Antonio José Valbuena is a schizophrenia patient who, due to the shortage of medicines affecting Venezuela, was forced to interrupt the treatment that kept him stable. The sight of his father on the verge of death caused him a shock that probably made him lose his memory. On October 21, 2018, he left his sister Nora’s home in Guanare, state of Portuguesa, and has never returned. Ever since that day, Nora has not given up on him and works hard to find him.
Nora Valbuena, in an effort to recreating Antonio José’s possible current traits, tried to picture what her brother would look like. Since she couldn’t do it herself by use of a program that she found on the Internet, she called Rosa, a friend in Perú who is very skilled in image digitalization programs. Nora sent her a recent photo of her brother and a color sketch of how she imagined he would be: exhausted and lackluster, as someone who had walked miles nonstop, and with that spark in his olive-green eyes and his prominent cheekbones framing his long face, sharp nose and sticking-out ears.
It took Rosa one day to come up with the first draft. She sent it to Nora, who returned it for some adjustments: Nora pictured her brother with a beard and a bit more exhausted. After three hours, the sketch was delivered back.
Nora printed multiple copies of the image, which she began to plaster on hundreds of walls in places such as churches, prisons, shelters, hospitals, street vending spots, popular markets, passenger terminals and morgues all over the center-west area of the country. The photos included contact telephone numbers and home addresses at the bottom.
It was more than hanging a poster: it was Nora crying for help.
Antonio José disappeared on October 21, 2018 from Nora’s house, which is located in the modest El Paseo housing development, east of Guanare, the capital of the state of Portuguesa, there in the Venezuelan plains. He was 48 years old and carried the heavy burden of suffering from severe schizophrenia, a disorder that affects people’s ability to think, feel, and behave lucidly. He was born on January 1, 1971 in Boconó, state of Trujillo, during the New Year’s holidays. The village doctor failed to handle María’s labor in due time, and Antonio José was delivered late and his brain absorbed amniotic fluid.
That was his sentence to a difficult life.
At the age of three months, Antonio José began to experience seizures. On one night alone, he had 23 of them, one right after the other, as if they were gunfire hailing in the middle of darkness. The doctors prescribed him very strong antipsychotic meds that, perhaps, were not the right ones for his diagnosis, which led to some neuronal death.
Antonio José had the affection of his parents and his two sisters. Being the only male child, and one with special needs, he grew up overprotected. But he progressively began to show signs of disgust and rage: he would get angry, restless, agitated and out of control. When he entered junior high, he expressed his desire to join the military. And he came out ahead of the group in the physical examinations because no one could tell that he had the disorder: at 5 feet 7 inches high, he was robust and with impeccable appearance. However, the results of his psychological and technical tests confirmed that he had neurological issues. His impossibility to fulfill his dream of becoming a soldier made him take refuge in his room, where he would lock up for days at a time. It was then when the family decided to seek the help of psychiatrists, psychologists and therapists. Although Antonio José was not aggressive, steps needed to be taken to prevent him from turning so.
For 10 years he was given injections of Moditen® or fluphenazine, which is the active substance used in the treatment of schizophrenia. The choice of drug wasn’t entirely the right one and made him gain 88 pounds, but it was the only medication that kept him calm. In 2000, and until 2001, Antonio José went under a new medical control, and his attending specialist, psychiatrist Alí Polanco, combined different long-acting medications.
At that time, the shortage of drugs in Venezuela was already looming in the horizon. One needed to try with what the market had to offer, be it generic or trademark. As a last resort, they tried with Leponex (Clozaril), a German controlled-sale drug whose use over extended periods can lead to a low white-blood-cell count. Its active ingredient, clozapine, is used to treat schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.
He took it for eight years, but he was forced to interrupt treatment, and not precisely under the doctor’s orders: Locatel and Farmatodo, which were the only pharmaceutical chains that imported it, stopped bringing it into the country. He took the last pills that he had left in September 2018. The 100-mg 30-tablet dosage form, imported from the United States, was already being sold at USD 100.00 in the informal market, but Nora couldn’t afford to pay that much, and the public health system was no alternative because the pharmacies of the Venezuelan Institute of Social Security where high-price medicines are sold have never carried it.
The interruption of the treatment began to take its toll.
Antonio José was restless; he would misplace objects and alter the order of things. Neither his mother nor Nora noticed that he had a sleep disorder; they did not notice that maybe he was not sleeping well. The seizures, which had not repeated since he was six months old, returned. He fell during one of the seizure crisis and had a deep wound to his head. He was taken to the doctor. He remained in a very unstable phase for 20 days. To control him, he was prescribed phenytoin, an active substance that is commercially sold under the name of Epamin.
And that was the beginning of a new failed search: Epamin was also in short supply.
On Sunday, October 21, 2018, Nora and Belkys were preparing their father’s bath. He had come back home the day before after seven days in an intensive care unit. At 7:00 a.m. Antonio José tidied up the house. He took out the litter bins, removed the cobwebs and cleaned the truck.
However, at lunchtime, Antonio José was gone. Nora thought he was at a neighbor’s house. But he was not. She ran to Gate B of the housing development, because she had already warned the security staff that if he tried to leave the place they ought to stop him.
When she saw that the gate was open, she felt as if her brother’s disappearance had been decreed.
“Did you see him leave?” she asked the security guard.
“Yes, about 15 or 20 minutes ago. He told me he was going to look for his sister.”
That moment marked the most difficult search in Nora’s life. That October 21, 2018, she had to change routes: instead of running behind clozapine pills, she would now run behind Antonio José’s footsteps, as he vanished from her life.
That same Sunday, without much delay, she went to the Scientific, Criminal and Forensic Investigations Corps in a desperate attempt to report her brother’s disappearance. She went that day; she returned on Monday and then on Tuesday, until finally, on Wednesday, having spent eight hours at the front desk, her complaint was received. The detectives came and went. They ignored her. They told her that looking for the mentally ill was not one of their duties. They told her that she had to wait at home for the first 72 hours to pass.
“Don’t you worry. He is very streetwise!!! Have faith, your brother will appear.
Nora asked Inspector Francisco Navas, an acquaintance of hers from Boconó, to help her by distributing the photo of Antonio José among the police officers in charge of night raids. She left empty handed, without support from no one, and carrying a sheet of recycled paper printed with almost invisible ink: it was the copy of the complaint, which she would take to all the police centers of Guanare, Acarigua and Biscucuy and to all the checkpoints along the ‘José Antonio Páez’ highway in the plains and roads 5 and 7.
She alerted all the social organizations in the areas aforementioned about her search. She glued walls with nearly 3,000 posters with the image of her brother, that which her friend from Perú had helped her come up with, and she reported his disappearance on radio and television about a hundred times, all out of her own pocket. She would leave home at dawn in her Toyota Terios SUV, she would arrive at her choice of destination at noon, she would park her car somewhere safe, and from there she would go from one house to another.
She still hasn’t counted the doors that she’s knocked on.
It was from Boconoito, a rural town on the borders of the Portuguese and Barinas states, that she received the first call. She felt that her heart was about to leave her body through her mouth. She was told that her brother was in the Los Pinos slum. And that’s where she headed to. She arrived and asked everywhere. Most of the people that she inquired, following the posters’ description, agreed that he had been there.
“We gave him shelter one night, but he left at dawn” they told her.
Another call came from Quíbor, a town in the state of Lara. They assured her that they had seen someone who looked like Antonio José. Nora went there, walked through the entire area, but she did not find him either.
The doctors that treated Antonio José had confirmed the possibility that Antonio José had suffered a very upsetting experience that could have impaired his memory.
It was probably on October 12, 2018.
That day, his 79-year-old father, also named Antonio José, fell from the roof of the house next to the family’s home in Boconó and sustained a severe head trauma. He was unconscious. Since there are no hospitals in Boconó with intensive care units, he was taken by ambulance to Guanare, in the neighboring state of Portuguesa, there where Nora lived. He arrived at 3:00 in the morning, still unconscious and with high blood pressure.
The Valbuena’s are a small family. Doña María, Belkys and Nora did not have a close relative to stay with Antonio José Jr., so they decided to take him to the hospital with them. During the trip, in a car driving behind the ambulance, he would speak quickly and uncontrollably. It was evident that seeing his father in that condition had left him disorientated and confused.
As in all public hospitals in the country, blood and violence took over the emergency room in the early hours. People would come in with bullet wounds, gunshots, hurt, in pain and screaming. Antonio José’s mother and sisters spent the entire night at the foot of the stretcher, focused on their father, while Antonio José spent the entire time unnoticed, squatting, his gaze lost, in a corner of the room, as if processing all the horror that he was witnessing.
And then came the hours filled with uncertainty until the elder’s admission to a critical medicine unit in a private medical center. Of the seven days that his father was kept in the ICU, three were sleepless nights for Antonio José. That’s why he was taken back to the doctor, this time to a neurosurgeon. A CT scan showed that he had a cerebral oxygen failure and that it was necessary to double the dose of antipsychotics to calm him down and make him sleep.
Don Antonio was discharged on October 20. He came out wearing a diaper and unable to walk. Nora took him home to El Paseo. Antonio José appeared to have regained his peace of mind. But Nora was unaware of the fact that behind that apparent calm Antonio was hiding the impact of having seen his father on the verge of death.
Eighteen days into her brother’s disappearance, Nora received a call at her home. The caller seemed drunk. He insisted that he was the captor. He asked for an encounter to hand over his hostage. She decided not to pay attention to him, and they did not call again for a while. But at 2:00 a.m. she received a video call from a number with the +57 code. She was being contacted from Colombia. They didn’t tell her anything: they only let her see a video that showed the hands and feet of three people carrying 9-millimeter weapons. One could hear some background noise and the rattling of the bullets being charged.
After that, messages began to come in.
“We have Antonio José Valbuena Torres.”
“He himself gave us your phone number.”
“We are not joking, man.”
The subjects spoke as if they were addressing a male person, which made Nora think that the alleged captors were not clear to whom they were sending the warnings. She decided not to talk to them. She did not answer their calls and went through all the messages and then turned off the phone.
The next day, she walked into the National Anti-Extortion and Kidnapping Command (CONAS) of the National Guard. She spent eight hours at the reception. She arrived at 8:00 in the morning and it was 3:00 in the afternoon and no one would lend an ear to her drama. They too warned her that their job there was not to look for missing persons.
“What you are telling us cannot be called extortion. You didn’t answer. You should have answered and asked for a proof of life”, said the director.
“Should I have expected that they would send me a finger?” she asked.
“A piece of clothing, at the very least.”
Calling the exchange to a close, the officer excused himself for not taking the video call seriously.
“It was made from a telephone number abroad. I don’t have access to that. Additionally, those are matters involving the country’s sovereignty.”
On another occasion, Nora received a call to her local phone. She wasn’t home and it was her neighbors Lucinda and Raíza who answered. The callers reported that there was a boy wandering around the village of Las Matas. They claimed that the man was at a peasant’s house, that he did not want to get out, and suggested that she went there in her Toyota Terios to facilitate things. The two women left onboard another vehicle. They made the round of the area in the company of members of the communal council. They did not see anyone. Nora assumes that the crooks, taking advantage of their suffering, wanted to steal her SUV.
Nora is not shocked by corpses piled up in morgue refrigerators. She is rather relieved when she sees death in the face. She has gone six times on her own initiative to recognize bodies in the freezers of the ‘Miguel Oraá’ hospital in Guanare and in the ‘J. M. Casal Ramos’ hospital in Acarigua-Araure. Dead bodies that no one claims. None of them was her brother’s.
Now in desperation, she has explored other paths.
In December, she visited several spiritists. Esteban was one amongst them: he worked on her for seven sessions, including a Christmas Day’s special at 4:00 in the morning. He greeted her with a white piece of paper covered in charcoal ash.
“Rub it hard with your hand!” he would order her.
The warlock blew the ashes away and the message was unveiled.
“He’s alive, he’ll appear.”
In exchange for his services, Nora would have to pay 40,000,00 bolivars and bring three Gregorian pyramids, a dozen candles and no less than five boxes of the drugs that Antonio José had been prescribed and the best of his clothes and shoes.
“He has been stuck with a dead man”, said the spiritist. “His name is Julio César Martínez and he is buried in Socopó, grave #805. It is the evil deed of an aunt of yours, your mother’s sister, who wants her to suffer to death. It is a spell that has him locked up and confused. He won’t let him out.”
But neither grave #805 nor the dead man exist in Socopó. The Gregorian pyramids were an invention, and the medicines would likely be sold to other unwary people. Nora discovered it all with the same patience with which she seeks life in tragedy.
Two days earlier, Estéban had said that Antonio José was wandering around La Colonia, a village in upper Guanare. Nora went there. She saw a young boy who matched some of Antonio José’s physical features, including those of his skin color and hair, but it wasn’t him.
Doña María, Antonio José’s and his sisters’ mother, does craftwork in gold and fabric. Since January 2019, she spends her days praying and making 12 scapulars for her son’s protection. She says that when he appears she is going to put them around his neck. She does not see him in on the side of the dead: she feels him on the side of the living. She believes that he is under the care of someone very generous. She cherishes the idea that God will soon send her a sign.
Nora survived breast cancer in 2007 and clings to the hope of life. She says that what has happened is a test of God: a circumstance that has pushed her to live life with sacrifice and dignity. She dreams that she sees Antonio José at the bend of a nearby river, under a bridge that everyone calls Figueredo. She dreams that he tells him about his journey and he does so as if he had left as a child and returned as a man.
“You didn’t find me. I was right here, under the bridge, eating fish. I was bathing.”
And he ends up by saying:
“If I came out, I would have lost my treasure.”
Translation: Yazmine Livinalli
Note: This is a story of the Venezuelan website La vida de Nos. It is part of its project La vida de Nos Itinerante, which develops from storytelling workshops for journalists, human rights activists and photographers coming from 16 states of Venezuela.
Periodista venezolana, egresada de la Universidad del Zulia. Cuento historias en @ElPitazoTv. Escribo sobre los que dan su vida en silencio porque su martirio no es noticia.