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Mexico Prisons Viewed as ‘Ready to Explode’ : Rights: Overcrowding, deteriorating facilities and poorly trained guards are blamed for ‘powder kegs.’

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Overcrowding, deteriorating facilities and poorly trained guards make Mexican prisons ripe for violence, according to a report released Tuesday by the Americas Watch human rights organization.

Prisoners already have been killed in riots at three prisons, including La Mesa in Tijuana, in the past three years. “Many other prisons are powder kegs ready to explode,” the report warned.

“As the prison population continues to rise and poor quality prison conditions and inmate idleness are ignored, Mexican prisons are becoming more and more dangerous,” Americas Watch said.

La Mesa, for example, houses six times as many prisoners as it was designed to hold. “The prison resembled a squatter settlement,” the report stated.

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“La Mesa is a disaster area,” said Ellen Lutz, California director of Human Rights Watch, who edited the report and participated in prison visits.

Prisoners who have $25,000 to spend can stay in apartments with comfortable bedrooms, full kitchens, baths and patios, then can resell them to new inmates at the end of their term, the prison monitors said in the report.

Those with less money sleep on the floors of the gymnasium or outdoors and must buy space to store their bedding during the day.

Prisoners with money enjoy large living areas, which intensifies the overcrowding for fellow inmates without funds, the report said.

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Such corruption penetrated all 15 prisons included in the report, Americas Watch said.

In many cases, corruption went further. For example, the directors of one Mexico City prison ran a prostitution ring, sending female prisoners to the men’s section for pay.

Lutz noted that many Mexican prison officials shared the investigators’ indignation over conditions as they toured the prisons. The report also acknowledged the cooperation of the government and praised the National Human Rights Commission, a government agency, for its investigations of abuses at La Mesa and at the prison in Tampico, in northeastern Mexico.

“They are doing serious work and calling conditions as they see them,” Lutz said. “I just hope someone will listen to them.”

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The Americas Watch report follows the release last Friday of recommendations for prison reform by the commission. A spokesman for the commission, which has been studying human rights in Mexican prisons, refused to comment on the Americas Watch report.

“The commission will stay on the sidelines because it was not created (to offer opinions),” he said. “The commission only reacts with written opinions about complaints it receives.”

Many of the National Human Rights Commission’s recommendations were similar to those offered by Americas Watch, including calls for better medical attention, improved record-keeping to assure that prisoners are not detained beyond their release dates and more effort at rehabilitation.

However, their solutions to the overcrowding problem differed.

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Americas Watch emphasized parole, alternatives to prison for minor offenses and speedier trials and appeals to reduce the number of people held awaiting trial. The commission placed more faith in construction of penal colonies to isolate the most dangerous criminals.


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