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Tijuana Prison Riots Highlight Torture, Abuse

La Prensa-San Diego, News Report, Mariana Martinez Posted: Oct 02, 2008

Editor's Note: Twenty-five people are dead after two riots at the overcrowded Tijuana State Penitentiary.

Twenty-five people are dead after two riots at the Tijuana State Penitentiary where 8,500 inmates are housed in a building well over 200 percent 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 in 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 overdue, 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 four people dead and dozens injured, including six police officers. A second riot happened 48 hours later, leaving 17 inmates dead. Two more inmates died gun shoot wounds at the hospital.

One more was found beaten to death in his cell early morning, Tuesday Sept. 22 and authorities are charging four of his cell companions with first degree murder.

The first riot broke out after the death of 19-year-old Israel Mrquez Blanco, who was convicted of car theft, after guards found a cellphone and drugs in his cell.

According to human rights officials, his body had clear evidence of torture.

His 17-year-old sister Mayra Mrquez 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. Thats 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, known as La Peni -- short for penitentiary -- is the most overcrowded in the country.

And it might get worse as Mexicans, scared of kidnappings and drug violence, call for harsher sentences for criminals, and ex-convicts who are being deported from the United States end up back in jail.

The underlying issues and pressure at border towns

According to an investigation by Milenio newspaper, only 1 percent of crimes in Mexico end in someone being sentenced. Judges see an average of just 12 cases per month and more than 50 percent of inmates are jailed for a non-violent crime with a $50 bail.

The International Center for Prison Studies at Kings College of London found that prisons in Mexico are overcrowded (126 percent of capacity), nearly half of inmates have not been to trial (41 percent) and less than 1 percent are foreign nationals.

The picture is even worse in border towns like Tijuana, where prison overcrowding is at 200 percent, more than 60 percent of inmates are not yet sentenced or are in an active trial and gangs are even more prevalent than in Southern states.

Of the 8,500 inmates at the Tijuana prison where the riot took place, more than 400 came from the United States, many of them deported after serving time in U.S. prisons: Immigration authorities deport ex-convicts from nine states trough Tijuana, and many of these soon end up back in jail.

International agreements require federal U.S. authorities to tell their Mexican counterparts when they deport an ex-convict or dangerous criminal, but many times this information doesnt flow to state and local levels. The result is that career criminals are often mixed in with first-time offenders and non-violent criminals.

For Human Rights State Commissioner Francisco Javier Sanchez Corona, overpopulation or mixed-population is not to blame for the riots.

The real problem, he says, lies in the procurement of justice, which is slow and elusive, and jails not creating an environment for rehabilitation as is called for 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 whats generating the serious problem we now face.

Alicia Aguilar Dvalos, 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, has documented at least 10 torture cases, including plastic bags being put over the head of an inmate, 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 were on a hunger strike because they had complied with the punishment and were not let go. They started the hunger strike and they got a brutal, fierce beating. Thats what fueled the fire even more, said Davalos.

After the riots, Baja California Governor Jos Guadalupe Osuna Milln removed the three top state prison officials and named new ones.

Two hundred and fifty of the inmates have been moved to other jails and six more where taken to a maximum security prison after their involvement in the riots.

There is a severed hand at the Coroners' Office and no one knows who it belongs to.

But for Mayra, her mother and at least 22 other families whose loved ones are dead, the promise of reform or justice is a hollow one.

"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.

Related Articles:

Nineteen Killed in Tijuana Prison Riot

Crime is Down But More People in Jail

California Cramming the Slammer

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