Dozens of children have been tortured at a temporary youth shelter in Tijuana, Baja California, according to one of the victims.
A 19-year-old man identified only as Javier told the newspaper El Universal that when he was 10 years old he was placed in solitary confinement at a shelter run by the DIF family services agency in the northern border city.
Javier said he was dragged into the so-called “meditation room” located behind the shelter itself by two employees and left there in the dark without access to water or a bathroom for more than a week.
Many other children suffered the same fate during the time they spent in the care of the state, he said.
“DIF did whatever they wanted to me,” Javier told El Universal at a Christian shelter where he now lives in San Quintín, a town about 300 kilometers south of Tijuana.
He said the first day he was held in the “meditation room” he demanded to know what had happened to his brother who was also staying at the shelter but whom he hadn’t seen for a week.
He found out that his brother had also been held in the “meditation room” as punishment for complaining about the quality of a meal he was given. Upon “release” he was transferred to another state-run facility.
Javier said that during his time in solitary confinement he was only given food sparingly.
“Sometimes they forget that you’re there and don’t give you anything to eat,” he said, adding that he had to relieve himself in the small, dark space. “I shouted that I wanted to go to the bathroom but they didn’t let me out,” Javier said.
“Once they took me out and said to me, ‘If I hadn’t seen you I wouldn’t have remembered that you were there.’ That was something that made me angry.”
One of the psychologists who worked at the shelter reportedly justified holding young children in solitary confinement, saying: “Sometimes it’s necessary because one doesn’t know what to do with them … [when] they behave badly.”
According to El Universal, an autistic boy revealed the location of the “meditation room” to the Baja California DIF director Blanca Fabela during a visit to the shelter last November. She was subsequently taken to the room and upon opening its metal door discovered that two adolescents were being held there.
It is unclear what action was immediately taken but in recent days, Baja California Minister of Integrity and Public Administration Vicenta Espinosa Martínez revealed that an investigation has been opened and that a criminal complaint against those responsible for the torture will be filed.
The State Human Rights Commission has also launched an investigation but no victims have yet been formally interviewed.
Some shelter staff members have been dismissed in connection with the alleged torture but none currently face criminal charges, El Universal said.
Javier, who left the shelter four years ago, says he now has ambitions to study law because as a lawyer he will be able to defend the rights of children facing the same situation he did.
The Tijuana youth shelter is not the only state-run home in Baja California where children are allegedly being mistreated.
According to a report published Sunday by the news website Noticias Ya, children at a temporary DIF shelter in Mexicali rioted last week against their mistreatment.
A children’s rights advocate told the news portal that the commotion occurred after several children had been held in isolation for varying lengths of time ranging from less than an hour to a few days.
The woman, whose identity wasn’t disclosed, said that DIF employees at the Mexicali shelter treat misbehaving children as if they were violent criminals. Even children with disabilities are held in solitary confinement at times, she said.
Ana Laura Galicia, a psychologist in Tijuana, said the children being abused come from violent homes where they were also mistreated. Locking them up on their own amounts to re-victimization and torture, she said.
The children’s rights activist said that solitary confinement has been used as a punishment at the shelter for at least 12 years.
Baja California authorities are also investigating the alleged mistreatment at the Mexicali facility and a complaint has been filed against employees who committed acts of torture against the children living there.