Mexican jails are generally known for corruption, crime and overcrowded conditions but a penitentiary in the northern border state of Chihuahua offers a contrasting picture.
Some empty beds, zero drug consumption and no bribery are features of the Social Reinsertion Center (Cereso) of Guachochi, where about half the inmates actually turned themselves in.
The 253 prisoners share one identifying characteristic: they all belong to indigenous communities. Most — 181 — are Rarámuri while 66 are Tepehuan, three are Guarojío and two, Pimas.
The state penitentiary began operating in January 2015 and was built to house a population of 100% indigenous inmates. Equipped with a kitchen, an artisan’s workshop, a barn, a bakery and a library, the jail has strict security measures, but there’s seldom a need to enforce them.
According to official figures, 98% of the inmates are behind bars for homicide and rape, a percentage hard to find in state or federal penitentiaries elsewhere in Mexico.
“Some have been charged under federal crimes and in their files they have been catalogued as ‘dangerous.’ Then you get to really know them and find out they’re peaceful people,” said the jail’s criminologist, César Payán.
“The jail’s statistics are the opposite of what one could expect. The Rarámuri are very peaceful, and since the jail opened we haven’t recorded a single fight,” said Guachochi’s warden, Juan Martín González.
“I shouldn’t say this, due to our security procedures, but we’re currently using the punishment cell as a temporary storeroom.”
Rosendo Arrazola, 29, a member of the Tepehuan indigenous goup, is in jail for homicide and has been an inmate of the penitentiaries in the state capital Chihuahua and Cuauhtémoc City.
He said Guachochi hasn’t registered a single case of suicide or sexual abuse, and that he has been able to live there in peace. “There are no ranflas here,” he added, using the local slang word for organized crime gangs that control other jails.
Arrazola also said that in his experience indigenous people in other penitentiaries are often enslaved by the other inmates.
For Guachochi’s resident doctor, the reason indigenous people commit crimes is simple: “It’s alcohol. They commit most of their crimes while drunk, and not only from their traditional tesgüino [a type of corn beer]. There’s a large quantity of adulterated spirits are seen throughout the sierra after new roads are opened, said Dr. Roque Hernández.
Of the total inmate population of Guachochi, 60% are 40 years old or younger, and 95% are in jail for alcohol-related crimes.
Warden González explained that violence in the Chihuahua sierra has been caused by warring drug cartels, severely affecting the indigenous communities which had been used to living under their traditional customs.
In recent years, the Rarámuri sierra has seen the arrival of opium poppy plantations, and the locals are often forced to work for the cartels under threats of death. Many have no other option but to flee their ancestral lands.
The Rarámuri equate nature to life and conditions of confinement often overwhelm them, leading to depression, explained Hernández.
“They don’t even attempt an escape because they know they are at fault in their communities. Social standing is all for them. It is shameful to escape, which is why many voluntarily turn themselves in after committing a crime.”