Published: June 7th 2009June 6th 2009
Yup...still looks like a prison.
My first introduction to Laredo, Texas came eight years ago, when a college friend who grew up in Laredo invited me to visit him for a few days after our freshman year. Since then, I have returned to this city a total of four times and have still not tired of it. But this time, my visit to Laredo is not for pleasure. Instead, I am here to film the prison in Laredo’s sister city of Nuevo Laredo, Mexico for a National Geographic prison series.
Last night, I along with my three fellow crew members arrived in Laredo, Texas to begin our three-week ‘incarceration’ in CERESO II. While I had been to the prison once before for a scout, I was very anxious to see what, if anything, had changed in the passing year. I was perhaps most interested in confronting the very shocking disconnect between my first visit - which left me with a rather favorable impression of the prison - and the horror stories that I read in the papers upon my return.
Our assignments for the first day of the shoot were to acquire a SENTRI pass from the Department of Homeland Security and then meet
Inmates in their cell
Most cell houses have 5-8 inmates per cell.
with the prison director in Nuevo Laredo to discuss the logistics of the shoot. Because we had decided to stay in a hotel in Laredo for security reasons, we applied for a SENTRI pass in order to expedite our drive across the US-Mexico border each morning and afternoon. As soon as we arrived at the Department of Homeland Security’s offices, though, my initial fears were immediately confirmed. After explaining our assignment to the Department of Homeland Security representative, his first response was anything but encouraging. “Wow, you’re going straight into the devil’s mouth,” he said.
At first, I was convinced that this was just the perspective of one jaded border patrol agent. But then, a second agent informed me that the local newspaper office in Nuevo Laredo was recently bombed for reporting on the drug cartels. She, and others, insisted that we bring a local escort along with us in case our van was ambushed and we were held hostage. For the first time since I had scouted the prison one year earlier, I began to wonder whether this assignment was really worth the danger involved.
But, then, everything seemed to change. After our successful SENTRI interviews, we
Inmate with her baby
Female inmates are allowed to keep their children with them in prison until their 6th birthday.
drove to the prison, only to be greeted by the most jovial, friendly, and dedicated prison director I had ever met. Though he normally goes by “el director,” Senor Juan Roberto Montes Romero has clearly dedicated his life to improving the living conditions in the prisons of Tamaulipas, Mexico. He literally lives in his office, sleeps on a makeshift bed, and sees his family once a month, at best.
And his dedication has undoubtedly paid off. Only five or six years ago, CERESO II was one of the most dangerous prisons in Tamaulipas - perhaps in all of Mexico. Two American brothers were murdered in their cell in 2005, a woman visiting her husband for a conjugal visit was shot and killed in 2006, and (also in 2006) the prison director was let go after federal inspectors discovered over twenty dangerous firearms in inmate cells.
But today, CERESO II appears to be a very different place. After meeting with “el director” for an hour or two, we toured some of the nine cell houses to look for potential inmate characters. Surprisingly, most, if not at all, of the inmates greeted us warmly and some even offered us the quesadillas that they were cooking in their cells. In one cell house, Modulo 5, we met a female inmate who was living with her one-and-a-half year old daughter. She, and others, made the prison feel much more ‘human’ than any other prison I have been to in the United States. And recent reports published by the Mexican federal government have corroborated our observations - one, published by Mexico's Comision Nacional de Los Derechos Humanos (National Commission of Human Rights) recently identified CERESO II as the safest prison in the state of Tamaulipas. After all, if a one-and-a-half year old child could be raised in this place, how bad could it possibly be?
After talking to some of the other inmates, my fear was no longer that this prison was going to be too dangerous but, rather, that it was going to be too soft. But, after a tiny bit of reflection, I now have a sneaky suspicion that, unlike in the United States, the terms ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ may not even apply to Mexican prisons. While the prison may seem habitable and the prisoners happy, I would not be surprised if, below the surface, something is brewing that is simply beyond the range of my slightly naïve American radar.