Doing Time in Tijuana : In La Mesa Penitentiary, Prisoners Live With Their Families, Rich Inmates Control the Real Estate and Everything--Even Guns and Drugs--Has a Price

Sebastian Rotella is a Times staff writer. He covers the U.S.-Mexican border from the San Diego bureau

THE BOY IS 4 YEARS OLD. WEARING A BLUE SWEAT SHIRT, BAGGY jeans and a look of solitary awe, he wanders through the Sunday afternoon tumult of the La Mesa State Penitentiary, a raucous Tijuana dreamscape.

The boy passes taco stands in the central plaza, a makeshift video arcade and a general store with a hand-painted 7-Eleven sign. He gets a pat on the head from one of the scruffy tattooed men crouched in a predatory daze around the basketball court. He stops and peers up at a trio of musicians celebrating the baptism of 32 babies in angelic white regalia, new arrivals behind the walls patrolled by baby-faced guards who wear rifles and jaunty touches--a scarf, a Raiders jacket--over their uniforms.

The boy's world is a daily barrage of wonders: huddled heroin addicts shooting up in a corner, point-blank gunfights between pistolero s in cowboy hats. He mimics what he sees. In the chapel with a Madonna framed by flashing lights, he clasps his hands in prayer. In the gym, he throws furious shadow-punches as boxers pound speed-bags to a clattering funk beat. Asked his name, he responds with one soft word: "Mascara."

His melancholy visage has inspired that moniker, which means "mask." He has been rechristened by residents of a prison that seethes with the surrealism of the U.S.-Mexico border. He is not visiting. He lives here with his parents.

Of the more than 2,500 residents of La Mesa, 300 are wives and children of prisoners. Because many inmates are migrants, the prison evolved to accommodate their impoverished kin. The resulting overpopulation forced authorities to tolerate construction of unofficial dwellings, known as carracas , creating a lucrative real estate market. More than 200 carracas and about 60 inmate-owned businesses are crammed into four acres that bear scarce resemblance to the stark confines of U.S. prisons.

In many ways, La Mesa is a product of the only land boundary between First and Third Worlds, a frontier shaped by wayfarers, pioneers and desperadoes. In a 1992 report, the National Human Rights Commission of Mexico concluded: "It is not exaggerating to state that the prevailing circumstances inside the state penitentiary create a tableau that is unique in the world."

With its strolling families and shack-town skyline dotted by homemade television antennas, this prison-turned-village in the centrally located La Mesa neighborhood has earned the nickname "El Pueblo de La Mesa." It has developed its own architecture, economy and laws--a strange order that governs the seeming anarchy. Creativity and warmth endure alongside corruption and savagery, challenging the stereotype conjured by the words "Mexican jail."

"The government accommodates the people, and the people accommodate the government," says San Diego Police Sgt. Carlos Chacon, an expert on prison gangs who knows La Mesa well. "The government doesn't have a lot of money, so they are forced to work together." The pragmatic arrangement has produced a class structure mirroring that of the larger Mexican society. The rich amass luxuries and surround themselves with servants and bodyguards hired from the ranks of the poor, who scrabble to survive.

"It doesn't look like it's dangerous," says Mario, a tall, rugged Chicano serving 10 years for marijuana possession. "But there are criminals in here that will kill you for a quina (about 20 cents). You can't forget you're in a penitentiary. You gotta remember, they got guns in here."

Inmates committed at least 12 murders in the prison in 1993, using smuggled firearms including Uzis. Although turf wars between inmate mafias pose a potential for disaster, La Mesa has not had the deadly riots experienced by other Mexican, Latin American and U.S. penitentiaries. The presence of inmates' relatives defuses some of the tension. "In our society, the family is extremely important," says warden Jorge Alberto Duarte Castillo. "Through the family, it has been possible to control the situation."

For all its problems, the prison preserves a measure of humanity. "They should take this and apply it in the U.S.," says Mario, who has done time on both sides of the border. "You got the stores, the wives and the kids. Morale-wise, a guy doesn't feel locked up. In the U.S., it's all steel and concrete. A guy is in with a bunch of men; there's homosexuality, frustration. He comes out angry and violent. He goes from a black-and-white world to color. And he can't handle it."

Like Mexico in general and Baja California in particular, La Mesa is experiencing a sometimes painful transformation. The federal government and the administration of Gov. Ernesto Ruffo Appel have spent more than $5 million on new cellblocks and other improvements. Gingerly, Duarte is trying to superimpose a modern institution on the existing one. During his two-year tenure, the 41-year-old law professor has begun programs in which inmates participate in community service, athletic events and musical performances outside the walls. And he openly acknowledges the nagging existence of guns and drugs. "I think you are making a big step forward when you speak the truth," he says.

The bearded, deeply religious Duarte retains a gentle demeanor in a job that chews up wardens regularly. Some critics regard him as well-intentioned, but say he has ceded power to criminal kingpins. Duarte shrugs off the accusations. "We cannot lose the human aspect. If all we do is toughen the system, it will not work. This is a reality with which I have to live. Gradually, conforming to the economic conditions, we can go about changing the situation."

ANGEL LEANS ON THE RAILING OF HIS BALCONY, SURVEYING HIS DOMAIN. A boombox cranks a San Diego Top 40 station. In good weather, Angel and his neighbors recline in the sun outside their second-floor carracas. "You don't feel the time," he says. "This is the most luxurious prison in the world. The only problem is, you can't leave."

Angel was sentenced to 10 years after federal police busted him at the Tijuana airport with 200 kilos of California-bound cocaine. The bearlike, unshaven 24-year-old is from Mexico City. He slides breezily between Spanish and English, explaining how he went about setting himself up in the typical style of the big shots.

"You hire four or five guys to take care of you," he says, indicating the grinning young inmates who hover nearby. "Bodyguards. This is my cook. Somebody to watch your house, do the household work. I had two French poodles, and a Rottweiler, too."

The balcony overlooks a grocery stand with three brightly colored parrots in cages, as well as a new, fenced vocational school; the prison's past confronts its future. Construction of new carracas is banned, but the real-estate business flourishes. Buyers use brokers and property deeds to avoid rip-offs. A percentage of transactions goes for prison services, such as maintenance. Prices range from $100 for a tiny enclosed bunk to about $25,000 for townhouse-type dwellings stocked with cellular telephones and Jacuzzis.

Angel leads a jovial tour: the separate bathroom, living area, kitchen and what he calls the "master's bedroom." He paid the previous owner $8,000 for the apartment, which suggests a slightly ramshackle college dormitory suite. He has a microwave oven, refrigerator, compact-disc player, shower, TV/VCR, heater and air conditioner. "It gets hot here in the summer, man."

Unlike some of his neighbors, Angel does not have cable television. He rents movies from the video club and watches the networks from north of the border. "CBS, NBC, Fox, KPBS," he says. "Public broadcasting--I watch that a lot."

As a big shot, you fork over $40 to avoid three months of maintenance work required of newcomers. You tip guards to avoid getting up at 6 a.m. for roll call. You tip the industrious messengers who race each other to bring news of a visitor at the gate. Perks and appliances enter for a fee; guards charge $20 for bringing in a radio. Scotch, marijuana and other prohibited items cost more. The price for sneaking in a gun is as high as $5,000. You spread enough money around, Angel says, and "you can get what you need."

SINCE THE PENITENTIARY WAS built in 1956 as a municipal jail with a capacity of 600, Tijuana has surged from honky-tonk to metropolis. The city's population now approaches 2 million, fed by trans-border industry and migration at the world's busiest international boundary. Always notorious for vice, Tijuana has evolved into a hub for multimillion-dollar criminal enterprises: drug trafficking, immigrant smuggling, car theft.

Growth overwhelmed infrastructure, including law enforcement. Migrants from throughout Mexico filled desperate shantytowns, often hoping to cross to California, sometimes ending up behind bars. Officials, moved by both humanitarianism and payoffs, soon began allowing families to build housing within the walls. Replicating the helter-skelter sprawl of Tijuana, incarcerated workmen erected two-story blocks that consumed most open space.

"The government was obligated to construct at the rhythm dictated by reality, but it was not done," says Jose Luis Perez Canchola, Baja California's human rights ombudsman. "Two factors converged: The state did not invest enough for an appropriate jail. . . . At the same time the market flourished in selling spaces, construction permits, properties. And then the sales among the inmates themselves. It has all been corruption and bureaucracy."

In recent years, the state has improved pay and training in hopes of rooting out persistent corruption among the guards, who routinely carry guns on patrol among the inmates. Officers earn an average of about $500 a month. (But in the California system, better pay and high-tech vigilance have not eliminated bloodshed, drugs and bribery, notes Sgt. Chacon, the San Diego prison gang expert. "What's the difference?" he asks. "A guy in Pelican Bay (California's maximum security prison) can still order a murder in another prison. The power to kill is still there.")

Americas Watch and other human rights watchdogs have criticized Mexican prisons for overcrowding, corruption, squalor and constitutional violations such as the mixing of sentenced convicts and suspects awaiting trial. In La Mesa, killers live next to drug-mules who live next to the wrongly accused. "The Napoleon law, man," says Mario, referring to the Napoleonic Code, the foundation of Mexican law. "Guilty until proven innocent."

Whether guilty or innocent, those who run afoul of Mexico's troubled justice system tend to be the most vulnerable. "The rich don't go to jail," says Perez Canchola, the rights ombudsman. "And there are many criminals among the rich. . . . It is a very unjust situation."

The most desperate of the poor in La Mesa are the drug addicts, more than 500 of them. Their hustling and marauding charge the streets with a roiling energy. "We knew there were drugs," says a former high-ranking guard. "We attacked heroin, but not marijuana. You punish the seller but not the user. You have to leave the poor something or they'll explode. It calms them down."

Says Victor Clark Alfaro, a Tijuana human rights activist who works with inmates: "La Mesa is a latent bomb."

Periodically, it does explode: In 1978, the warden, his assistant and two guards were killed, one of several multiple shootings over the years. In 1991, a corruption scandal felled another warden, a military man chosen for his stern reputation. Then in January, after a harrowing disturbance in which inmates fired guns into the air, warden Duarte removed his commander and three other top officers. They allegedly beat up a convicted murderer after getting word that he was hired to kill the commander in retaliation for a crackdown on misconduct.

The strained relations between the state and federal governments worsen La Mesa's plight, according to critics. Gov. Ruffo, elected in 1989 as the first opposition-party governor in modern Mexican history, contends that federal officials neglect Baja's budget because the state is a bastion of opposition to the dominant Institutional Revolutionary Party. Federal criminals account for close to half the population, but no federal institution exists in Baja. Construction of a new state prison at Tecate ground to a halt years ago for murky reasons, leaving a ghostly compound in the mountains.

The pattern has become familiar. The Tijuana press, generally eager to criticize an opposition administration, thunders about the latest crisis. The government pledges reform. The attention subsides.

DOWN THE BLOCK FROM ANGEL'S balcony, in one of the old dormitories known as tanques , a gloomy passageway leads into a congested warren of cells resembling pigeon coops. Men smoke cigarettes on benches, murmuring in the near-dark. A precarious staircase winds up to the workshop of Celestino Martinez, 29. As in many other hard-luck stories, his began when he crossed illegally into the United States. The immigrant from Guanajuato settled in a San Diego barrio, where he did landscaping jobs and eventually won resident status. But then his marriage fell apart. On the day the divorce became final six years ago, Martinez went looking for his ex-wife.

"I was out of control," he says, eyes haunted behind thick glasses. "I killed her." He fled to his parents' home in Tijuana. Mexican authorities hunted him down and tried him in cooperation with San Diego officials under a Mexican law that allows prosecution for crimes committed abroad. He got 11 years. Martinez has become a skilled woodworker, seeking redemption in sculpted crucifixes and statues.

The working poor here do what they have always done outside: shine shoes, serve food, sift through garbage like the professional scavengers of Mexico's urban dumps. Until about two years ago, hundreds of inmates could not even afford a bed. The homeless of La Mesa curled up in dormitory hallways known caustically as los freeways.

Recent construction of two cellblocks with a capacity of 1,350 has reduced homelessness, providing the only living space that is not for sale. "It's not fair to say nothing has changed," says warden Duarte. "But we have two types of housing--the official housing, which is a cell for six people, and then the individual housing, with more conveniences. This implies a very serious problem for the prison and the government itself."

Unabated population growth still forces grim improvisations. Two men bunk on the shelves of an old cabinet in a stairwell. Another lives in a furnished top-floor loft with a low ceiling; his head disappears through a hatch when he stands.

When inmate Norma Yvette Araujo arrived at La Mesa, she spent two nightmarish weeks without a place to live. The 32-year-old former accounting clerk sought refuge in corridors and stairwells, wrapped shuddering in a blanket during the menacing pre-dawn hours. "I was terrified," says Norma, a divorced mother of three. "I didn't sleep the whole time."

Today, she lives comfortably in an individual cell she bought for $300 in the tranquil women's dormitory that is decorated with plants and multicolored crepe paper. The dormitory is the only area segregated by gender. "As a woman, you have to be careful," Norma says. "I say hello to everybody. But there are certain carracas where I do not visit. There are certain places I don't go."

Five years ago, Norma moved to Tijuana from Mexico City to be near her family, immigrants living in Los Angeles. But she was arrested for possession of five grams of marijuana and now she works at the prison maquiladora to support her children, who sometimes stay with her at La Mesa. Prices in the prison are artificially high, forcing reliance on the lifeline of family and friends. "Every diaper costs 50 cents," Norma says. "A bottle of milk that would cost me $2 outside costs almost $4."

Norma's black hair cascades down her back. Her wardrobe is well-kept--sweaters, a sports jacket, crisp jeans. She has a pleasant, slightly gap-toothed smile. In a conscious effort to stay busy, she takes English classes and belongs to the theater ensemble, which has performed around Tijuana. Exuding serenity, Norma exchanges greetings with passersby as she strolls down the manic thoroughfare known as the Boulevard of the Eagles. She stops in for a cup of tea at an Asian food stand run by a group of accused immigrant smugglers, marooned Taiwanese sailors from three ships that were intercepted by the U.S. Coast Guard off Baja and turned over to the Mexican Navy last year.

Nine-year-old Esmeralda comes running up and gives her mother a hug. Norma supplies her with change and sends her scampering back to the children crowded around the video arcade in the sun-splashed plaza. Esmeralda is old enough to be frightened by the surroundings. "She says, ' Mami , I don't like this place,' " Norma explains. "She doesn't go anywhere alone. She's scared." Four months after Norma was imprisoned, she gave birth to her youngest daughter, now a year old. "It was very tough and very sad for me that she was born here. I had her here for the first three months, then my brothers took her to Los Angeles. They bring her and she spends 10 days, a week, 15 days with me. So she doesn't forget me."

ARMS FOLDED, A SHORT, SOLEMN MAN OVERSEES EMPLOYEES BENT OVER sewing machines in a 24-hour workshop that produces clothes to be sold in California. A husky young bodyguard in a cowboy hat watches the door.

The man in charge has a gray mustache and favors fashionable warm-up suits. His cap bears the legend "Commander in Chief." He is Antonio Vera Palestina, who is serving 25 years for the 1988 assassination of Hector (Gato) Felix Miranda, a crusading Tijuana columnist. Vera formerly directed security at the Agua Caliente racetrack owned by businessman Jorge Hank Rhon, a target of Felix's column. Mexican journalists have demanded for years that authorities investigate whether Hank ordered the murder. Hank, whose father is Mexico's agriculture minister, denies involvement and has never been charged.

Vera opened the garment business last year and obtained contracts with U.S.-owned maquiladoras, low-wage plants that dominate the border economy. Workers earn between $5 and $13 a day, not much less than on the outside; the penitentiary gets almost 100 sorely needed jobs; Vera collects a profit.

Rich inmates constitute a formidable shadow government. "The big shots don't escape because they don't want to," says Jesus (Flaco) Araiza, the officially designated inmate coordinator who controls everything from work assignments to property disputes. "They take care of their business from in here. They are comfortable."

Araiza's nickname means "Skinny," but he is bulkier than the sobriquet suggests. The respect he enjoys is evident as he roams the prison with a swashbuckling languor, calling orders over his shoulder to a cleanup crew, joking about his hangover with a deferential guard, handing a coin to a beggar.

"The authorities don't interfere," says Araiza, who owns a thriving restaurant in the plaza. "We run the businesses, the sales of carracas. Among ourselves." Araiza, who is more than six feet tall, bought his well-appointed apartment for $3,000 and had the ceiling raised to accommodate his height. He predicts it will sell for $10,000 when he finishes his seven-year drug trafficking sentence. Araiza entrusts only his servant with the keys. Guards do not have keys to carracas ; residents lock themselves in at night. "It's my own little jail," Araiza says. "And I'm the jailer."

Press reports have said that Araiza is one of the chieftains in the prison's so-called mafias, which run liquor, prostitution and protection rackets and have ready access to hidden guns that elude sweeps by police. Authorities confiscated 50 firearms last year.

Araiza scoffs at those accounts. "They said I walk around with 20 bodyguards," he says. "Do you see any bodyguards?" But he can field a personal security force in a hurry if hostilities break out. "You have to. You're not going to make it alone."

One former pistolero -for-hire describes the life: He earned free meals, marijuana and about $5 a day for guarding the steel door of a drug dealer's carraca. "Sometimes I had to push people out," he says. "And sometimes I had to pull them inside."

The king of the La Mesa gunslingers appears to be Comandante Zafiro (Commander Sapphire). Tomas Gonzalez Zamacona, 37, was an officer of the federal police until he crossed the thin line separating the federales from the drug cartels. He allegedly led a band of hit men until his conviction for a kidnap-murder last year. His ferocity has gained him near-legendary status. Since a wary phalanx of police deposited him in La Mesa last year, Comandante Zafiro has, by many accounts, established himself as a kingpin. When a federal judge went to the prison to hear his testimony, Zafiro sent word from his carraca that he would not come out. The judge left.

On a Saturday night last October, Zafiro and two sidekicks engaged in a wild shootout with rivals near a row of burned-out food stands. At least 27 shots were fired from semiautomatic weapons. Two gunmen were wounded, one seriously, and Zafiro was hit in the leg. Conflicting theories circulated afterward. Did another boss try to bump off Zafiro? Was the shooting a setup engineered to make guards take Zafiro to a hospital, where he could escape?

Regardless, Zafiro was never removed. His power brings relative peace, according to a Baja official. "If you give him control, the violence stays down," the official says. "Zafiro rules in there."

ON WEEKDAY MORNINGS, the perennially busy main gate releases a crowd of wives leaving for work and children going to school. The live-in relatives bring economic as well as psychological benefits--and present a thorny dilemma that is central to any debate about reform.

"It's not that we don't want to leave, it's the economic conditions," says Maria Isabel Martinez, who is from Jalisco. "It would cost me $20 just for child-care. We can't afford to leave."

Maria, 19, earns about $50 a week at an outside factory that makes briefcases and suitcases. She returns in the evening to wait in line for guards to rummage through her grocery bags and stamp her hand as a "permanent visitor." The waits are especially lengthy on the two nights designated for conjugal visits.

While Maria works, her husband baby-sits Jose Arturo, 3, and Joanna, 1. "The men stay out of trouble because their kids are here," Maria says. "They control themselves for the sake of the kids." The children play outside near a row of concrete washbasins that serve as the communal laundry. About 100 feet away, junkies duck behind a coffin-like box to inject themselves. "It's up to me to raise the kids right," Maria says. "We keep them close by. Some people let them run around alone."

Having visited prisons in the United States, Cuba and Russia, warden Duarte asserts that Mexico's liberal visiting policy is among the most progressive. "We do not understand a philosophy that prohibits conjugal visits. That is nothing more than punishment, not rehabilitation."

But he agrees with experts who want the government to provide alternative housing for the wives and children of La Mesa, the only Mexican prison in which carracas and families are permanent fixtures. The environment breeds exploitation of women, who are pressured into prostitution. Although most children are showered with affection, the playground becomes increasingly treacherous as they grow up. "It helps rehabilitate the inmate," says rights activist Clark. "But this also hurts the family. They are manufacturing future criminals."

At least theoretically, new family members have been discouraged from moving in. Duarte would like to remove those who remain. But previous attempts provoked violent protests. Inmates have come to regard singular practices as inalienable rights. To demolish 33 carracas for the construction of the new school, for example, authorities had to engage in protracted negotiations.

The true solution is to build another prison in Baja, Duarte says. "In the long run, we have to think about another facility. It's not possible to have this many people in here."

ON THE FEAST DAY OF THE Virgin of Guadalupe, patron saint of Mexico, the bishop of Tijuana pays a visit to inaugurate the new chapel. Shaking hands, dispensing laminated pictures of the Virgin, Bishop Emilio Carlos Berlie Belaunzaran makes his way smoothly through the men lining the chain-link fence that separates the chapel from the plaza.

The chilly interior is packed with a visiting choir in wool ponchos and families in their Sunday best: wet-combed toddlers, stern fathers in sunglasses, a mother with black hair swept up by glittering ribbons decorated with pictures of Minnie Mouse.

The little boy named Mascara drifts among the pews. He fixes his mute questioning stare on adults until they notice him, smiling down in surprise. Mascara follows a carpenter carrying a wooden cross to the altar. When the bishop blesses the cross, the carpenter breaks down and weeps. Mascara finds a good spot next to the choir.

Bishop Berlie leads the Mass. He asks the Virgin to bestow mercy and comfort on the people of La Mesa. Afterward, he baptizes 32 babies born to inmates. Then the congregation emerges on the steps of the chapel and faces the mob: the forlorn migrants, the baleful addicts. A chant builds expectantly: "Bolo!"

The word refers to the time-honored ritual in which godfathers must dispense alms to the poor after the christening. On cue, the godfathers toss a shower of coins through the fence into the plaza.

The mob goes wild. Dozens of men lunge, wrestle, scrabble for the skittering coins. The frenzy seems sure to end in bloodshed. But it subsides. The men dust themselves off, laughing. And through it all, this ritual of faith and despair, Mascara watches.

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