Honduran Migrants And Refugees Suffer Terribly In Tijuana Jails

Photo: Rob Wilson Photography

The jails in Tijuana, Mexico are literally hell on earth. Especially for Central Americans. But particularly for Hondurans. The jails I saw were filled with migrants, refugees, the mentally ill and the poor. Within those black sites people are terrorized by the Mexican police and every agent of the Mexican “justice” system. Sadism rules. The wretched of the earth are tortured daily.

As a brown person with “US citizenship,” recently arrested and held in two Tijuana jails, I offer an eye-witness account of what I saw. I was booked for the alleged “administrative” offense of “interfering with official police duties.” My real crime was cop watching and publicly defending a Honduras migrant. The migrant was casually walking down a busy street when he was profiled by 5+ Mexican police and violently attacked, put in a chokehold and unconsciously arrested. It was a horrifying spectacle. It crossed my mind that the police might kill him right there in broad daylight. 

As I’m currently doing mutual aid work in Tijuana, I choose to remain anonymous to protect the identities of my friends. But I can tell you a few relevant details; I’m a trainer in Non-Violent Direct Action, completely fluent in Spanish, intimately familiar with Mexican culture, been previously jailed in the US, and am a fierce defender of human rights. The fact that I’m not from Honduras, or Central America, helped get me off the hook. It is my personal responsibility to speak out about the atrocities that are being normalized in a Mexican border town, right now in December 2018. 

Let me start from the very beginning and describe sequentially the whole nightmare of going to jail in Tijuana:

One sunny afternoon, I was walking down the street with a group of friends, and a friend of a friend, who is a 30+ year old male migrant from Honduras. We walked past a group of Mexican police armed to the teeth with automatic machine guns, bullet proof vests, tasers, knives, billy clubs. They catcalled some of us. We kept walking. Then, the police turned their attention to the migrant who was with us. They immediately shouted out loud that he looked like a “drug addict” and “criminal.” Next thing I knew, they had him surrounded. They had cornered him, they violently searched him, found less than a gram of marijuana on him, and put him in a deadly chokehold. He started foaming at the mouth. His eyes rolled to the back of his head. His body grew limp. 

I instinctually took out my phone to video record what was happening. I didn’t have any battery left so I wasn’t actually recording. Then I calmly asked one of cops why they were harassing him and to please let him go. The cop reacted by threatening to arrest and to search me. I continued to insist that they treat him with respect. The rest of the gang of police threw the migrant into the back of a cop car, and then they all turned their attention to me. The tall, very large officer handcuffed me tightly, radio called in a female cop to brazenly feel my breasts, thighs, waistline, hair – ransack my fanny pack and even remove and search my boots. They found nothing yet they refused to let me go. It was unclear to me why I was being arrested at that point. 

Next, I was thrown into the back of a police van and driven recklessly through heavy traffic to a jail near the Benito Juarez sports arena that was also serving as an impromptu refugee camp for migrants from the “exodus” of Central America. On way to the jail, we stopped to pick up a scantily dressed woman who was very obviously being arrested for prostitution. She said she had the money to “pay the fine” and got released. I didn’t see her inside the jail or ever again. 

I was unloaded into a waiting area inside the jail near Benito Juarez. At least 5 cops watched me closely while one of them wrote down my personal information and took several pictures of my face with their cell phone. Later on, a “judge” with a lanyard around his neck, clipboard in hand strolled by and loudly announced my name, what I was charged with and the verdict for my crime. He said I could pay something like a $2,800 pesos fine or if I didn’t have the money, I would be thrown in jail anywhere between 8 to 30 hours. It was highly evident that Mexican jails are only for those who cannot pay approximately $140 US dollars or more to be let out on bail. The Mexican government is making a lot of money by incarcerating the most vulnerable people in society – it’s bail system is an absolute extortion racket. 

After the judge drifted away to other affairs, one of the larger officers that arrested me stepped right up to my face and condescendingly lectured me for at least 20 minutes. He made up hypothetical situations completely irrelevant to my charges to try and scare me. He asked what if the Honduran migrant had been driving me in a car and, hypothetically, had a gun, or was drug trafficking; insisting that I would be charged for those crimes as an accomplice even if I was unaware that crimes were being committed. The false equivalency was made to explain why I shouldn’t stand up for migrants who I don’t really know when the police are viciously assaulting them on the streets. 

Then I was put in a dark, concrete jail cell. It was totally bare; not even a bench to sit on. Only a small disgusting toilet sat in the far right corner. The same large pot-bellied officer who had me arrested appeared outside my cell to proclaim that I would be drug tested. He asked me to confess to any drugs I was on or had used within the last week. I told him I’d smoked pot about a week ago. He said it was fine because I confessed and I was never actually drug tested. He took my picture holding his cell phone through the cell bars before walking off. 

Curiously the cop also mentioned that I was not read my rights during this entire arrest because of the nature of my charges. Apparently, “Administrative” charges don’t require the police to tell you what rights you have as a defendant but they can still lock you up regardless. 

All the while, a young man was painting the outside of my jail cell bars with green paint. He whispered comments to me from time to time in English when the guards weren’t looking. He said he had been deported from the US. He also said things like, “They’re just trying to intimidate you, don’t worry. You’ll be ok.” 

Despite my fellow prisoner’s assurances, I couldn’t stop worrying about the Honduran migrant who was arrested with me. My brain wouldn’t let me forget that he could be deported back to Honduras over this minor infraction. He was being charged with possession of marijuana as well as resisting arrest which are considered criminal offenses. 

But directly across from my cell was a large group of around 15 or more men of all ages. Most of them were wearing dirty clothes, some totally barefoot. Some of them slept on the cold, concrete floor. Others stood at the bars starring off into the distance or at me. Most of them were in there for minor crimes such as marijuana possession, marijuana paraphernalia and other nonviolent offenses. I know this because the same clip board wielding judge who dealt with me read their names out loud too, as well as their charges and even their country of origin. It was clear: Hondurans were over-represented in that jail cell. Noticeably several of them could not give a Mexican home address and instead said “Benito Juarez,” the refugee camp, when asked for their residency. 

In a light hearted moment or resistance, one of the prisoners insisted to the judge that his real name was Gael Garcia Bernal; the name of a suave Mexican actor. The judge was forced to accept that as his name since he didn’t have a government ID and proceeded to read out loud his alleged crimes. Other prisoners laughed and cheered for a brief minute.

What happened next is truly disturbing. The Mexican police and guards are utterly cruel. They operate with total impunity under the guise of law and order. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a man cowering and trying to raise his hands over his head. He was standing further down, towards the front entrance of the jail. I walked up to the bars of my cell and tried to take a closer look. A guard was beating the man over the head with a billy club while yelling at him. The man was trying to run away, visibly afraid, begging him to stop. He had handcuffs on so he could hardly shield the blows. I made it evident to the guard that I was watching. The vicious guard looked straight at me – he smiled and waved. I cut him the angriest look. He stopped beating him. 

About an hour later, the officer who arrested me appeared outside my jail cell yet again. He said I would be transferred to another jail. I asked why. He didn’t say but again mentioned I could pay a fine in order to be released today. More time passed, then several cops showed up to put the handcuffs on me again. Eventually they escorted me to a cop car with the sirens blaring. 

Yet another dangerous drive through rush hour traffic, we arrived at a jail much farther away. The ride felt very disorienting. Because of the cop car swerving, I couldn’t really read street signs or figure out exactly where I was being taken. They also refused to tell me where I was going. The car finally parked inside the jail, in an outdoor concrete pen. Several people were lining up for intake. The first thing the doorman police officer asked me is if I was from Honduras. I said no and they treated me markedly different than the others being processed. The cops were asking for nationality, and those from Honduras were rapidly reported over the walkie-talkies. I wondered who the cops were reporting to.  

The men who were in line in front of me were taken to a crowded jail cell by the intake entrance. The yellow light bulbs cast an eerie glow over their cell. The men were immediately stripped of their shoe laces. I quickly realized none of them had money to pay their own bail. Down a corridor that looked similar to a mental hospital ward, I could hear a woman shrieking while another yelled at her to shut up. 

They took my mug shots, finger prints, noted my tattoo, asked where I was from, took my social security and government ID numbers down. Off to another jail cell. This one had 3 women in it but was significantly smaller. It was brightly lit like a doctor’s office with a plastic window where the guards could talk to you. There was a camera mounted at the top of the room clearly pointing at us.

My cell mates all looked exhausted and were starving. One was an 18-year-old, beautiful dark skinned girl who said she needed to call her mother but was denied her phone call. She also kept asking for food; none was given. But she smiled often. I saw her smile when I was released. 

One woman was very visibly mentally ill. She would curl up herself into a little ball in the far corner. Her feet were bare and terribly blackened with thick scabs of skin pealing off. She hardly spoke other than to demand the guard bring her something to eat. 

The 3rd woman was interested in having a conversation with me. She was a middle aged Mexican woman with long brown hair in a ponytail. She immediately asked me for money, then asked me what I was being charged with. She said, “I’m going to give you a piece of advice. Leave Tijuana as soon as possible because the Mexican police are monsters.” She warned me the cops are rapists and pretty girls are a target. I can clearly remember the concerned look on her face.

Shortly thereafter I paid the fine with a US debit card, plus a $70 international charge, and was released into the loving arms of my crew. I am extremely privileged and lucky. I had dinner that night. I had jail support. I was never threatened with deportation. These things set my experience far apart from the experiences of others who were incarcerated there. 

There are no words, in Spanish or English, to describe the horrors migrants and refugees are facing in Tijuana jails. My crime was to stand up for a Honduras migrant violently attacked by the Mexican gestapo, therefore I have no shame or guilt about going to jail for this basic gesture of human decency. While kidnapped and detained in 2 jails, I saw the real face of the Mexican state, the “malgobierno.” It is violently racist and xenophobic against indigenous people. It makes money off the backs of the most vulnerable and the poor. Its war on drugs is a war on migrants and refugees. Despite the extreme repression, this reign of cruelty is coming to an end. 

To those prisoners still behind bars in Tijuana, I see your humanity. I see your pain and your resistance.

To all the migrants and refugees, you’re my people. We rise together for justice and freedom to live in peace with our families.  

To my friends who fight for human rights in Tijuana: I love you. You’re my truth.

To the Mexican government:  Release all prisoners now! Decriminalize all drugs! 

To the Mexican guards and police I ask: what is more important your job or your soul?

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