Revolution #145, October 19, 2008
Rebellion and Massacre at La Mesa Penitentiary
In Tijuana, Mexico, La Mesa Penitentiary is just over the border with San Diego, near the Otay Mesa border crossing. From September 14 to 17, thousands of prisoners, men and women, rose up in rebellion twice in 72 hours against torture and murder by the guards. Built to hold 3,000, La Mesa is the most overcrowded prison in Mexico; crammed with 8,000 prisoners, sometimes housed 24 to a 10’ x 13’ cell. Mexico’s entire prison system is overwhelmed. La Jornada describes, “Prisoners sleep standing up tied to the bars of their cells in order to not fall over.” In La Mesa, most prisoners being held there have never been sentenced, many are awaiting trial, they were picked up for the crimes of poverty: robberies, car thefts, women are being held for stealing diapers.
By the end of the day on September 17, the government had perpetrated a horrific massacre. Officially, the prisoner death toll is 23, with 70 wounded, most with gunshot wounds to their head, back and thorax. But almost a month later there are 200 prisoners still unaccounted for.
The night of September 13, Israel Marquez Blanco was tortured to death in front of his cell mates. His sister was interviewed by Free Speech Radio News, after identifying Israel in the morgue: “His body was all beaten, full of scars. He was handcuffed. They put a book over his stomach and beat him with a baseball bat until he died from a blow to his head. He was covered in bleach and his arm was broken. That’s why all this destruction started. They saw how they killed my brother.… He had just 10 months before getting out. And look, he came out early, but only because he’s dead.” Israel was 19 years old, imprisoned for car theft.
Sunday, September 14, was visiting day. Hundreds of families were strip-searched, charged a visitor’s fee, and let in to see their loved ones. There was a heavy tenseness in the air. At about 1 p.m. the prison exploded in rebellion. Prisoners fought with guards. They hurled chunks of concrete ripped from the walls. Mattresses and furniture were burned. Three guards were taken hostage and a guard tower was set on fire. A door was forced open and a still undetermined number of prisoners escaped. Banners were hung from the roof: “Guardias Asesinas! Murdering Guards!” “We demand an end to the abuse! Queremos Justicia! We Want Justice!” Hundreds of imprisoned youth hung from the rooftops of the prison, shouting to the crowds of thousands of family members who had gathered below. The families of the prisoners threw rocks at heavily armed riot police advancing down the narrow street. Two police cars went up in flames. “Justicia! Justicia! Justicia!” The cry echoed off the prison walls. At 2 a.m. state police stormed the prison and opened fire on the inmates.
The next day, thousands of people, mainly women, clamored at the gates and demanded information: “We want to see our inmates! Justice!” “Queremos ver a nuestros internos! Justicia!” The authorities told them nothing. The families blocked traffic in nearby city streets and surrounded official vehicles. 21 family members were arrested and charged with riot and destruction of property.
Then on September 17, at 1 p.m., the women prisoners broke out of their cells and climbed to the roof. They yelled that the prisoners had been denied food and water for two days, that there were hundreds of injured prisoners who were not receiving medical care and that there were dead bodies. They hung banners that said, “¡Alto al Maltrato!” “Stop the Mistreatment!”
By 3 p.m. on September 17, the local, state and federal military police (federal preventive police, PFP) stormed the prison and began shooting high-powered rifles from helicopters. Prisoners report being chased down prison hallways by police shooting at them from behind. The press described how the federal military police (PFM) “took great delight” in firing live ammunition at the prisoners.
250 prisoners have been transferred to other prisons in Baja California. But according to the Committee of Families of Inmates, there are still 200 prisoners missing. A local Tijuana newspaper, El Sol de Tijuana, 9/26/08 reported statements by Alicia Aguilar Dávalos: “The inmates have told me that there are at least 200 dead, the inmates are seeing this, they’re telling me that the authorities are secretly taking bags of lime into the prison so that the bodies won’t smell.” She said that neighbors of the prison have reported seeing prison officials taking containers out of the prison that smell strongly of dead animals, and a prison worker told her that the containers hold dead bodies. Human remains have reportedly been found in ashes that are being examined by the coroner. Aguilar Dávalos also heard that bodies were being buried in a common grave in “Cemetery No.12 near Maclovio Rojas”—an area on the outskirts of Tijuana. Prison officials have admitted that they did not know the exact number of persons being held in La Mesa at the time of the rebellion, and they also don’t know how many prisoners escaped during the rebellion.
To justify the massacre, government officials and members of the media have played on the climate of fear generated by warring drug cartels and widespread kidnappings and have portrayed the rebellion as nothing but a fight between two known gangs involved in drug trafficking—the Sureños and the Norteños. Alicia Aguilar Dávalos, president of the Committee of Families of Inmates, commented: “Understand this: this was no fight between gangs. [The prison] was a barrel of gunpowder, with a slow-burning fuse, and the death of Israel was the detonation.”
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