September 26, 2008
By Mariana Martinez
25 people are dead after two riots at the Tijuana State Penitentiary where 8,500 inmates are housed in a building well over 200% over its original capacity-.
The first uprising came after a 19 year-old inmate died from a blow to the head, inflicted by the prison guards. His was only the latest of a series of deaths linked to torture practices in Mexican prisons.
After word got out about his death, both family members and inmates decided to confront authorities in what they say is systematic abuse, torture, sexual molestation and threats.
For many, the riot was long coming, due to the deep tears in the Mexican judicial system, where justice is still rarely available for the poor, and rampant corruption and political interests still dictate privilege for the few.
They saw it coming
The first of the two Tijuana jail riots lasted over 12 hours, leaving 4 people dead and dozens injured, including 6 police officers. A second riot happened 48 hours later, leaving 17 inmates dead.
Two more inmates died at the hospital due gun shoot wounds.
One more was found beaten to death in his cell early morning, Tuesday September 22 and authorities are charging 4 of his cell companions with first degree murder.
The first riot broke out after the death of 19 year-old Israel Márquez Blanco, who was convicted of car theft and was housed in a cell where guards found a cel phone and drugs.
According to Human Rights officials his body had clear evidence of torture.
His 17 year-old sister Mayra Márquez Blanco went to the morgue to identify her brother.
“His body was all beaten, full of scars. He was handcuffed they put a book over his stomach and they beat him with a baseball bat, until he died from a blow to his head, he was covered in bleach and his arm was broken”, she sobbed, “ That’s why all this destruction started, they saw how they killed my brother”.
She is now one more voice joining many family members, inmates, human rights and religious groups, seeking to stop the common practice of torture, abuse, bribery and neglect.
The Tijuana prison is known as “La Peni”-short for penitentiary, is the most overcrowded in the country.
And it might get worse as many Mexicans, -scared of kidnappings and drug violence- claim harsher sentences for criminals, and many ex-convicts who are being deported from the United States, quickly end up back in jail.
The underlying issues and pressure at border towns
According to an investigation by Milenio newspaper, only 1% of crimes in México end up in someone being sentenced, judges see a rate of just 12 cases per month and more than 50% of inmates are jailed for a non-violent crime with a $50 bail.
The International Centre for Prison Studies at Kings College of London, found, in Mexico the prison overcrowding is 126%, 41% present of inmates have not been in trial and only .9% are foreign nationals.
The picture is even worse in border towns like Tijuana, where prison overcrowding is at 200%, over 60% of inmates are not yet sentenced or have an active trial and gang are even more prevalent than in Southern states.
Out of the 8,500 inmates at the Tijuana prison (before the riot) over 400 of them came from the United States, many of them deported after serving time in US prisons, because Immigration Authorities deport ex/convicts from 9 states trough Tijuana and many of them take little time to end up back in jail.
International accords require Federal US authorities to tell their Mexican counterparts when they deport an ex-convict or dangerous criminal, but many times, this information doesn’t flow to state and local levels making for career criminals to be mixed in with first time offenders or non-violent criminals.
For Human Rights State Commissioner, Francisco Javier Sanchez Corona overpopulation or mixed-population is not to blame.
For him, the real problem lies in the procurement of justice, which is slow and elusive, and jails not creating an environment for rehabilitation as it is stated in the Mexican Constitution.
“We are convinced that the insecurity problem should not be tackled and cannot be solved with more police or more guns” he explains, “ it is a problem that has to do with the lack of opportunities for the population, lack of employment opportunities, culture, education, access to health, and this is what’s generating the serious problem we now face”.
Alicia Aguilar Dávalos, President of the Inmate Family Member Committee, has long been asking for guards to be investigated when abuse and bribery claims occur.
She, along with the Human Rights Commission have documented at least 10 torture cases, including plastic bags are put over inmates head, who is then submerged in bleach; anal rape with a broomstick and electric shocks to the genitals as punishment for not giving bribes.
“I pulled the alarms many times prior: saying, this is happening, they are torturing, they are being beaten. …The inmates in the punishment cells where on a hunger strike, because they had complied with the punishment and where not let go. They started the hunger strike and they got a brutal, fierce beating, that’s what fueled the fire even more, its only logic” said Davalos.
After the riots, the Baja California governor José Guadalupe Osuna Millán removed the three top state prison officials and named new ones.
250 of the inmates have been moved to other jails and six more where taken to a maximum security prison due to their involvement in the riots.
There’s a hand at the Corners Office nobody knows who it belongs to.
But for Mayra, her mother and at least 22 other families whose loved one is dead, the promise of reform or justice is a hollow one, that came too little too late.
“…He had just 10 months before getting out, and look, he came out early but only because he is dead”, said Mayra about her older brother.