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FNS: The End of Baja's "El Pueblito" Prison

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    FNS: The End of Baja s El Pueblito Prison Date: 8/30/02 1:07:58 PM Pacific Daylight Time From: frontera@nmsu.edu (Frontera) by Greg Bloom, FNS Editor
    Message 1 of 1 , Aug 31, 2002
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      FNS: The End of Baja's "El Pueblito" Prison
      Date: 8/30/02 1:07:58 PM Pacific Daylight Time
      From: frontera@... (Frontera)
      by Greg Bloom, FNS Editor

      Established in 1956 and known for its extreme levels of corruption, the
      Tijuana-area, model-prison-turned-law-enforcement nightmare known as El
      Pueblito was effectively destroyed on August 20, 2002, according to
      federal and Baja California officials. On that day, approximately 2,000
      law-enforcement officers stormed the facility to transfer many prisoners
      to other institutions, evict entire families that lived at El Pueblito
      and begin the destruction of hundreds of homes and businesses that had
      been built in the prison patio. In the days following the physical,
      social and economic dismantling of El Pueblito, the Baja press published
      story after story about the prison which had risen to levels of both
      fame and infamy throughout Mexico.

      One article described rules posted at the gate to El Pueblito:

      The introduction of drugs is prohibited
      Report any abuse by prisoners
      Visits are on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays
      Offering or giving bribes to guards is prohibited

      The signs were sources of great humor to visitors, all of whom knew that
      drugs were sold openly from stores inside the prison, inmates
      controlled the facility, and people could visit anytime they wanted but
      they had to pay the guards.

      In an editorial for the Tijuana newspaper Frontera, Mario Ortiz
      Villacorta Lacave described attending El Pueblito's opening ceremonies
      with his father, a journalist. Perhaps indicative of what was to come,
      the facility's first prisoner was a uniformed police officer. Only a boy
      at the time, Ortiz remembered that the joking policeman got inside a
      cell and closed the door. Unfortunately, the door became stuck and a
      locksmith had to be called to release the man. Thus, from its very
      inception, El Pueblito was both a real and a metaphorical prison from
      which administrators and other law-enforcement officials needed almost
      half a century to escape.

      Background

      Built as a new experiment in corrections, El Pueblito permitted inmates'
      families to join them in prison. It was hoped that readjustment to the
      outside world would be helped by keeping inmates close to their
      relatives. At night, couples would share a cell with eight or ten other
      male prisoners. In the morning, children would get up, dress and leave
      the prison to go to school. At the time of the August, 2002 raid there
      were 324 women and children living among the nearly 6,000 prisoners.

      El Pueblito also had other aspects which made it less like a prison and
      more like the outside world. Indeed, its very name came from the little
      town of stores and homes that was raised over the years in the prison's
      patio. By the end, El Pueblito had approximately 150 stores that "sold
      practically everything anyone might want," according to one law
      enforcement official.

      Among the items sold at the stores were drugs. While anything could be
      obtained, heroin, cocaine and marijuana were some of the most-frequently
      used drugs and different individuals ran minicartels inside the prison
      for each substance. The drug business alone was estimated to be half of
      the facility's US$80,000 a day economy.

      Restaurants located in El Pueblito made available tacos, pizza, chicken,
      hamburgers, juice and more. Other stores rented videos and phones. There
      were barbershops and even a bar.

      With so many luxuries and freedoms it is easy to imagine El Pueblito as
      a prisoners' paradise. However, such an impression is far from the truth
      in a world where only those with money and/or connections could enjoy El
      Pueblito's niceties. Inmates without economic resources reportedly slept
      outside in both the heat of summer and the cold of winter.

      In his editorial, Ortiz mentioned that instead of reforming inmates, El
      Pueblito was actually known as "la universidad del crimen," Crime
      University. Ortiz also alleged that after committing crimes in public,
      criminals would hide inside El Pueblito.

      Like most prisons, El Pueblito had its share of violence. However, at El
      Pueblito, this violence extended beyond inmates and guards to prison
      directors. In 1978 the murder of prison director Salvador González and
      assistant director Jesús Domínguez Cobos led to a forceful crackdown on
      organized crime in the facility. However, its effects were not permanent
      and violence at El Pueblito was cyclical in nature according to one
      observer.

      Mexico's National Commission for Human Rights also called El Pueblito
      the worst prison in the country due to overcrowding and the disparity in
      conditions between wealthy and poor inmates.

      Businesses, Homes and Investments Destroyed

      Jacinta Ibáñez, a woman that owned a taco stand in the prison, was not
      happy that her establishment was demolished to make way for an addition
      to the prison that will house 800 prisoners. Ibáñez used the money she
      made from selling tacos to support her husband and children.

      Like towns in the outside world, El Pueblito also had a real estate
      market that inmates and families looked at as investments. Houses built
      of cardboard, tin or brick belonged to prisoners and were bought, sold
      and rented. To rent a space as wide as a mattress in one of the
      courtyard's houses cost US$50 per week (in a country where the minimum
      wage is approximately US$4 per day).

      An article in the Ciudad Juárez newspaper, El Diario, quoted the mother
      of one prisoner as saying that she gave her son US$7,000 to buy a
      two-room shelter. When that building was torn down, she lost her
      investment, she said.

      Marina Ramos, who lived in prison with her husband in a room with a
      refrigerator and a few beds, said that her house was more than a home.
      It was going to be what financed their life after prison. Ramos and her
      husband had hoped to sell the space for US$4,500. However, the
      destruction of the prison interior's buildings also meant that they too
      had lost their investment.

      The Raid

      Beginning at 12:00 a.m. on Tuesday, August 20, units from the Mexican
      Army began arriving at El Pueblito and checking vehicles in the area.
      They also blocked the passage of unofficial vehicles and eventually no
      private citizens were allowed to enter or leave the neighborhood in
      which the prison is located.

      By 2:00 a.m., more than 2,000 federal and state law-enforcement and army
      people had gathered around El Pueblito including a special forces unit.
      At that time, operation "Tornado" commenced and the assembled forces
      stormed the prison looking quickly for organized-crime leaders and the
      prison's most dangerous inmates. Only twenty minutes later these men
      were being taken away from the prison to be put on airplanes that would
      divide them among three maximum-security, federal prisons throughout
      Mexico.

      The operation's only hitch was that busses did not show up on time to
      help transfer prisoners to the state's new El Hongo facility near
      Tecate. Although 1,988 prisoners had been handcuffed by 3:00 a.m. in
      order to help with their safe transfer to El Hongo, at 3:30 a.m. there
      was still no way to move them there. What had happened was that the
      busses were being held outside the prison by army units that had been
      told not to let anyone through. When communications broke down and the
      vehicles never arrived, the operation commander had trailers brought in
      and the inmates were loaded on to those.

      By 2:00 p.m., some prisoners still at El Pueblito were beginning to
      experience the physical symptoms of drug withdrawal. In other parts of
      the prison, officials were going through inmates possessions like TVs
      and CD copiers. In the patio, construction machinery had been brought in
      and some 700 homes and stores, in place since the 70s, were destroyed.

      Also, throughout the course of the day, women and children that had been
      living in El Pueblito (officially called the Centro de Readaptación
      Social de la Mesa) were taken from the facility. Nearly half of them had
      no other place to go and they were taken to a city building that had
      been set up as a homeless shelter.

      One woman told a reporter that she had no idea what she was going to do
      now that her home had been destroyed. Furthermore, she did not even know
      if her husband had been left at El Pueblito or taken to El Hongo.

      El Hongo

      By August 26, complaints about El Hongo were already making their way
      into the press. Sandra Selene Castro, who had gone to see her cousin
      there, complained that she was not allowed to bring in any food but had
      to buy it inside instead. This is because El Hongo is a serious attempt
      by Baja officials to have a drug-free prison.

      In order to achieve drug-free status, El Hongo will only accept
      prisoners that are not drug users. Drug-sensing machines, drug-detecting
      dogs and prohibitions on the entrance of food, jewelry and other goods
      are all in place to help insure that no illegal drugs enter the
      facility.

      El Hongo is considered by BC officials to be a high-technology facility.
      Prisoners will wear bracelets with bar codes on them so that their
      movements can be tracked throughout the facility. Cameras and movement
      sensors are also incorporated into El Hongo's design.

      Inmates will have access to televisions as long as they use headphones.
      However, TVs brought to the prison will be disassembled to make sure
      that they do not contain any dangerous or illegal materials.

      El Hongo has 72 cells for conjugal visits and another 72 solitary cells
      for prisoners that are considered highly dangerous.

      While inmates may not like the recent changes, the Baja press's
      editorials are all unanimous that the state's worst experiment in law
      enforcement is thankfully behind it.

      Sources: Notimex, Martín Borchardt, El Diario (Cd. Juárez), Frontera
      (Tijuana), August 20-26, 2002.


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