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Visiting Hours

How Mexican prisons fleece the families of the incarcerated

The sun breached the horizon just moments before Fabiola arrived at the airport in Torreón, a city of around seven hundred thousand in the northern Mexican state of Coahuila, to pick up her passengers for the day. Two young women from Mexico City, fresh off the hour-and-a-half flight from the capital, stowed their suitcases in the trunk of Fabiola’s beige sedan. They climbed into the car, shivering in the early morning desert cold, to embark on the hour-long drive to the Federal Social Readaptation Center 14 (CEFERESO 14, in its Spanish acronym), a maximum-security prison on the outskirts of Gómez Palacio, Durango. They had traveled to pay a five-hour visit to their husbands.

As they drove, the women gossiped about an upcoming group wedding in the CEFERESO. Fabiola, short and zaftig with a loud, throaty voice and manicured eyebrows, carried a folder of paperwork for the March 16 ceremony, documents that the out-of-state brides-to-be had sent her to file on their behalf. She pulled up a WhatsApp chat on her phone and scrolled through photos of shoes, pausing on a photo of pointed ballet-style slippers in pastel colors, then a pair of sandals with a metal ring. Not these: nothing metallic would be allowed, nor anything with decorations, platforms, or heels. Fabiola herself has yet to tie the knot with her partner, whom she has been visiting in prison for the last eight years. They have been a couple for two, but she doesn’t want to undergo the battery of invasive medical tests that a prison wedding requires.

Over the line that divides the state of Coahuila from Durango, the landscape of Torreón’s malls and low-slung homes turned to scrub brush. The smell of manure wafted from a complex of stables. Fabiola turned off the highway onto the road to the CEFERESO, where a guard checked each car that passed by. The walled complex rose like a fortress out of the desert, echoing the ridged mountain range in the distance.

Fabiola had made the drive several times that week already. A native of Torreón, she runs a one-stop shop for other women who come to visit their families imprisoned at the CEFERESO. While Mexican law allows prisoners to request to serve out their sentences at the prison closest to their home, many inmates at the CEFERESO 14 are a day’s travel away from their families. Underlying this distance is a profit motive: the facility is one of eight privately managed prisons in Mexico, created in the early years of the drug war by then president Felipe Calderón.

The multimillion-dollar contracts to build and operate prisons in the 2010s went to a who’s who of international investment funds and business elites: one is operated by the brother-in-law of Carlos Salinas de Gortari, the former Mexican president who signed the North American Free Trade Agreement and privatized dozens of state-owned companies. Two federal prison contracts belong to the financial services company Grupo Inbursa, owned by Carlos Slim, the impresario who made his fortune from Salinas de Gortari’s privatization of Telmex, the national telecommunications company. The contract for CEFERESO 18 in Ramos Arizpe, Coahuila, first went to a subsidiary of the Mexican infrastructure company Grupo Tradeco and was later taken over by BlackRock. The Tradeco subsidiary—Contratista Generales De America Latina, SA de CV—went on to build Salvadoran president Nayib Bukele’s Center for Terrorist Confinement, the mega-prison that holds 12,500 men, many of them innocent, who were swept up and tortured as part of a social cleansing campaign. Ecuadorian president Daniel Noboa recently told the public that he would hire the company to build prisons in his country: “It’s the same company, the same design they used for prisons in Mexico and El Salvador. For all those Bukele lovers, it’s the exact same prison,” he affirmed. CEFERESO 14 and 17, meanwhile, belong to a subsidiary of ProDeMex, a construction company that’s been awarded billions of dollars of government contracts, and whose parent organization, Grupo Empresarial Angeles, also owns a series of hotel and hospital chains and the media company Grupo Imagen.

Despite outgoing president Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s determination to differentiate his security strategy from his predecessors, punitivism remains as popular as ever. A 2019 constitutional reform expanded the catalog of crimes that merit mandatory pretrial detention. This time, the justifications were fighting white-collar crime and protecting women: among the offenses added was femicide. Today, the prison population is at its highest point since 2016. And in recent months, President López Obrador has taken up his predecessors’ antidrug crusade, with the threat of fentanyl as justification: in February, he proposed expanding the list of crimes meriting mandatory pretrial detention to include production, preparation, transportation, and storage of synthetic drugs.

As the overall prison population increased, López Obrador undertook a fierce cost-cutting campaign, allegedly to fight inflated government budgets that sheltered corruption schemes. He decried the prison contracts left behind by Calderón, calling the prisons “five-star hotels.” The president’s characterization was the inverse of a common refrain among those close to the prison system. “Mexican prisons are the most expensive hotels in the world,” a woman visiting Mexico City’s Reclusorio Oriente once told me. She was referring to the cost of sustaining her incarcerated relative: the food she carried in bulging shopping bags (state prisons allow families to supplement the meager prison diet by bringing inmates their own rations); the cost of toiletries and cleaning supplies; and the bribes that custodians, and sometimes other inmates, charge for everything from passing roll call to securing a mattress to sleep on to renting a clandestine cell phone. At privatized prisons, families report being vastly overcharged for, among other things, sneakers, snacks, and toilet paper. Inside the CEFERESO 14, for instance, a prisoner can buy eight ounces of walnuts for, at the time of writing, fifteen dollars. Women nearly always pay the bill. The president, however, was speaking not to the prison system’s immense burden on families but the cost to the state: nearly two hundred dollars a day per inmate. Private prisons were not at capacity, but the government had to pay out the full contract regardless of how many beds were filled. To compensate, five state-owned federal prisons were ultimately shut down, their inmates transferred en masse to the privately managed prisons.

In the name of austerity, prisoners were reshuffled to remote facilities, many far from home, often without their families being notified of their whereabouts; they reported widespread torture and beatings by officials during the transfers. The López Obrador administration went on to renegotiate the prison contracts, allegedly cutting them by more than ten billion pesos; the president boasted that the savings would be used to build one hundred barracks for the National Guard.

Visitation Wrongs

Lucía Alvarado grew intimately acquainted with prison after her brother Mario’s incarceration turned her into an activist for inmates’ rights. In March 2007, Mario’s job had been cleaning airplanes at the Mexico City International Airport when authorities found nineteen kilograms of heroin on an airplane arriving from Colombia. They arrested the plane’s entire crew and dozens of other airport workers, twelve people in total; after two years in pretrial detention, Mario was sentenced to twenty years in prison for organized crime and crimes against public health.

In a system characterized by state-sanctioned negligence, corruption, and cruelty, informal care networks are invaluable.

Lucía and her sister-in-law took on the task of investigating the case to prove Mario’s innocence. They sought out evidence, witnesses, and videos; eventually they determined that, when the plane was unloaded, Mario was working on another one some eight hundred meters away. Seven and a half years into his sentence, a court resolved that Mario had not been on the premises; it struck down the sentence for crimes against health, though the sentence for organized crime remained, for a total of ten years. Along with her sister-in-law, niece, and mother, Lucía would visit her brother in the CEFERESO 12 in Ocampo, Guanajuato. They brought him toothpaste, toilet paper, and soap, none of which the prison provided.

For families of inmates, getting these resources to their loved ones isn’t easy. To enter a prison, visitors must observe a strict dress code. The subtleties vary from prison to prison, but neutral colors rarely fly: no beige or brown clothing, so as not to be confused with inmates awaiting sentencing. No navy blue—that’s what sentenced inmates wear—and preferably no blue at all. No black, because the guards wear black, and to be safe, you probably want to avoid gray. Stay away from white too. Shirts must have sleeves; skirts must graze the knee. The glimpse of a black bike short beneath a dress or the blueness of a shade of olive might see you turned away. Frequent visitors know the rules’ nuances well. They show up wearing their designated prison-visit outfits, hot pink jeans or traffic-cone-orange dresses. But even the practiced may arrive to find that the yellow blouse that passed last month is now judged too close to khaki. The custodian at the gate will send them back outside.

The hulking structure of the CEFERESO 14 is flanked by the visitor’s waiting room, a diminutive trailer-sized structure with large, frosted windows and mint-colored walls. Outside, a solitary blue vending machine on the concrete esplanade offers Coca-Cola, chips, and cookies. Inside, three rows of black plastic benches face a line of desks manned by officials in navy blue uniforms who check each visitor in as they arrive. At 8:45 on the morning of Fabiola’s visit with the women from Mexico City, the last few visitors from the morning shift trickled in, nearly all women, many of them wearing pink. Once approved by the social worker, they proceeded to a checkpoint where a guard scanned them with a metal detector, and they shook out their socks and underwear.

Informational posters on the walls advised visitors of the regulations for a photo for their visitors’ pass as well as restrictions around inmates’ reading material, which must “contribute to social reinsertion and education.” It may not include content about war, drug trafficking, celebrity gossip, death, politics, nudity, weapons, spells, witchcraft, or the police. Each inmate may receive one dictionary and a Bible. On a television in the waiting room, a woman’s voice explained the Istanbul Protocol, a set of international guidelines on documenting and investigating torture, over infographics about the National Campaign Against Torture. One shot showed rows of seated inmates in beige, their faces blurred out, reading purple pamphlets.

There was some irony to such a segment being aired in the 14. The privatization of prisons was announced as a way to diminish abuses and corruption inside the facilities. Through the Mérida Initiative, the security agreement through which the United States has funded Mexico’s fight against drugs and organized crime since 2007, the United States began overseeing the certification of Mexican prisons by the American Correctional Association, a nonprofit organization with close links to the U.S. prison system. The ACA accredits prisons based on 142 standards of the facilities, like the placement of fire extinguishers or proper tool storage in a woodworking shop. Since 2011, 121 facilities in Mexico, including all of the privatized prisons, were certified by the ACA, though 29 have since lost their certification status. Violence and torture have been reported even at facilities that maintain this seal of approval. At the BlackRock-owned CEFERESO 18, guards beat an inmate to death last May. Months later, hundreds of women at the CEFERESO 16, owned by Carlos Slim, fell ill in a mass food-poisoning incident. And in June 2021, guards beat and tortured hundreds of inmates at the CEFERESO 14. As the journalist Zedryk Raciel documented that October, one member of the National Human Rights Commission, a government ombudsman organ, was investigated for being present for and overseeing the latter incident.

Cruel and As Usual

The remote locations of private prisons make it difficult for families to respond to the abuses their incarcerated relatives face. In February, Maricel M. traveled more than eight hundred miles to visit her son José. Fourteen years ago, José left home for a supposed job opportunity working for an engineer only to be forced to participate in a kidnapping scheme when he arrived. He was arrested and has been imprisoned for thirteen and a half years, seven of which he has spent in the CEFERESO 14. His mother has visited him at the facility twice. Maricel is unemployed and sells tamales to get by. Between transportation, food, and renting a room, she estimates that a trip to visit her son can cost up to sixteen thousand pesos, about $1,000 USD, just over two months’ worth of minimum-wage earnings. Despite filing the required paperwork, the authorities haven’t granted José’s request to be transferred to a facility closer to his home.

The multimillion-dollar contracts to build and operate Mexican prisons in the 2010s went to a who’s who of international investment funds and business elites.

While in prison, José’s mental health has deteriorated, and he suffers from episodes of auditory hallucinations during which he has attempted suicide. He called his mother last October and told her that a guard had been urging him to take his own life, but Maricel couldn’t make the trip until February of this year. On their Valentine’s Day visit, his hands were bruised from punching the walls, and Maricel noticed marks on his neck from a suicide attempt. José told her that the same guard routinely stops in front of his cell, mocks him, and tells him to kill himself. His mother reported the incident to the National Human Rights Commission and to the local prosecutor’s office in Gómez Palacio. Maricel fears for her son’s life, but at a day’s distance away, there is little more she can do.

The distance of some prisons from the jurisdiction of alleged crimes can also slow down the legal process for inmates who have yet to be sentenced, a group that includes two out of five prisoners in Mexico. As José Luis Gutierrez, the director of the Mexico City-based advocacy organization ASILEGAL, explains, inmates facing charges on the state level may see their processes extended indefinitely due to logistical challenges. If their hearings are held in a court in their home state, they must dial into virtual hearings, and if the teleconferencing software fails, the hearings are postponed. Legally, those accused of a crime cannot spend more than two years in prison before being sentenced, but in practice, those awaiting sentences may be behind bars for much longer. One man—whose mother requested their names be withheld for fear of backlash from the prison—was arrested for a kidnapping near Mexico City eight years ago; his mother says that a relative framed him to get revenge for a family dispute. He was sent to the CEFERESO 14, and his case was transferred to a court nearby, but authorities have been unable to track down witnesses, so the case has stalled. After three years of taking overnight buses from Mexico City to visit her son, the mother moved to Torreón to be close to him. She’s been there for five years now.

In a system characterized by state-sanctioned negligence, corruption, and cruelty, informal care networks are invaluable. Previously, Fabiola was a housewife and stay-at-home mom. After her marriage ended, a friend whose husband was also incarcerated at the CEFERESO 14 offered to introduce her to the man who would become her current partner. She first agreed in hopes that he could help her get revenge on her ex-husband. They started writing each other letters. She learned that he’d been framed for the murder and kidnappings that had sent him first to a state prison, then another, then to the maximum-security facility in Gómez Palacio. He convinced her not to go after her ex and asked if she’d like to visit him. To get her visitor’s pass, Fabiola submitted a sheaf of paperwork, including her birth certificate, his birth certificate, proof of address, three personal references, and a passport-sized photo of herself against a white background, printed on matte paper.

Taxi rides from Torreón to the prison can cost several days’ worth of earnings for minimum-wage workers, and few drivers are willing to wait out the visiting hours to drive visitors back to town. As she began to visit regularly, Fabiola recognized this difficulty and started offering other families a spot in her car for less than the cost of a taxi. She learned to navigate the prison’s bureaucracy, and she offered advice to other women with relatives in the 14. Fabiola now manages a WhatsApp group of some two hundred women, scattered across the country and the United States. She spends her days driving between the prison and government buildings, ferrying both families and legal documents, sucking down coffee between sending WhatsApp voice notes. At home, her desk overflows with papers.

Occasionally when an inmate is released, they put down Fabiola’s name as their contact. When I met her in February, she was coming off several days of particularly heightened activity: a few inmates had been released over the weekend; the prison had notified her that they’d soon walk free but didn’t give her the day or time. Fabiola made the hour-long drive both ways a few times over the course of the weekend, only to find that one man of the group remained inside. When he eventually got out, she tracked him down at a truck stop, dazed by the outside world after twenty-six years of imprisonment. She took him out to eat and called his family.

Society’s Scapegoats

Though policy proposals vary, Mexico’s political class seems uniformly behind the drive to incarcerate. Early this March, presidential candidate Xóchitl Gálvez, the contender from the center-right coalition who hoped to replace López Obrador at the end of his six-year term, launched her campaign with the promise to build a high-tech maximum security mega-prison “where criminals are afraid of ending up, so they think twice before committing an atrocity.”

A few days after International Women’s Day, Lucía Alvarado, now retired from her work as an advocate, reflected on the carceral feminism that justifies such proposals. Lucía had joined tens of thousands of other women in the Women’s Day demonstration in downtown Mexico City on March 8. There, she heard testimony from women whose families’ lives, like hers, have been indelibly marked by violence and impunity: daughters murdered by their boyfriends, sons killed by the police, brothers disappeared by unknown forces. She listened to their cries for justice. “What would they say,” she asked herself, “if they knew I fought for those men”—the ones now behind bars, convicted of kidnappings and femicides?

But prisons don’t contain hordes of bloodthirsty killers. Lucía repeated a common saying: prisons are full of pobres y pendejos, the poor and the unlucky. As of February 2024, according to monthly data released by the prison system, some 38 percent of inmates in Mexico have not been found guilty of a crime. Of those that had, few truly received due process: 40 percent of those sentenced say they were coerced to accept a shortened trial. Lucía’s brother, Fabiola’s partner, and Maricel’s son all maintain that they were wrongly accused.

Incarcerating more people hasn’t stopped femicides and disappearances from increasing. But politicians need to tout numbers to prove they’re tough on crime, so the system creates criminals out of whole cloth, whether by incentivizing police officers to make arrests, torturing the innocent until they confess, refusing to give due process to the accused, or simply letting cases languish endlessly in the justice system’s bureaucracy. Authorities justify the expansion of prisons as a measure to protect women, yet they rely on the unpaid labor of hundreds of thousands of mothers, sisters, and daughters to supply inmates with what the state will not. For almost every man in prison, there is a woman on the outside working double or triple shifts, pawning her earrings, or selling her car. Dozens of people—whether international investors, justice system officials, or prison custodians—make money from their suffering.

For the oft forgotten female inmate population, the system is particularly brutal. Women make up less than 10 percent of Mexico’s prisoners, and, anecdotally, they’re far more likely to be abandoned by their families when inside. The visiting day crowds outside a men’s prison dwarf the slow trickle that arrives at a women’s prison. As Lucía pointed out to me, women tend to support their incarcerated husbands or sons until they’re released: “When it’s the son, they keep their bedrooms the same until they come out.” Incarcerated women, on the other hand, can permanently lose custody of their children. They’re also more likely to face indefinite pretrial detention: about half of incarcerated women in Mexico are serving time without a sentence. As we talked, Lucía made it clear that she doesn’t challenge a mother’s desire for her daughter’s killer to end up behind bars. She can’t imagine a world without any prisons, but she sees that the system as it exists neither protects women nor reforms offenders. “There are a lot of wounds that don’t heal with prison,” she mused. “I think victims look for something more than punishment. That pain will never be silenced, no matter how many prisons exist.”

She shared an anecdote from a woman she knows whose son is incarcerated. The woman was riding the bus when a group of men got on board and mugged them. As they gathered the passengers’ cell phones in backpacks, one passenger managed to poke their head out the window and yell for help. The bus stopped; the police came. They returned the woman’s phone and asked her to identify the assailants. She looked at the men. She thought about how she needed her cell phone to call her son. She reflected on the many cases of police arresting someone for robbery, then charging them with much more serious crimes, resulting in a decades-long prison sentence. “I don’t know,” the mother told the officer. “I don’t remember.”

A stolen cell phone is one thing; a disappearance or femicide is another. I asked Lucía if she thinks society will ever embrace the dignity of women like her, who bear the weight of society’s scapegoats. She shook her head in exasperation. “They will never recognize us,” she said. A prisoner is a criminal, and a criminal is proof of the failures of their upbringing. In a system that profits from punishment, culpability always lies with the mother, never the state.