TIJUANA — Like dozens of other juveniles taken into custody by the U.S. Border Patrol in San Diego each month, Francisco and his friend, Hector, were recently turned over to Mexican authorities here. And, like other unaccompanied minors, they say they were immediately placed in the overflowing Tijuana juvenile jail, where they spent three nightmarish evenings before securing their release by posting a "bail" of 50,000 pesos--about $22.
"It was horrible there," Francisco, 16, a resident of the central Mexican state of Jalisco, recalled during an interview at a shelter here. "There were fights all the time. There was no room to do anything. We slept on the floor. The food was terrible."
The case of the two youths is not isolated. Each year, hundreds of unaccompanied juvenile migrants arrested by U.S. immigration authorities and sent back to Mexico must endure time in Tijuana's juvenile detention facility, which is wedged between the police department and adult jail on Avenida Constitucion downtown.
At the jail, the youths mix with accused juvenile criminals, including alleged rapists and murderers, and spend much of their days simply killing time, mostly in a cramped, rectangular "patio" where a few rays of sunlight penetrate through the chicken wire. On the cement floor, dozens of juvenile prisoners in ill-fitting clothing and shoes sit cramped like canned fish. Tijuana children know the jail universally as La Ocho, because of its location near 8th Street.
At the facility, there are few activities, few pastimes, and fights are commonplace, according to children interviewed and social workers and others who have visited. Designed for 40 children, the institution housed 125 minors recently, authorities acknowledged.
On the brick facade outside the juvenile jail here, a sign describes the facility as a center of "Orientation and Reeducation for Minors of Anti-Social Conduct."
"There's no possibility of rehabilitation there," said Guillermo Alvarado, a Tijuana social worker who has headed an independent program assisting Tijuana's street children. "It's a jail for children with all the problems of an adult jail."
The migrant youths must remain there--some up to two weeks, according to social workers--although they have committed no crime under Mexican law. While critics here have condemned conditions as scandalous, they are even more outraged that young migrants who have commited no infraction in Mexico must endure the place.
"These children shouldn't be in a penal setting," said Jose Luis Manzo, a Tijuana psychologist who visited the facility numerous times while gathering information on alleged torture of minors by Mexican authorities. "Because they are from the poorest sectors of society, because they have no political clout, the government doesn't bother to act to help them."
Adding to the outrage of critics is the fact that a modern new juvenile detention facility--complete with outdoor basketball courts and seemingly spacious dormitories--sits unused a few miles from downtown, apparently another victim of the Mexican economic crisis. Various funding and construction problems have delayed the opening of the new jail for almost a year, observers say; the new grounds are now overgrown with weeds. Most recently, the move was put off because of the lack of adequate fencing, according to Daniel Romero Mejia, who heads the juvenile facility here.
"We should be moving over there in a few weeks," Romero said during an interview in his office, adjoining the juvenile facility, which is a Baja California state institution. "We can't move in without secure fences."
But the move has been imminent for so long that many are pessimistic. "They're probably waiting for the new president to inaugurate it," said Alvarado. Mexico's next president takes office next Dec. 1.
Even once the move is made to the new site, however, the migrants will most likely remain in the downtown facility. The new buildings, Romero said, will be reserved for those accused of crimes, the majority of those in custody; most being held are awaiting juvenile court proceedings.
Romero, 27, who has headed the juvenile facility for five years, defends the longtime practice of placing of the unaccompanied migrant minors in the facility after they have been returned by the Border Patrol. The alternative, he says, is to simply allow them to go free on the streets of Tijuana, where as many as 3,000 "street children" already reside.
"It's true that they haven't committed any crime in Mexico," said Romero, who said every effort is made to care for the youths in the jail. "We recognize everyone's right to attempt to better their lives by crossing the border . . . . But they might face greater danger on the streets."
He acknowledged, however, that the migrants could be subject to "contamination" from the criminal element in the jail. Space constraints make it impossible to segregate accused criminals from the migrants, he said.