Tag: security

Inside a Mexican Prison, Twice

When I’m about to have a new Mexican experience, in this case visit a friend inside a Mexican prison, I like to write about it as if the event has already taken place. This way I can explore my frame of mind before the fact.

I write in the voice of my friend.

“I was seized and put in prison for [                 ]. With some pain, I stand most of the day at the door of my cell, looking across at my neighbors. One of them, they say, carried bales of marijuana in the back of his pickup from one dusty village to another, when two young horses bolted in front of him and, even at low speed, got their legs broken and had to be shot. The police came and detained the truck as evidence. When they later came to the driver’s house, they said they had found a package of the illegal herb. He said he didn’t know that hay was illegal. I say he deserved to be in prison for stupidity alone. He also never caught on that the police had taken the whole load for their own purposes, except for the one little package. Later, he received a warning: Say where the marijuana is or pay the consequences. Yesterday, while in line to enter his cell, someone stabbed him in the kidney and he died quickly.

I have to turn around every so often. There are five other men in my part of this tomb, and I have already been raped by two of them, while the other three held me down.

I would kill myself if I had a weapon. After I had put a bullet in each of my five roommates. On the other hand, maybe not. I understand their thinking—a vigilante justice, even if it was delivered through an unjust act.

They give us pills. Mine are small and pink. They lower the stress, but not the fear. When I whispered news of their crime against me, the guard said I needed to smell the shit I had left around me, and that he would slit my throat if I ever came near his family.

The pill makes it hard to link ideas, remember facts, remember anything at all about my alleged crime. I’ve just received my morning pill. I have been spitting them into the toilet for a week now. That is because I need to remember.

The American and his wife came to visit today. I knew they would avoid mentioning the charges against me. It’s better that way. It’s too complicated, there’s too much uncertainty. But the charge was still there, floating in the thick glass between us. Here’s the context. We hold the old phones and look at each other. I am bad, they are good. I appreciate them coming, but they cannot help, cannot lift the shame or save me from my roommates. I think they could see some of my pain and hopelessness. We joked as we always do. Hadn’t I paid my telephone bill? he asked. No, nor the water bill, I replied. I am glad they came and hope they will come again. Though I may not be here. If I remember something and see that I am guilty, I may take action. The only question is what action that will be—if the state wants to take my freedom away from me forever.”


This is what actually happened when we visited the prison.

In the parking lot, we left our valuables under the mad collection of things we keep behind the back seat of our car. We hid cell phones, house keys, credit cards, pepper spray and a jackknife. We approached the first gate—a small building, part of the main fence. Just inside the door, on the left, there was a counter, and a young guard standing behind it. Cordial greetings all around. He was friendly and professional, without attitude. As we had been advised, we present our Mexican driver’s licenses. He asks if we had knives, cell phones, any kind of weapon. We said we didn’t. He pointed at D’s black pedal pushers. He said shorts we not allowed. D. said she didn’t think they were shorts. Plus, they’re black, he said. Only guards wear black. Still, he said she might get through the next gate. Across from the counter there was a window, with a woman officer seated behind it. We stepped up to it and presented our driver’s licenses. The woman entered something into a computer. She held up a wand with what looked like an eyeball taped to the top of it and took a photo of each of us through the glass. A kind of grocery store receipt came out of the computer, twice, with our photos on our respective receipts. With those pieces of paper and our licenses, we crossed an open area and entered the main prison entrance.

At something like a wardrobe counter in a museum we gave up D’s car keys, my belt, and one other not too dangerous item, which I’ve forgotten. I stepped into little room marked “H” for Hombres, D. into one marked “M” for Mujeres. An agreeable guard frisked me. He seemed to concentrate on the top of my shoulders and my upper back. He never went down my pant legs. Out of the blue, he asked me how Mexico is treating me. Not anticipating something other than an instruction, I asked him to repeat what he had asked.

“How is Mexico treating you?”

I said I loved Mexico—which I do. He liked that.

I walked out the exit door of the frisking booth. They pointed us to stairs leading below ground. At the bottom, we walked along an underground passageway to where we could see a heavily guarded control booth in front of us. But our way was blocked by floor to ceiling bars. We had to turn right, walk thirty feet along the bars, slip through a narrow opening, then walk back along the bars until we were at the guard booth again.

There was a small square opening a little higher than head level. One at a time, we passed our driver’s licenses and grocery store receipts with photo through the opening. We were allowed to proceed. We climbed stairs and came out in the visiting area, rooms separated by thick glass and bars. A female officer took our passes and licenses through a slit below the glass that enclosed her and placed a call to summon the interno, the prisoner, the friend we were going to visit. She told us to take a seat in a line of chairs against a glass wall. It would be a minute or two.

A middle-aged woman climbed the stairs, showed her pass and sat down beside us. Our friend came through a door, saw us through the glass, beamed and waved.

I went first. A wall of bars slid to one side, just enough so that I could slip through and sit down in front of my friend, separated by thick glass and bars. He picked up his phone. I picked up mine.

“You didn’t pay your rent?” I asked.

He laughed. There was some initial embarrassment on his part and his face flushed a little.

I ask him how he was. He wore a neat khaki uniform, hair and moustache neatly trimmed. Good, he said. In fact, he looked the best I had ever seen him. His eyes were clear, he was slimmer and his color was good. I saw no sign of stress. I asked about his health. He said when he mentioned being a diabetic, they had given him a special diet, and the food was good. I asked him about his safety. No, none of that, he said. You show respect to the people around you, and you’re treated well. He said he was learning guitar, going to various classes, there were weights and a walking area. He had friends. He was in fact the picture of a happy man leading a well-ordered life.

He said he didn’t think he’s going to be in the place very long and that the matter would be cleared up. He said he had not one but two lawyers.

Some of his problem, I realized has to do with legislated changes that have not yet taken place. In practice, the law is still Napoleonic Law. You are guilty until proven innocent. Plus everything moves very slowly.

After something like five or seven minutes, the guard cut the phone and we could no longer hear each other. Continued contact requires some gesture. He put his hand against the glass, I place mine against his. Then my other hand, then his too. It is a curious moment, two men showing closeness and loyalty through thick glass and bars.

Then he visited with D. While I was waiting, several women arrived with shopping baskets packed with full food containers. Matter-of-factly, each time the guard got up and opened her door and took the basket of food and placed it carefully against the wall behind her chair—in common understanding that families should maintain contact, especially through food.

Though there was a choice in the line of waiting area chairs, the women sat down close to me—as if there was a common bond—waiting for their turn to visit.

I wondered how the food was handled. Did they search each container for a pistol? Did the men share the food with each other? How often did the women bring food? Why the drop in security? The guard seemed part of a larger family, opening her high security door and taking the food baskets to hand them on to the prisoners after their loved ones had left.

Dropping the Big Rock

The neighborhood has been calm for two or three weeks. But it may not last. Apparently, the Policía Preventiva have a new tactic. It was triggered by a recent spate of robberies of local houses. One of them was a policeman’s house. As a consequence, the PP have put out a standing order of apprehension I believe for both of the main delinquents in the neighborhood. They (and their families) were informed that the two lads would be arrested on sight; and for that reason, they have disappeared from view. Lying low, as we used to say. Peace reigns, and it is a good feeling.

At the same time, the two stolen cameras have just been replaced, in slightly different places. They now sit on metal frames that make it harder to steal them. Though I put nothing beyond the capacities of the past camera thieves-guerrillas. Three policemen spent the entire day standing by as the cameras went up. The installers hammered little plaques into the walls next to the cameras that said, “City of Guanajuato. The PP monitors these cameras twenty-four hours a day.”

Experts from both the PP and from the installers chose one very poor place, in my opinion. The lads will, I’m afraid, figure it out quickly. You can enter the vacant lot right in front of us, walk through the unfinished building, stand in a door-window opening to the alley right over the vulnerable camera, and drop the largest rock you can carry right on top of it. I would say the camera had a week or two at the most before this happens. I am encouraging the installers and owners of this camera to embed it in a steel cage that can withstand the heaviest rock you can carry.

The aunt of one of the suspects emerged from her house and said she too would be interested in having one of the cameras on her house, and of course the various codes and apparatus that she assumed would be given to her for nothing, so that she too could contribute toward the security of the side alley from whence most of the insecurity derives. I believe the Ladies’ Detective Agency have told the installers and the PP to not even to dream of acceding to her wishes.

My brother in New Hampshire will be pleased that the two new cameras are up. He checks remotely a couple of times a day, to see what’s happening in his brother’s (me) environs. What he sees is, to say the least, in great contrast to life in his New England village of swishing SUV’s, green lawns and white clapboard houses with black shutters. Here he sees narrow allies (too narrow for cars) which are also stairs, rising or dropping between graffitied walls, everybody on foot, carrying children and groceries—a whole different economic world, inaccessible to the police cruiser with its flashing lights and the promise of law and order.

The Barrio Organizes

Yesterday at 6 PM, we had our first barrio (neighborhood) meeting to discuss how we could keep our glue-sniffing (now mota-gulping) local teenagers from slipping over into the hands of narco subgroups. Mota is marihuana. Its new availability already means the kids are branching out, bringing in the pesos. Making wider connections. The more surface agenda for the meeting was neighborhood security in general. That included keeping the Army out—because the Army is a force unto itself and is credited with ham-handed tactics which include shooting people or, in some cases, it is said, disappearing them—all under the umbrella of pursuing the struggle against the cartels.

D and C had prepared intensively. They produced printouts: announcements, contact numbers and the names of agencies for help with alcohol and drug addiction, for how to communicate with your teenager, even an announcement of a meeting taking place in an adjoining barrio in a few days, so that those interested could attend—also, so that people could see that our off efforts to take matters into our own hands was not unique.

On the half–sheet of plywood I carried out, D and C taped the following agenda–on red poster paper:

Ventajas (advantages, things were like about our barrio).
Expectativas (our dreams, hopes, wishes for the barrio).
Problemas y Recursos (existing problems and already existing resources for dealing with them).
Acuerdos (agreements we reach for action)
Fecha de la próxima reunión (date of the next meeting)

D made popcorn. There was a bottle of hot salsa, the way some people like their popcorn. We carried everything out. It was a little after 6 PM. I had no idea what might happen. Two women approached from above, coming down the steps on the callejón, the alley. I had images of whacked out teenage thugs breaking up the meeting. To be honest, I even had a brief image of gunfire. There have been deadly narco attacks on drug rehabilitation clinics up nearer the border. I wasn’t sure we knew what we were dealing with by organizing against, for the most part, unchecked small-scale crime and addiction to inhalants and alcohol. I wasn’t sure whether D and C were misjudging the situation. I wasn’t sure to what extent there would be resistance. Or threats. I knew enough about culture to know I didn’t understand what I was happening around me.

Two more people should up. On of them Manuelito, D’s reading student, the boy no one washes. He has read almost every one of the thirty or so books D has accumulated. The last one was a book on how to play chess. I told him I would play with him sometime in the future. In the meantime, I pump up the younger boys’ ragged soccer balls. That is my work with the next generation as they prepare to run the drug gauntlet only a few years from now.

Manuelito stayed for the whole meeting. He was the only child who was actually participating. D had brought crayons and extra paper for children to draw or write their dreams (expectativas). He lay down on the sidewalk right away and began to draw.

In the end, there were something like thirty-five people. Under the category Existing Positive Things about the Barrio, people mentioned the beauty of the city, the presence of so many concerned neighbors, and the many children who played quite peacefully in our midst.

For Dreams, people wanted more religious holidays, the graffiti painted away, the nuisance vacant lot sealed off, more places for children to play, more police vigilance, more security in general, waste paper baskets for the waste created by snacks and soft drinks people consumed—in general, an end to the ugliness created by people who didn’t care.

The Problems, of course, had to do with the drug consumption, sniffing inhalants, the resulting violent and disrespectful behavior and the growing lack of security for everyone after sunset. Two of the mothers of problem kids were present. I took them small paper plates of popcorn. I notice one of them put hers aside. I had not consciously realized it before, but she had long since lost the teeth to eat it with. They had come, I suppose, to monitor our actions, to be on the lookout for any infringement on their sons’ right to sell mota–marijuana, or inhalants.

More people came–many I had never really seen before. They complained about trash being dumped in other nearby vacant lots. About mugger types ambling past their homes, keeping them from going out at night. What to do about the problems? Go to the Presidencia and get them to seal off the vacant lots. D and C emphasized that no one wanted to blame the juveniles or have them go to jail; that they should finish get an education and find jobs and do well earning a living. That it made no sense to call the police when you saw a drugged out kid who was being disrespectful, even threatening. That the concerned citizens should call the mothers instead.

In the end, we agreed to go to the Presidencia. We agreed to bring in experts on community education. We agreed to get the vacant lot owner to pay attention to the lot and seal it off so the kids couldn’t sell drugs there or get zonked on paint thinner, thereby destroying their brains at the same time.

The woman who had earlier told D and C she had been instructed not to reveal the name and information of the lot owner—the aunt or mother of one of the most problematic adolescents—volunteered to find out who owned the lot. C said she would write a solicitud (formal letter of request for information regarding the ownership of the lot. I had been to the Presidencia three times asking for help with the abandoned lot. With complete disinterest, the authorities told me I had to write a formal solicitud. That would be a written request for the information I had just asked for. Since I can’t write the tortured Byzantine language of Mexican bureaucracy, C wrote the letter. I’m not even sure I could write such a letter in English. I do not expect the aunt or mother of the problem kid to follow through. I do not expect the city to enjoin anyone to do anything about the lot. I am not even really sure the lot rightfully belongs to anyone, since the lot “owner” was squatting on it in the first place and has reportedly since died. (There is a legal path to ownership by which you build a fence around the land you’re claiming, post your name, and hang on to it for ten years.) In the meantime, the man’s widow may or may not have been “hanging onto the lot” in a way acceptable to the disinterested city bureaucracy. Hence, a property in limbo.

At one point, a couple of the local pre-hooligan lads crossed through the meeting, averting their gaze with studied non-interest—while everyone’s eyes followed them through. Younger children came and bought candy at the tiny store fifteen steps from out door. Some sat on the steps with the relatives. An hour and a half had passed. The participants agreed to meet again in two weeks. Some stayed behind to chat. The whole thing had come off as a kind of morality play with everyone playing a role. C and D were the organizers, G was the note taker at the paper on the sheet of plywood. The drug dealers’ mothers and aunts played the role of concerned good citizens looking out for their children’s rights. Most everyone else was an indignant citizen who, without any help from the city government, was trying to figure out how to gain control over the gone-to-hell neighborhood. I had played the role of popcorn server and alien gringo, with little noticeable social credit, in spite of all my afternoons of re-inflating the younger boys’ cheap, beat-up, half-dead, soccer balls. Manuelito, the boy no one washes—on the paper laid out for children to write their expectativas, their dreams—had written “No drogas,” no drugs! then a picture of a bottle of beer that said “Corona” and finally “…hay que vivir guntos (he meant juntos),” we have to live together (in peace). Mother Teresa allegedly wrote: “If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.” Mother Teresa and Manuelito.

A much larger crowed showed up at the community meeting the in the nearby Plaza Mexiamora. A city official attended but–we were told–looked away and chatted with someone else whenever a citizen addressed him during the meeting. At one point, three of the local trouble–makers strutted through. The crowd, angry and hostile, surrounded them. One of the punks, it is said, began to cry. Two policemen who stood nearby did not engage with either the citizens or the punks—who are also citizens but just don’t know it; and with luck will someday become leaders in their barrio.


After the knives of Mexico–the incident in our alley–my love of thirty-some years, a resourceful and practical person, hired a bodyguard. His name is Luis. He is thirty-five or forty, not tall, but also not short. His biceps are not quite the dimension of my thigh muscles. He is low key and handsome. Our mason hires him, and our mason recommended him, when my love jokingly suggested she needed a bodyguard.

My love attends the symphony on Friday nights. I am a person who cannot sit still for two hours. So I don’t attend. My love, again jokingly, asked Luis not to bring a gun. He replied–quite seriously–that, no, he would not bring it. He also said he welcomed the work since it constituted experience for the career he wished to pursue: private security.

The first Friday, Luis met my love at the assigned spot, where there’s a lovely fountain and where a lot of people gather. Then he walked her home. She paid him the modest fee they agreed on. As they said good night, he asked if he could bring along his eleven-year old son next time. My love said of course.

The next Friday, with his eleven-year old son, Luis preformed the same duty, delivering my love to the garden gate. She paid him, and he asked if his nine-year old daughter could come along next time. My love said of course.

I don’t think his nine-year old daughter has come along yet. Still, as we get older, I can see Luis guiding us through the old colonial streets at night, perhaps with his whole family–whom we then invite in for something warm to drink, cookies and hot chocolate. Some years away, we watch both kids graduate from La Prepa-high school. Maybe then, a wedding or two. And always, safe.