The Shifting Purpose of Prisons
How the war on drugs is spreading mass incarceration to Mexico and beyond.
The supply room of the Cafe Comité Cerezo at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM) was stacked to the ceilings with boxes of cup lids, sugar, and coffee beans. Baristas periodically came in to restock supplies. Light poured in through a single high window. Standing by a chalkboard on the wall, Antonio Cerezo Contreras of the Comité Cerezo held forth to our small delegation.
The Comité Cerezo is a small organization led by three previously incarcerated brothers that tracks political imprisonment in Mexico. The organization receives some funding from a German grantor, but the brothers mainly get by on the proceeds of their small coffee counter. As his son ran underfoot, Antonio told the small group of US and Colombia-based activists, “The purpose of the Mexican prison system changed to become punitive in 2011.” In a legislative act, the word “reintegración” (reintegration) was replaced with “rehabilitación” (rehabilitation) to describe the prison system’s purpose. In both English and Spanish, the two words are practically synonymous, but the word reintegration emphasizes the transition out. Rehabilitation is a more inward word, focusing on what happens to a person behind bars.
Antonio explained that the direction of this minute language shift, largely unrelated to any actual reintegration or rehabilitation, is magnified in real life. It signifies a stronger emphasis on imprisonment itself as the new focus and purpose of the Mexican prison system. Since 2011, people move through the judicial system in a different way. Sentences are sometimes hundreds of years, and people are placed far away from home in the newly built federal prisons. This shift, Antonio told us, “is very North American.”
Antonio was referring to the prison system of the United States. As Angela Davis, Michelle Alexander, and others have brought to light, our prison system functions as a tool of social control, designed to psychologically privilege white people while preemptively stifling black and brown dissent. After Reagan declared the War on Drugs in US cities across the country and along international supply routes, the US prison system grew massively in size. In the subsequent years, first in Colombia, then in Mexico, and then in the countries of Central America, the US style of imprisonment was thrust onto our international allies in this war.
I stayed in the headquarters of a leftist peace organization called the Mexican Movement for Peace and Development, or MOMPADE. Both a pied-a-terre and an organizing center, it was steps away from a colonial-era park, a Diego Rivera mural, glassy high rises, and the bustling historic center of Mexico City. The day I arrived, MOMPADE’s president had called a large meeting of activists in the apartment. He invited petroleum union members, human rights workers, a reporter, an academic, and a doctor who examines torture victims, and who later passed around pictures of victims on his cell phone. We discussed the current state of affairs in Mexico, US, and Colombia for hours, taking a break for dinner, and later for rum and coke, a large framed portrait of Pancho Villa looming over our heads.
I was a member of a delegation organized by the Alliance for Global Justice (AFGJ), a US nonprofit formed in solidarity with the Sandinista uprising which now supports an array of leftist movements in Latin America. My interest in militarization, prisons, and US imperialism is due in large part to what I learned as an AFGJ intern in 2012. I kept in touch with my contacts in the organization, and flew to Mexico from Baltimore City for a week this spring to meet up with them. I wanted to be somewhere hectic and warm, to slouch around Mexico City’s streets and museums. I wanted to see how things had been developing there.
As the gathered activists explained during our first evening there, the general political climate of Mexico is quickly drifting towards near-dictatorship and impunity. A petroleum union member suggested that in the States, there is at least a semblance of justice, but in Mexico, the justice system is “pura juega,” or “pure play.” This means there is little legislative recourse for human rights groups to use as leverage, since convictions against activists are often entirely manufactured.
Mexico’s criminal justice system is increasingly viewed as corrupt. On June 19, twelve Oaxaca teachers and students were murdered by police as they protested Common Core-esque education reform. Days earlier, two Oaxaca teacher’s union leaders were sent to Mexico’s first for-profit prison, Cefereso 11, on the opposite end of the country in Sonora. Antonio’s brother Hector told us that the Cerezo brothers are taking a path of caution in this worsening climate. To avoid disrupting the café and the lives of their young children, they leave UNAM’s campus very rarely and mostly decline to collaborate with other activists.
State repression like this is a global phenomenon, but the true US innovation is the way we make it “civil.” We pour huge amounts of money into growing our carceral infrastructure while criminalizing life on the margins. As Antonio pointed out, US prisons are for punishment, rather than reintegration. This vindictiveness has a political purpose – mass incarceration holds people apart from society forever, both through long sentences, and the difficulty of getting employment and housing after reentry. The United States was the first to develop prisons as a method for facilitating “expulsion,” the extreme marginalization of those who are displaced by inequality and neoliberalism.
Like in the United States, the justice system in Mexico has the veneer of respectability, and this respectability prevents people from political participation: a member of the Mexican League for the Defense of Human Rights, or LIMEDDH, a human rights organization present at the meeting, told us how hard it is to organize the families of political prisoners because of the shame that many relatives of incarcerated people feel about their family members in prison.
The stigma surrounding ‘criminality’ has clouded perception for both Mexicans and Americans about how the prison system supports state repression. But the root causes of our prison systems are different in one important way. In the United States, mass incarceration grew as a function of deeply embedded racism. A petroleum union member told me that Mexican prison repression is not based on racism, since in Mexico there is not one single divide that delineates what part of society is repressed by prisons and police and what part is not. My inclination, because of the distinct social divisions of my home country, is to see parallels to racism anyway because isolated and indigenous Mexicans suffer the most. Yet the architecture of Mexican society is very different from ours, shaped by the legacy of the colonial era Spanish class system and the disenfranchisement of indigenous people. State repression in Mexico has apparently not thought to scapegoat and stigmatize a distinct race. But insofar as state repression in Mexico is an extension of the war on drugs originating in the US, you could argue that mass incarceration in Mexico is the result of institutionalized racism gone global.
The language on USAID’s website describes intervention in Mexico’s justice system as helping Mexico deal with drug crime. Yet since the Merida Initiative, an anti-drug security agreement between the US and Mexico that was implemented in 2007, violence and drug trafficking have become fixtures in certain Mexican states. Many argue that the Merida Initiative actually caused the current climate of disorder and violence by flooding northern states with weapons.
Before drugs began to come overland through Mexico and Central America, cocaine and other drugs more often came to the US by sea and air directly from Colombia. The US poured over a billion dollars into Plan Colombia, an international “security agreement,” and when the Merida Initiative was being drafted, Plan Colombia was used as a template. The US had a great deal of control over every aspect of the plan – it has been said that the original Plan Colombia was drafted in English. In 2000, the prison “La Tramacúa” was built with US funding. AFGJ is currently campaigning to close this prison, where activists are tortured, and which is known as the most inhospitable prison in Colombia.
At the outset of this work, US officials spoke of creating a “new penitentiary culture” in Colombia. The phrase was meant to indicate peaceful, orderly prisons free from overcrowding. Yet the increase in prison capacity did not alleviate the issues Colombian prisons were facing; instead, it enabled more incarceration. The prison population has more than doubled since the years before Plan Colombia. Overcrowding in fact increased – the Colombia Office of the People’s Defender reports the greatest amount of overcrowding the country has ever faced.
Like in Colombia, the US has emphasized prisons in its newer security initiatives in Mexico and Central America where, in the words of USAID, we have “strong economic ties.” El Salvador’s prison population in particular has skyrocketed and its incarceration rate is now sixth in the world.
In Mexico, one visible aspect of US involvement is prison guard trainings, which have brought prison guards as far as Colorado: “Over 30,000 justice sector operators, within the new criminal justice system, have benefitted from USAID activities, both through direct training programs and institutional support to training units” (USAID).
What the institutional support actually entails is not specified. US involvement happens behind closed doors, but prison imperialism is evident in how the Mexican prison population has grown in size since the adoption of the Merida Initiative, and how Mexico has adopted some of our prison system’s features. The human rights organization LIMEDHH released a statement saying that Mexico is undergoing the worst human rights crisis in its history, with between 250 and 1000 political prisoners in 2015. Prison imperialism is how the US collaborates with the Mexican state to repress dissent, and this keeps in power a Mexican government that is friendly to US interventions.
The president of MOMPADE called me a “visitor from the heart of the empire.” Baltimore, the city to which I returned, is indeed very close to the nation’s capital. It is also one of the urban areas where the United States has been locking up black people on a large scale for decades.
When I arrived home, I took the light rail from the airport. On the evening walk back to my house my surroundings felt eerily tranquil compared to Mexico City. I saw maybe two people the whole walk home. The population of Baltimore has been declining steadily since the 1950s, and in many parts of the city, including the blocks between the light rail stop and my house, highways to the suburbs seem to have priority over the accommodation of city life. I most likely saw a police car on that silent walk back – a sight that is unremarkable in a city that spends half its budget on public safety.
For weeks after I came back I couldn’t shake the feeling that there were supposed to be street vendors, shops, and streams of people running errands by foot. Perhaps there would be now, had Baltimore not been so poorly served by city and state policy for decades. But for all its vibrancy and crowds, Mexico City is policed at a very noticeable rate too. The Historic Center was especially full of cops. I sometimes felt like I was at a ballgame or a county fair, some special event that had called in security. The police stood around in groups of five or six, milling about or directing traffic.
I’m used to police not paying me much attention, so they always tend to seem bored to me, or just ubiquitous. But then I’m forced to remember. Soon after I returned home from Mexico, I saw in passing a huge crowd of very young-looking protestors being arrested on the I-83 highway off-ramp. I later heard that were 65 arrested, that they were protesting police brutality, and that they were held for hours in vans with the heat turned up on a summer day although no charges were pressed. In light of the recent repression of the Black Lives Matter movement in Baltimore and many other US cities, it’s become all the more obvious that here, too, repressing dissent is an important function of prisons and police.
The goals of the activists I met in Mexico seem to be aligned with those fighting against mass incarceration and police brutality here in the States. Black Lives Matter and related movements are not frequently described as anti-imperial in the international sense. But they very well could be. Latin Americans are now repressed by the same prison culture that US activists hope to dismantle.