I as an american was
horrifide by this front page artical in the washington post dated 11-4-2002
Mexico's Children Suffer in 'Little Jails'
Abuse Is Common at Detention Centers
By Mary Jordan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, November 4, 2002; Page A01
MERIDA, Mexico -- The walls are 15 feet high and topped with jagged glass
and barbed wire, ugly keepers of ugly secrets. For years they stood sentry
over abuses of scores of children in state care, who were forced to eat pig
food, beaten, even tied to trees for days at a time.
Beto, a homeless boy, was 10 years old when the police brought him here after
they caught him stealing two shiny gold buttons from a store bin. He thought
he might be going somewhere better than the street.
Instead, Betulio Chi Tzec spent the next five years behind the walls of the
Yucatan state juvenile correctional facility, a little boy locked in a dormitory
room with two teenagers convicted of rape.
Beto, as well as a teacher and a physician who worked there, said the woman
who ran the youth detention home regularly beat the 50 children in her care.
They said she kicked the children in the genitals, slapped them and sheared
off their hair in fits of rage. Beto said she told the children, "You are
all going to rot here," and he came to believe she was right.
According to youths who have spent time inside the system, as well as parents,
government officials and many experts here, children are frequently mistreated,
abused and forgotten in Mexico's "little jails," as the youth lockups are
known. Officially called "schools for young offenders," many of these places
are nothing more than cold prisons where classroom teaching is rare.
There are 4,200 children living in dozens of detention centers across Mexico.
Conditions vary, and some centers are well run. But many operate the same
way they did a century ago: out of public view and with little or no internal
regulation or outside supervision. Parents are often barred from entering,
though they are encouraged to slip money to guards to prevent harsher treatment
of their children.
The Mexican government, battered by crime, has displayed little concern or
tolerance for children who break the law. That indifference, as well as the
secrecy that shrouds the detention centers, has perpetuated shoddy and often
cruel practices, according to those with firsthand experience in the troubled
"These institutions are horrible," said Elena Azaola, a criminal justice
specialist who has conducted studies of the juvenile centers. "The children
live in misery."
Mexico relies on an informal and largely unregulated system of juvenile justice
that has existed for decades. Children who break the law often have no access
to an attorney. Administrative judges who handle juvenile cases set sentences,
but there is often no judicial follow-up once children are sent to detention
The real power is held by the directors of the centers. They effectively
decide how long a child will be held and under what conditions. The directors
are appointed by governors or other top officials in each of Mexico's 31
"For children there is no system of justice. They are the victims of arbitrary
decisions by those in charge," said Guillermo Alonso Angulo, a consultant
for UNICEF in Yucatan state.
A system that abuses children and fails to punish the abusers is a legacy
of the one-party rule that dominated Mexico for most of the 20th century.
From 1929 until 2000, Mexico's presidents, and most of its governors, mayors,
police and local officials -- including those in charge of youth programs
-- belonged to the Institutional Revolutionary Party.
During that era, government jobs were dispensed more out of political loyalty
than expertise. People running programs intended to benefit society often
did little other than steal agency funds. Because of the party's hammerlock
on power, they rarely had to answer to the public.
President Vicente Fox, who took office in 2000, has promised to create a
new day for justice in Mexico. He has vowed that the law, not the personal
or political whims of officials, will reign.
Now, the children locked away in detention centers are trying to hold him
to his word.
Nearly every week recently, youths have climbed onto the roofs of their detention
homes, setting fires and starting small riots to draw attention to their
living conditions. When reporters arrive, the children yell over the wall
that they have been beaten with brooms and belts.
On Oct. 2, in the western state of Nayarit, 37 children took over a detention
center, throwing stones and screaming that they were "tired of the beatings."
The day before, in the northern state of Sonora, 40 children brawled with
their keepers, complaining about brutality. Similar uprisings have occurred
in six other states and Mexico City this year, as angry children demand better
treatment in their little jails.
Allegations of Cruelty
Mexico is struggling to transform itself into a nation where people feel
protected -- not menaced -- by the law. Yet old ways prevail, as seen in
the horrors of the Yucatan detention center.
The director, Maria del Rocio Martel Lopez, was a physician who had superb
local political connections. Some who knew her recalled that she was tall,
thin, blond and impeccably dressed.
Dozens of children under her care have now come forward to say she brutalized
them. According to the findings of an investigation by the National Human
Rights Commission, which issued a report in April, Martel presided for four
years over an institution with "cruel and degrading treatment" of children,
which included "denigrating punishments, humiliations, beatings and mistreatment."
Allegations of cruelty by Martel were reported to the governor's office as
early as 1999. But the powerful, longtime governor who appointed her, Victor
Cervera Pacheco, did nothing. Many here attribute his inaction to Martel's
social and political standing; she is the widow of a former powerful party
boss in the state.
A Merida radio station aired a report in 1999 about the allegations against
Martel, but the reporter, Jose Luis Preciado, said he was pressured by state
officials to drop the matter.
"Sometimes she would tell boys to pull down their pants and she would kick
them in their private parts until they cried," Beto said of Martel, echoing
testimony given to human rights investigators by people who worked at the
Psychologists and teachers, in interviews and in their statements to investigators
and police, said that Martel beat children until they bled. Several recalled
how she forced one homosexual boy to dress like a girl.
Many of Martel's accusers cited the case of a teenage orphan, Catalina Gijon
Granados. She was held in the center for four years, often in windowless
isolation, even though she had committed no crime.
Dulce Maria Alavez Soberanes, who taught crafts at the detention center,
called Martel's treatment of Catalina "unforgivable." She said that Catalina
was beautiful, sweet and relatively well-adjusted until she landed on Martel's
bad side. After months of mistreatment, Alavez said Catalina appeared lost
and disoriented and became a chronic bed-wetter, a skinny girl with sickly
yellow hollow eyes.
"She was locked up for almost two months in a room without a window, given
just one meal a day," Alavez said. "When she was let out, it was as if she
For two years, Yucatan human rights lawyers complained without success to
the governor and other officials. Then they called the human rights commission
in Mexico City. On an August day in 2001, the commission arrived at the center
to investigate. That day Martel quit her job and walked out the door.
A criminal investigation was later opened, but no charges have been filed.
Martel's answer to the allegations against her is unknown. Efforts to locate
her were unsuccessful. Several months ago, neighbors said they saw a moving
van pull up to her house, and they haven't seen her since. Officials at the
state attorney general's office said they did not know where she was, and
that she was being sought for questioning.
Rights workers here in Merida said the government allowed Martel to slip
away to avoid the embarrassment of a messy trial with potentially nasty political
implications. Mexico has a long history of looking the other way at official
"They would rather bury this part," said Angulo, the UNICEF consultant. "I
think there should be a criminal trial. But I don't think there ever will
Sleeping With Pigs
When Isis Maria Velazquez was 13, she recalled, her mother became exasperated
with her misbehavior and turned her over to state care. She spent the next
two years in Martel's facility.
The dates of her mistreatment remain etched in her memory. On July 27, 1999,
she entered the center, and Martel chopped off most of her long, shiny brown
hair, leaving it a short-cropped ugly nest. On May 9, 2000, she said, Martel
forced her into a muddy, filthy pen where she spent the next three nights
sleeping with 15 pigs.
"She shoved pig food in my face," Isis said. "She was crazy."
Her father, Lucio Jesus Velazquez, a retired night watchman, said poor people
in Mexico are accustomed to being powerless. He said he paid staff at the
center so he could visit Isis and tried to buy better treatment for her.
He said Mexicans know they have to pay bribes to get service from the government,
and that complaining often gets them nothing but more abuse.
"I don't know the laws," Velazquez said. "I'm not educated in them." He said
that until a human rights lawyer told him the state had no right to treat
his daughter as it did, he did not realize that what happened to her might
have been illegal.
Isis said she watched as other children were beaten with rubber tubes and
wooden sticks. She said some boys were tied to trees, blasted with cold water
from a hose and left to sleep standing up.
Those allegations have been backed up by others who have complained to police
and human rights officials, including Sylvia Zenteno Ruano, a physician hired
by the state to make weekly visits to the center. She said she is still haunted
by what she found one day: four boys tied to trees, rope wound around them
from their necks to their knees.
"There was urine and excrement in their clothes so they must have been there
for a while," she said. Zenteno filed a complaint with the police and waited.
They did not return her call for nine months.
Isis has now been out of the center for several months. She works as a stripper
in a bar called Atlantico. There, at night, she dances under a mirror ball
that throws the glinting colors of the rainbow on zebra wallpaper. She said
dancing helps her forget her hatred, which she described as the only thing
she learned during her time in the state's hands.
"They have punished no one," Isis, now 16, said of the authorities. She now
supports her father and they live in a tiny home in Merida with almost no
furniture. "Some of the people who beat us are still working there. They
just don't care."
"I used to have dreams," she said. "But I don't anymore."
A sad failure of juvenile detention centers in Mexico is that some of the
imprisoned children have committed no crime. They are held because they had
no home and the government could find no other bed for them.
The government operates few shelters for street children, ceding most of
the responsibility to churches and other private groups. Thousands of children
live in private shelters without any government supervision.
The risks of this unregulated system were recently highlighted in Puerto
Vallarta, according to children's advocates, who said an American, Thomas
White, started building a shelter for street children in 2000. He was allowed
to do so with almost no scrutiny or investigation of his background or qualifications,
"It is easier to open a shelter for children than a restaurant," Angulo said.
Police said they are looking for White, who has been charged with offering
money and food to street children in exchange for their posing for pornographic
photos and videos. He fled after a state judge issued an arrest warrant last
year, and his whereabouts are unknown.
Juan Diaz Gonzalez, a Mexico City legislator, said such abuse is common.
He said some shelter operators in the capital have forced children into prostitution
rings or illegal adoptions. Many of the shelters are so poorly run and funded
that he called them "trash cans where kids are thrown away. The government
is investing nothing in these children," he said. "They are throwing away
thousands of lives."
There are new efforts to clean up the system. Since Fox came to power, top
officials have been replaced, but many middle- and lower-level officials
have not, particularly in the ranks of prosecutors and police. The government
has little money to pay good salaries for difficult jobs, such as dealing
Under a new governor from Fox's National Action Party, Yucatan state officials
said they plan to build a $1 million detention center. They said that only
children who have committed crimes would be sent there.
They promised better record-keeping to ensure that children serve their sentences
and no more. They promised that lawyers and human rights observers would
be allowed access. But Yucatan, like most Mexican states, has plans and promises
bigger than its pocketbook. So far, the officials have had little success
in recruiting people willing to take such difficult jobs for as little as
$50 a week.
Years of Life Lost
Beto had been abandoned by his parents. Living on the street was tough, he
recalled, but it was nothing compared to the years of misery he suffered
at the hands of the government.
"I lost a lot of my life," said Beto, who is now 16 and was recently released
from the facility.
Beto wonders what his life would have been like had he not been forced into
the state system. His manner is withdrawn and unsmiling. He seems like a
serious man in a child's body. He lives with his ailing grandmother, earning
a few pesos a day pedaling a bicycle taxi in a town 45 miles from here.
He doesn't like to talk about his years in Merida.
Interviewed at a taco stand in a colorful town square, Beto paused for a
long time after each question, sipping on a soda. He said he was not angry,
but the what-ifs nagged at him.
"If I hadn't taken those two buttons, the police wouldn't have picked me
up," he said. "I could have found a job and a place to live. You can't do
that when you're in jail."
Researcher Laurie Freeman in Mexico City contributed to this report.
© 2002 The Washington Post Company