When the group of armed masked men burst into Eddie’s Sandwiches in Chicago, John Vergara initially thought he had walked into a stickup. Their guns were drawn, and they told everyone at Eddie’s that afternoon to put their hands on the counter.

Vergara, an art teacher who had stopped in for a coffee, remembered: “At first I thought it was a robbery. I didn’t know it was the police until the sergeant walked in.”

The cops had “machine guns – I mean, I’m talking about rifles,” recalled Jose Garcia, then a cook at Eddie’s. “They all had masks, all of them. They looked like Isis – put it that way.”

It was September 29 2011, and it was just the beginning of an ordeal Vergara and Garcia say led to police holding them – along with the sandwich-shop owner and two others – for eight or nine hours, without any public notice of their whereabouts, without a visit from their lawyers, or without even a phone call.

The group’s place of confinement was Homan Square, the police warehouse complex on Chicago’s west side that is at the center of controversy for its incommunicado detentions and interrogations without the benefit of lawyers. Some have likened the building to the domestic police equivalent of a CIA black site. Garcia, reflecting on his time chained up inside Homan Square, compares it to Guantánamo Bay. Vergara, who drew pictures of it, grew scared upon his return to the site with a Guardian photographer on Tuesday afternoon.

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