View Full Version : Article: Bribing guards a way of life in Mexico's prisons

Phil in Paris
12-21-2004, 10:13 PM
Low pay for guards contributes to corruption

Eliza Barclay, Chronicle Foreign Service
Sunday, December 19, 2004

Mexico City -- Alvaro, an inmate in his late 20s who is serving a three-year sentence for robbery, is crammed into a small cell with a dozen other prisoners who sleep pressed together on a cement floor like pieces to a jigsaw puzzle. There are only two narrow bunk beds.

In a good week, when his wife and mother can scrounge some $25 to bribe guards, Alvaro eats food brought in by relatives and is allowed a conjugal visit with his wife. "If you can't pay, they take things away from you, like family visits," said Alvaro, who asked that his real name not be disclosed.

In another cell block, Kenneth Fisher, a 58-year-old Canadian serving a four-year term for drug trafficking, shares a cell with only two others. He has a television set and eats outside food that is brought in daily. He is allowed regular visits to a private doctor and telephone calls to his wife or lawyer in Montreal. Fisher, who Canadian police say is a member of a criminal group called the West End gang, pays $800 a month for his perks.

"The food here is horrible, unsanitary," said Fisher. "I have high blood pressure, so do you think I'm willing to wait three days to see a doctor when the prison has only two?"

Alvaro and Fisher are inmates at Mexico City's Reclusorio Norte penitentiary, Latin America's largest prison with 9,000 inmates. Their jail experience is typical of a criminal system that makes distinctions between those who pay bribes and those who don't.

Rosa Maria Lara, a former prison guard at Reclusorio Norte who works for a Mexico City human rights group, estimates that the prison's guards reap more than $3 million a year by doling out privileges and engaging in illicit activities with prisoners, such as selling drugs.

A lack of 'basic services'

In September, a report by the National Commission for Human Rights (CNDH), a quasi-federal agency, said the nation's inmates "enjoy privileges or suffer wants depending on their economic resources." The study also noted that the majority of prisoners "lack basic services," and cited overpopulation, drug trafficking, inadequate food and health services, and a lack of educational programs.

U.S. officials say the 800 to 1,000 Americans in jail at any time in Mexico receive varying treatment. A recent U.S. Department of State consular information fact sheet on Mexico said that "prisoners must pay for adequate nutrition from their own funds. Most Mexican prisons provide poor medical care, and even prisoners with urgent medical conditions receive only a minimum of attention ... American citizens ... are sometimes forced to pay hundreds and even thousands of dollars in 'protection money' to fellow prisoners."

When President Vicente Fox took office in 2000, he vowed to end corrupt police practices that had become commonplace under the 71-year reign of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI. Four years later, most observers agree that Fox has made strides in reorganizing the criminal justice system, but his administration has failed to dent corruption inside the nation's 445 prisons and jails.

"The penitentiary system continues to be the link most forgotten in the chain of public security and crime prevention," said Jose Luis Soberanes, CNDH president.

At Reclusorio Norte, corruption is so rampant that every guard is on the take, concedes the warden, Armando Mendez. "If I were to stop it, I would have to fire every guard, and I can't do that," he said.

The low salaries paid to guards -- $537 a month at Mendez's prison -- help foster corruption by making bribes tempting.

Corruption in Mexican prisons regularly produces national headlines.

In October, drug kingpin Miguel Angel Beltran was shot and killed by a fellow prisoner in the dining room of La Palma prison in northern Tamaulipas state while guards looked on. A few days later, eight inmates escaped from the Neza-Bordo prison in the central state of Mexico after allegedly paying $440, 000 to walk out the front door. A month later, a judge charged the former warden of the prison and 17 guards in connection with the escape.

Such embarrassing incidents have caused Jose Luis Santiago Vasconcelos, the deputy attorney general in the Justice Department's organized crime agency, to describe Mexican prisons as "time bombs," where inmates can easily bribe guards to carry out slayings and escapes.

Some prison experts say many inmates leave jail with drug addictions, chronic illness, and criminal skills acquired while incarcerated.

Prison can be "the most dangerous place they could be," said Brenda Pulsky, a member of the Mexico City Human Rights Commission who regularly visits area prisons.

Former prison guard Lara, who now works with Pulsky, said drug addiction and extortion within prisons drives inmates deeper into debt.

"They are scared when they first arrive, and the drug-dealing inmates offer them a gift of marijuana or cocaine. Before they know it, they are addicted and in debt," she said. "They ask their families to bring more money. Sometimes the families can't, and inmates are forced to deal drugs or prostitute themselves or their wives and daughters during family visits to make their payments."

An unwillingness to participate in prison drug culture can lead to ruthless retribution, some relatives say. A visitor to Reclusorio Norte who identified herself only as Guadalupe said her husband was beaten severely by a guard after a fellow inmate falsely accused him of assault. Her husband, she said, had refused to buy drugs from his accuser.

Fox proposals on hold

Meanwhile, Fox's reform package for the justice system -- a massive overhaul of the legal system -- remains stalled in Congress.

In his fourth state of the nation address in September, Fox said authorities had arrested more than 32,000 drug traffickers, broken up 51 kidnapping gangs and freed 458 of their victims.

But his anti-crime campaign has led to overcrowding of Mexico's prisons, which were built to house 141,790 but now have more than 193,000 prisoners, according to the National Civic Institute for Security and Justice. Reclusorio Norte is designed to hold just 4,800 inmates.

"The political pressure to clean up crime has created arrest quotas for the police, who are filling prisons," said Elena Azaola, an expert on Mexico's prison system with the Research Center for Studies in Social Anthropology in Mexico City.

But change may be on the way, some experts say.

Margarita Malo Gonzalez, a secretary in Mexico City's Department of Prevention and Public Security, the agency in charge of prison administration, says corrupt officials have been replaced at the top levels of her department. Attorney General Rafael Macedo de la Concha has promised more resources for the nation's prisons.

Most important, the PRI, Fox's National Action Party, and the Democratic Revolutionary Party -- the nation's three major political parties -- agreed recently in a rare moment of unanimity to push for prison reform.

"We have to change the system to its end," said legislator Francisco Javier Valdez.