Notorious Tijuana jail to be just a dark memory

If the walls of this Mexican jail could talk, they would curse in Spanish, and English.

Decades ago, when Americans visited this border city in hard-partying hordes, more than a few drunk sailors and brawling bar patrons ended up in one of these dank, fetid cages. They would share cellblocks with drug kingpins, assassins, child molesters and thieves.

There were escapes and riots, fights and bribes, earning the jail notorious status through T-shirts — “I survived the Tijuana jail” — and songs like a 1959 Kingston Trio tune that expressed the all-too-common dirge of the Mexican jailbird.


“Here we’ll stay cause we can’t pay. Just send our mail to the Tijuana jail.”

They won’t be writing ditties about this stinky place anymore. Tijuana will soon close the jail and adjoining police headquarters, eager to slam the door on a dark chapter in the city’s history.

Known for years as “La Ocho,” because of its downtown location on 8th Street, detainees were greeted with a cacophony of shouts and clanging metal. The smell of urine and vomit was overpowering. Some inmates walked around freely. The top tier was reserved for drug kingpins and others who were allowed television sets that blared all night.

The pudgy guards wore old, ragged clothing and carried their guns inside their pockets. “It was so low rent,” recalled Sloane Briles, 34, who was tossed in a cell after he and his high school friends got caught in a melee outside a bar in the early 1990s.

Briles, then 18, remembers squeezing for a place to sit on the bare concrete, only to be rousted up by blasts of cold water from hoses — the daily floor cleaning. He was hung over, hungry and dying for water.

“We were begging for water and food. They would say, ‘How much money do you have?’ ” Briles said he befriended a cellmate who had connections and he was released after about 16 hours, the longest of his life.

“I don’t think we could have looked more happy and haggard at the same time,” said Briles, an Irvine resident. “It was one of those times when you just go, ‘Wow, I love America so much.’ ”

The closure of the jail, scheduled for this month, is largely symbolic. American detainees and other minor offenders have for years been taken to a lower-security facility elsewhere and the jail has recently been used mainly as an armory and a holding center.

But the rusty bars, dilapidated booking center, dust-coated rails and warren of shabby offices were a security risk and source of embarrassment for city trying to remake the image of its security forces. The complex is one of several facilities that have been closed and will be consolidated at the new facility.

“They were old, dirty, smelly and totally abandoned,” Tijuana’s Secretary of Public Security Julian Leyzaola said in a speech last month at the dedication of the new police headquarters. “They reflected the low morale and bad reputation of the municipal police.”

Built in the 1950s, the brick and stucco command center was originally meant to house 50 police officers. The force grew to more than 2,000 and several substations were opened. The jail, however, remained the main detention facility downtown and was soon bursting at the seams.

The 8-by-12-foot cells stacked on three floors were meant for six inmates each. But they were soon stuffed far beyond capacity, especially on weekends when the nightclubs on nearby Avenida Revolucion spilled over with crowds of intoxicated U.S. citizens.

Those arrested for drug offenses probably deserved their fate. Others no doubt fell prey to cops seeking bribes. About $20 to $100 would often suffice. But for those who couldn’t, or wouldn’t, fork it over, it was a quick, stumbling stroll around the corner and through the solid metal door.

So many military personnel from San Diego ended up in the jail that the U.S. Navy shore patrol visited regularly to shepherd sailors and Marines back home.

Mexican inmates endured worse. Crammed in as many as 30 to a cell, some tried to escape by cutting through the steel grates over the windows. Fights were common, and pity the poor women who passed by on the street below who would be subjected to lecherous shouts and whistles from above.

“They would yell at me too, insults” said Mario Gaona, 54, who shined shoes across the street from the jail for 24 years. Prisoners would send him their shoes, some with notes inside demanding that he insert drugs, he said. He returned the shoes polished and empty of contraband. “They didn’t like that,” he said.

The complex did have its quirky charms. The police headquarters felt like a clubhouse, with reporters sharing a one-desk room across the hall from the police director’s offices. In emergencies, reporters and officers tumbled out of the building. Inside the jail, reporters had free rein and could question inmates, sticking microphones through the bars, sometimes coaxing confessions.

It was all a bit too cozy as far as some were concerned.

Last year, when police came under attack from organized crime groups, one gangster threatened to blow up the police chief’s office. “It was a security nightmare,” said Val Jimenez, an international liaison officer with the California Department of Justice. The top cop’s office was just a few feet off the street.

“You’d walk in the door, take a right turn and you were in the chief’s office,” Jimenez said.

The new police headquarters features two guard towers, bulletproof walls and a security zone compound deep inside the perimeter where families of threatened police officers can be housed. Only dangerous criminals will be held in the facility, which has two cells.

Meanwhile, the future of the downtown jail is uncertain. Some would be happy to see it bulldozed. Others want it turned into a museum, either as an attraction like Alcatraz or an art museum.

For Briles, his Tijuana jail misadventure is now a memory with a punch line. On Briles’ way out of the slammer, a friend took a picture of him in his stained, bedraggled state and it was shown during a senior year farewell party between the slide show pictures of prom night and football victories.

“I thought it was funny. It was proof that our story wasn’t B.S.,” Briles said.