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