by Greg Bloom
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 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.
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.
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.
Bloom is the editor of “Frontera NorteSur” on-line news coverage of the US-Mexico border http://frontera.nmsu.edu .