Castro Gomez, in late 2020. “I’ll never forget that day,” he said. He watched Martínez Elizalde repeatedly run over the body of his friend, who was lying on the road. Martínez Elizalde got out of his truck and spat on the young man’s corpse before driving away. “The rest of the boys who were there vowed to take revenge on Emmanuel Martínez Elizalde.”

Castro Gomez had an even bigger revelation for the judicial authorities: he had seen Martínez Elizalde alive two years after Ramírez supposedly murdered him. “As God is my witness,” he said, pointing to a church looming above us, “I saw him. I saw him alive. Manuel Ramírez did not kill that man because that man is still alive.”

Ramírez’s legal team, guided by his mother, began to accumulate fresh testimony to support his claim. More witnesses said they’d seen Martínez Elizalde at a local fiesta in 2002. Three men gave evidence that the dead man’s body did not resemble him. Then Castro Gomez provided information that might explain why Ramírez was set up.

In early 2003, Castro Gomez went to visit Gabriel Vera, Ramírez’s brother-in-law who was imprisoned along with him. Vera said that he had witnessed a murder on May 25th 2000, the day Martínez Elizalde supposedly died. But Martínez Elizalde was not the victim, he was the perpetrator – he had killed a man called Juan Vieyras.

Vieyras (about whom Vera said very little) and Martínez Elizalde had argued about who owned a plot of land. The dispute grew heated. Vera said that, with the help of some friends, Martínez Elizalde strangled, stabbed and burned Vieyras – circumstances that sounded remarkably similar to Ramírez’s alleged crime. To avoid arrest, Martínez Elizalde then passed himself off as the dead man. (I tried contacting Vera several times via his family but received no response. I tracked down two families called Vieyras, both of whom said they had never heard of Juan Vieyras and had no family member who fitted his description.)

The accumulated weight of evidence convinced the authorities to exhume the corpse in August 2003. Mexicans normally bury their dead in their Sunday best but the body inside was unclothed. “Can you imagine burying your eldest child and leaving him naked in the casket?” Ramírez asked incredulously. A new forensic report threw up further anomalies. The original pathologist report recorded the victim’s height as 1.72 metres tall; the state pathologist said the body in the coffin was only 1.63 metres. (A criminologist later said that the body might have been incorrectly measured at the time of death.)

Ramírez’s defence team hired an independent forensic anthropologist to study the remains. She found no match between the skull of the exhumed body and photographs of Martínez Elizalde that his family provided. She was confident that the remains belonged to a different person. (Another independent forensic pathologist reached the same conclusion in 2011, this time using more sophisticated technology.) Yet the government’s own expert upheld the state’s case because, she said, there was a 99.9% probability that Martínez Elizalde’s parents were the parents of the cadaver. Despite the many inconsistencies in the evidence, Ramírez remained in jail.

Daily life in prison was horrific. Dozens of men crammed into cells built for six people or fewer. Some lay on the floor; others were tied to toilets. Radios blared, inmates munched on pork rind, drank alcohol and smoked weed. You could survive in such an environment only through bravado or anonymity. Ramírez took the latter course. Though he wasn’t an alcoholic, he often attended aa meetings. He wanted to keep his mind sharp and his head down.

Over Ramírez’s two decades inside, his quick temper hardened into a reflex for confrontation: several times he was moved to a different prison after unruly behaviour. He alienated correctional officers, policemen and judges by uploading videos to YouTube naming and blaming them for his ordeal in jail. During the two and a half years I spent talking to Ramírez, by phone and in person, he was always angry at someone for something.

Over time, Ramírez started suffering from anxiety. “I used to drink three litres of Coca-Cola and three litres of coffee to avoid sleeping, to avoid having nightmares,” he said. His right shoulder clicked and ground in its socket. Back pain forced him to wear a brace all day and often through the night. His wife left him and he saw his son only a handful of times. “She didn’t want young Manuel to have anything to do with a father who was in prison,” Ramírez told me. His relationship with his father was also deteriorating. Ramírez’s half-siblings had always resented him, he said, for having studied and getting good qualifications: “They were jealous and started pouring poison into my father’s ear. He believed them.” Ramírez and his father stopped talking.

He managed to have a series of romances, including two more marriages – not uncommon in Mexican prisons. In 2008 he married a nurse from Guadalajara, whom he had met before being imprisoned, but that relationship quickly collapsed. Then, around 2010, Ramírez got back in touch with his first serious girlfriend, Itzel del Carmen Perea Villafaña, who has a round, moon-like face, a fragile smile and hair that was dyed a different shade each time I met her. Perea and Ramírez had dated in their teens but she wanted to be a nurse not a housewife – Ramírez denies demanding that she stay at home, merely saying that she was his “true love”. They eventually married in 2014.

Mexican prisons are hives of corruption where gangs work as effectively and viciously as they do on the streets. Everything has its price, from fresh meals to your own bed or an illicit mobile phone. Inmates often refer to prison as the “most expensive hotel in Mexico”. Perea kept her husband solvent, making sure that he ate well, had his own bunk, medicines and the amenities that made prison life more bearable: nice clothes, toiletries, a television. “I paid into an account every month so that Manuel could live,” she said.

Their relationship endured grievous sorrows. Perea says that in 2013, when she was pregnant, prison guards made her squat for so long that she lost the baby. Ramírez’s ailing mother died a year and a half later and Ramírez became withdrawn.

Sanchez, one of his co-defendants, died in 2014. The other convicted man, Vera, eventually gave up trying to prove his innocence. But Perea pushed Ramírez to keep his case alive, giving newspaper interviews and courting lawyers. “I’d drag his files around Mexico City looking for lawyers who’d take on the case,” she told me. By 2015, they had exhausted all avenues of appeal and decided to change tactics, contacting human-rights organisations to see if the conviction might be overturned because the confession was extracted under torture. It was a long shot – it’s hard to prove that his injuries were caused by police violence 15 years earlier – but two independent doctors eventually examined him and in 2018 they submitted a report to the state prosecutor. Ramírez’s ailments – deafness in one ear, anxiety and depression – exhibited signs of torture, they said. (The judicial authority of the state of Mexico said that a special prosecutor for investigating torture allegations closed Ramírez’s case for lack of evidence.)

“He ran over his body repeatedly, then got out and spat on the boy’s corpse”none

Ramírez’s tenacity had begun to attract the attention of more powerful people, too. In 2019, a former gang-member turned politician called Pedro Carrizales promised to do all he could to secure Ramírez’s freedom. For the next year and a half he petitioned the government, along with an activist and entrepreneur called Bryan LeBaron, who had lost family members in a massacre in 2019. Carrizales said that Ramírez was an emblem of the “flaws in our justice system”. (Carrizales died in a car crash in February this year, which his family believes to be suspicious.)

In late 2020, I met Ramírez at Santiaguito prison in the state of Mexico, where he’d spent the past six years (this was his sixth prison). I cleared several security checks, walked past jeering prisoners and entered an open-air courtyard through creaking metal gates. A group of prisoners exercised near a playground for the visiting children of inmates.

Ramírez sat at what looked like a metal picnic table in a shady concrete canopy at the far end of the yard, dressed in his prison uniform: beige shirt and chinos, a belt and polished black shoes. He had a long, thick beard and wore chunky glasses and a face mask. I’d been talking to him by phone for months, despite the patchy mobile signal and the din of his cellmate’s blaring tv. Ramírez stood up and strolled towards me, a smile quivering beneath his beard, and looked me straight in the eye. He gently squeezed my arm: “Thanks for coming.”

During our phone calls and meetings, and after reading reams of court documents, I had come to believe in Ramírez’s innocence. Yet there’s always a nagging uncertainty, no matter the evidence.

I was still troubled by the dna test showing the match between the body and Martínez Elizalde’s parents. Neither Ramírez nor his lawyer had told me about it. Why? Ramírez hauled a stack of papers bespeckled with yellow Post-it notes from beneath his seat and slapped it down like meat on a butcher’s counter. “I’ll show how corrupt this case is,” he said. “Look more closely at the case files and you’ll see that the samples were manipulated.”

There was no record of where or how the sample was collected, who had access to it and where it was stored in the five months before it was analysed. “This lack of information means that there is no guarantee that the sample collected was the sample used to achieve the result,” Ana Martínez Naquid, the forensic consultant, told me.

There was a further inconsistency. Two weeks before the results were released, a forensic pathologist said that the dna taken from the corpse was unusable “due to the possible degradation of the samples”. The pathologist made no mention of taking new samples. How, then, was such a close match found a fortnight later?

“It’s all been tampered with, and everyone’s involved,” Ramírez said. His face flushed and his voice rose an octave but his body sagged in resignation. The courtyard was filled with prisoners: some slumped on benches grimacing into the sun, some whispered conspiratorially to their lawyers, others stared dead-eyed. The sun fell below the prison walls and the cold evening air began to bite.

You never know from where salvation may come. In late May last year, when a number of Ramírez’s supporters were on hunger strike in Mexico City’s main square, a journalist asked a question of Mexico’s president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, known as AMLO. What was he going to do about the man who had been unjustly imprisoned for over 20 years? Caught off-guard, the president said he’d look into the matter.

A few days passed. Nothing happened. Ramírez’s wife, Perea, and LeBaron decided to walk the 70km to Toluca, the state capital. Already exhausted by the hunger strike, they trudged on under the pounding sun, the exhaust fumes stinging like a wire in the nose. Then, at around 10pm on that first day, Ramírez’s lawyers called. “Manuel is getting out, he’s getting out,” LeBaron shouted. He and Perea both started to cry.

Ramírez was to be freed in late June, a month away. It wasn’t an exoneration: he would be released for having served half his sentence, would not be absolved of his crime and would need to pay Martínez Elizalde’s family around $4,000 in compensation. “It’s a humiliation,” he told me. “They’re still treating me like a criminal.” (The judicial authority of the state of Mexico said Ramírez was released because he had completed half his sentence and engaged in rehabilitation courses.)

It seemed the only way to clear Ramírez was to find the man he was supposed to have murdered. His family and lawyers had been trying for decades. I, too, had been working on his story for over a year, contacting friends, the prosecutor’s office and many others. None responded.

I did find Martínez Elizalde’s sister: she refused to talk, but told me that her brother was buried in Tepexpan. ”If my brother’s alive then bring him to me,” she said. Many townsfolk there said he had changed his name, remarried and moved to America. But no one would provide further information. “You can’t abandon me in this search,” Ramírez begged me. (The judicial authority of the state of Mexico denied there is any evidence or testimony that Martínez Elizalde is still alive.)

Ramírez’s release was delayed several times. He was initially told he’d need an ankle monitor and would be forbidden from living with his wife or working outside Mexico City. Eventually, a judge relented on these terms. The date was set for July 16th 2021.

I drove east with Perea from Mexico City to the prison in Almoloya, an hour and a half away. It was hard for her to believe that this day had finally come. She was sure something was going to go wrong.

We waited outside the prison for six hours, measuring the passage of time in cigarette butts and crushed water bottles. Perea paced back and forth tearfully, dipping in and out of conversations with LeBaron and Ramírez’s lawyers. Prison officials kept telling us that he would be out in 30 minutes.

At around 6pm, we finally caught sight of a man behind the two-metre-high green iron gates, his hair swept back in a quiff, wearing a white guayabera shirt, chinos and shiny black cowboy boots. Ramírez forced out a smile that looked more like a wince. His footsteps were tentative as he emerged from the gates and walked into the arms of his wife. Then he began to weep.

“Why would they stitch me up? I barely knew Emmanuel” none

At a small outdoor waiting area, Ramírez undressed and handed his clothes to his cousins, who scrunched them up, soaked them in fuel and set them alight, a ritual conducted by prisoners leaving Mexican prisons in order to rid themselves of their tainted past.

Ramírez donned a new shirt, a jacket, a pair of Levi’s and polished brown cowboy boots. He was smiling, but his eyes flitted back and forth, as though unsure where to look or with whom to speak.

I drove Ramírez and Perea back to Mexico City. As Ramírez started talking about how badly the prison guards had treated him, his jaw tensed and his voice thickened. Fury had driven him for two decades.

When we entered the city, Ramírez said he wanted to see his father, who was turning 90 the next day. “I have to buy him a cake,” he said. “We’ve so much to talk about.” He shouted out directions, as if trying to prove he still knew the city. “It’s down here, you know? This is Durango Street. No, wait, it’s Sinaloa Street, isn’t it?”

The evening was drawing in. We stopped outside a bakery Ramírez remembered from childhood and bought a large chocolate cake. Then we drove around the corner, parked on the street by his father’s flat and began walking up the creaky stairs.

One step, two steps, three steps.

He had been deprived of so much in the 7,720 days that he had spent in prison. His son’s early words. Touring with his band. Playing music with his children.

Four steps, five steps, six steps.

The person he had supposedly murdered was still out there. Perhaps in Mexico, perhaps in Chicago.

Seven steps, eight steps, nine steps.

He still had so much to do. Clear his name. Become a father to his children. Build a life.

Ten steps, eleven steps, twelve steps.

Ramírez was almost at the door. Behind it lay the flat where he’d grown up, the familiar smell of soap and refried beans, the piano that had stood untouched for more than 20 years. At the top step, cake in hand, he knocked. Inside, his father was sitting at a round table, leaning on his walking stick. He saw his son and his bottom lip trembled. Then both men started crying.

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