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Doing Time in Tijuana : In La Mesa Penitentiary, Prisoners Live With Their Families, Rich Inmates Control the Real Estate and Everything--Even Guns and Drugs--Has a Price

March 27, 1994|SEBASTIAN ROTELLA | Sebastian Rotella is a Times staff writer. He covers the U.S.-Mexican border from the San Diego bureau

THE BOY IS 4 YEARS OLD. WEARING A BLUE SWEAT SHIRT, BAGGY jeans and a look of solitary awe, he wanders through the Sunday afternoon tumult of the La Mesa State Penitentiary, a raucous Tijuana dreamscape.

The boy passes taco stands in the central plaza, a makeshift video arcade and a general store with a hand-painted 7-Eleven sign. He gets a pat on the head from one of the scruffy tattooed men crouched in a predatory daze around the basketball court. He stops and peers up at a trio of musicians celebrating the baptism of 32 babies in angelic white regalia, new arrivals behind the walls patrolled by baby-faced guards who wear rifles and jaunty touches--a scarf, a Raiders jacket--over their uniforms.

The boy's world is a daily barrage of wonders: huddled heroin addicts shooting up in a corner, point-blank gunfights between pistolero s in cowboy hats. He mimics what he sees. In the chapel with a Madonna framed by flashing lights, he clasps his hands in prayer. In the gym, he throws furious shadow-punches as boxers pound speed-bags to a clattering funk beat. Asked his name, he responds with one soft word: "Mascara."

His melancholy visage has inspired that moniker, which means "mask." He has been rechristened by residents of a prison that seethes with the surrealism of the U.S.-Mexico border. He is not visiting. He lives here with his parents.

Of the more than 2,500 residents of La Mesa, 300 are wives and children of prisoners. Because many inmates are migrants, the prison evolved to accommodate their impoverished kin. The resulting overpopulation forced authorities to tolerate construction of unofficial dwellings, known as carracas , creating a lucrative real estate market. More than 200 carracas and about 60 inmate-owned businesses are crammed into four acres that bear scarce resemblance to the stark confines of U.S. prisons.

In many ways, La Mesa is a product of the only land boundary between First and Third Worlds, a frontier shaped by wayfarers, pioneers and desperadoes. In a 1992 report, the National Human Rights Commission of Mexico concluded: "It is not exaggerating to state that the prevailing circumstances inside the state penitentiary create a tableau that is unique in the world."

With its strolling families and shack-town skyline dotted by homemade television antennas, this prison-turned-village in the centrally located La Mesa neighborhood has earned the nickname "El Pueblo de La Mesa." It has developed its own architecture, economy and laws--a strange order that governs the seeming anarchy. Creativity and warmth endure alongside corruption and savagery, challenging the stereotype conjured by the words "Mexican jail."

"The government accommodates the people, and the people accommodate the government," says San Diego Police Sgt. Carlos Chacon, an expert on prison gangs who knows La Mesa well. "The government doesn't have a lot of money, so they are forced to work together." The pragmatic arrangement has produced a class structure mirroring that of the larger Mexican society. The rich amass luxuries and surround themselves with servants and bodyguards hired from the ranks of the poor, who scrabble to survive.

"It doesn't look like it's dangerous," says Mario, a tall, rugged Chicano serving 10 years for marijuana possession. "But there are criminals in here that will kill you for a quina (about 20 cents). You can't forget you're in a penitentiary. You gotta remember, they got guns in here."

Inmates committed at least 12 murders in the prison in 1993, using smuggled firearms including Uzis. Although turf wars between inmate mafias pose a potential for disaster, La Mesa has not had the deadly riots experienced by other Mexican, Latin American and U.S. penitentiaries. The presence of inmates' relatives defuses some of the tension. "In our society, the family is extremely important," says warden Jorge Alberto Duarte Castillo. "Through the family, it has been possible to control the situation."

For all its problems, the prison preserves a measure of humanity. "They should take this and apply it in the U.S.," says Mario, who has done time on both sides of the border. "You got the stores, the wives and the kids. Morale-wise, a guy doesn't feel locked up. In the U.S., it's all steel and concrete. A guy is in with a bunch of men; there's homosexuality, frustration. He comes out angry and violent. He goes from a black-and-white world to color. And he can't handle it."

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