In almost two decades in prison, Carlos Lizarraga had not been beaten and tortured as much as happened on March 12, 2020, when hooded men arrived at the Federal Center for Social Readaptation, Cefereso 6, located in the southern state of Tabasco, Mexico.

That night, when the prisoners were asleep, those men raided the cells of all the people deprived of liberty, took them out, rummaged through their belongings, and kicked their ribs and testicles. Some of the inmates got their fingers broken and others received electric shocks to the anus.

The next day, Carlos did not complain to his mother when he spoke to her on the phone, like every Friday, since the authorities tend to listen to his calls.

Inside that prison, “learn to shut up” is a mantra that circulates among the prisoners, who have already learned the penalties for speaking out. However, during the visit on March 14, families realized the prisoners hardly move, as well as bruises on their faces and bodies.

From that night on, they were tortured continuously until Oct. 21 when they were transferred to Cefereso 12, located in Guanajuato, as part of the policy of the Government of Mexico to close the prisons run by private initiatives, also known as CPS.

The journey to the new prison took thousands of kilometers and through the route, the same blows were repeated, carrying new emotional and financial complications to families, who now had to travel greater distances to visit their relatives.

Despite these conditions, President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said that paying for these prisons “is the equivalent of maintaining a five-star hotel.”

This statement was made as a result of the contracts that were signed since the administration of former President Felipe Calderon as part of the Private Reintegration Centers, and which in nine years, had a cost of about $3.7 billion.

The public opinion received the president’s statement as if the prisoners lived in the midst of luxury in the prisons, which raised annoyance among families and inmate organizations.

As a result of this, hundreds of organizations wrote a statement in which they said: “We recognize the intention of the federal government to make public the information on the million-dollar contracts made to build and operate the CPS, after nine years in opacity. However, the danger of labeling these centers as ‘luxury hotels’ leads to diverting the conversation from the reality of the prison system.”

For the hundreds of signatory organizations, this reality is constructed by “systematic torture, abuse of preventive detention, criminal recidivism, sexual violence, institutional violence against women, forgotten people from the LGBTI+ community, overcrowding, self-government, lack of decent living conditions, victims of abuse and the thousands of people who have been separated from their families by the massive transfers.”

Regardless of the scheme under which Mexican prisons are administered, both public and private, they have not guaranteed respect for human rights, in accordance with Mexican laws and international mechanisms, due to unworthy and cruel treatments that are carried out.

This is what people deprived of liberty from different prisons, lawyers, and human rights defenders denounce, a statement that is supported by complaints, appeals, and videos to which the Anadolu Agency had access.

“The CPS has the same way of working, aimed at broke people who defend themselves: they torture them, they isolate them. There are many violations inside. I am a survivor of them in Cefereso,” exposes the lawyer and ex-inmate Ricardo Sayavedra, who now defends inmates, as in the case of Lizarraga or Israel Vallarta, who assures that evidence was fabricated to present him as guilty in 2005 in a known case of kidnapping.

The CPS (or Service Provision Contract) is a scheme or regime of the penitentiary system that means that private companies, through a contract, receive money from the State in exchange for operating the prisons.

Anadolu Agency requested an interview with the federal and state prison systems of Edomex but did not get a response.

Service provision contracts

Days before the massive repression in Cefereso 6, located in Tabasco, the state from which President Lopez Obrador came from, the prisoners expressed their disagreement regarding the conditions of food, isolation, and lack of measures against the arrival of the coronavirus to Mexico in March of last year.

According to relatives, a riot was organized and the guards were taken hostage, whom they recorded accepting that the conditions were unsanitary. Then these videos were broadcast on social networks.

Prisoners from numerous prisons in Latin America have resorted to the practice of making complaints through videos that are later published on social networks, especially criticizing the few biosecurity measures against COVID-19, according to the monitoring of the platform Latin American Connectas.

With this complaint, those who were incarcerated in Tabasco thought that their conditions could improve, but it was not. Rather, agents from the National Guard – the new security corporation of this Government – supposedly arrived there and ‘beat them to death’. When the inmates contacted their families on Friday, March 13, the silence was notorious. The few words, according to their mothers, were a sign that they had been mistreated.

“They were attacked in the face, abdomen, arms, legs, intimate parts such as testicles and anus, using electric shocks (…) I know it because I went to visit my son on Saturday, March 14, and saw him beaten, and I also saw his companions that could not walk because of the blows they received (…) It is urgent that you intervene so they could receive medical treatment since they have been denied medical service saying that they have no right to nothing,” says the testimony of an inmate’s relative, who was included in a complaint with the National Human Rights Commission (CNDH).

Dozens of families who presented themselves to the CNDH delegation in the city of Villahermosa, Tabasco, also gave terrifying testimonies.

“Security and custody elements took them out of their rooms, stripped them naked, and hammered them down for several hours, in addition to spraying gas on them, hitting them, and giving them electric shocks on different parts of their bodies,” the CNDH confirmed during their visit to the prison.

However, now that they are in a new prison, in Cefereso 12, the conditions have not changed. Inmates are constantly getting sick, because the prison administration keeps the fans on all day, arguing that the walls are supposedly damp. Despite the torture, Carlos has not allowed himself to be defeated.

His lawyer, Ricardo Sayavedra, filed a complaint before a federal court, in which he states that his client “has suffered acts of torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading acts, beatings, forced positions, technical threats of depersonalization and subjugation that involve since the transfer and that continue to be consumed.”

The seventh district court granted the precautionary measure so that “any act of incommunicado detention, physical or psychological torture, punishment, torment or injuries to which he may be subjected (…) and that puts the personal integrity of Carlos Evaristo at risk Lizarraga Flores.” However, according to Sayavedra, the authority has not complied with the measure.

Carlos maintains his “unwavering spirit” in the face of torture, but when it became a regular practice, he felt despair. He is kept up by his family and his faith in the law, a profession that he has studied in prison in recent years, to be able to defend himself in hearings and advise his companions, which has led him to be nicknamed “The Amparista”.

“On one occasion he helped people of one floor in the area where he was. He set them free,” says his sister Dalia.

“Carlos studied law in Tamaulipas. Due to the transfers, he could no longer qualify and process everything. Given that reason, in all the centers that he has been, he has tried to guide and help the inmates (…) The moment comes when you are uncomfortable for the system because you defend yourself and enforce your rights from within a prison,” he says Sayavedra, who also defended himself through the law when he was detained.

The state prisons

What happened to Carlos is not different from what is also presented in state prisons, both for men and women.

In the Ecatepec Penitentiary and Social Reintegration Center, Chiconautla, located in the State of Mexico, in the center of the country, conditions are practically the same. They do not receive better food, medical services, or dignified treatment, according to various testimonies.

Inside this prison, former prisoner Jose Humbertus Perez Espinoza led a movement that has rebelled since 2016 against mistreatment and judicial abuses. Together with 300 prisoners, he filed a collective complaint for violation of the presumption of innocence and for torture. Something like this has been tried by Carlos, but he has been repressed and held incommunicado. Currently, his fingers are injured after several fractures and his vision is damaged by the tear gas sprayed by the guards.

“If before COVID-19 there were major human rights violations, lack of medical attention, spoiled food, and no balanced diet, with COVID-19 everything worsened,” says Perez Espinoza, now head of the organization Presumption of Innocence and Human Rights (PIDH).

An inmate from the Chiconautla prison, who asked to keep his name in reserve for security reasons, explained to Anadolu Agency by telephone that his life “has changed a lot because it is a time bomb” as a result of the pandemic. He witnessed an attempted riot on June 28, when the inmates demanded food in good condition, clean water, medicines, and visits.

At the end of this attempted riot, the prison management promised to comply with the demands. However, at night the “mad cows” arrived, as the riot police are called. Dozens of them arrived at the cells firing tear gas, beat them, and then isolated them. “It was to intimidate us,” he says.

None of this can be told on the prison phones because, like Carlos, the guards listen to their calls. He does it from a cell phone entered illegally: “They have abandoned people with HIV, they do not give them medicine. They have them sleep in the bathrooms,” comments the inmate, who details that for five months they have not renewed their masks.

Their relatives must give the masks to them or give them money to buy masks from the custodians.

According to the CNDH’s ‘Special Report on the status of the measures adopted in penitentiary centers for the attention of the health emergency generated by the COVID-19 virus’, only 40.9% of the prison population were handed toilet articles; 30% did not receive a water supply; 22.4% of the national population did not receive medical attention, and 30.6% did not obtain medication. These data are current until June 4, 2020.

In the Tepozanes female prison, they have faced the same problem and they add that extortion has increased. Due to this, strikes arose, although the convicts point out that they are repressed, isolated, threatened to be transferred to other prisons, and punished without food.

“Here rent is charged for everything. They take away from us what little or much we have. They are sent by security and custodians (…) As we do not have many visits due to the COVID-19 pandemic, corruption begins,” says a woman deprived of liberty, who clarifies that the extortionists are presumably coordinated by a commander of the security service.

On Aug. 18, two inmates noticed that some commanders and inmates were beating a prisoner who refused to pay extortion.

The family made this problem public on social media and were threatened. Later, the witnesses were subjected and beaten, according to a complaint filed by PIDH with the Human Rights Commission of the State of Mexico (CODHEM).

“They isolated them in their own bedroom, leaving them without food,” the complaint said.

“If you don’t pay, they will beat you,” said an inmate from the Chiconautla prison in Ecatepec, the largest municipality in Latin America.

An example of this occurred on June 18 at the Texcoco Penitentiary and Social Reintegration Center, in the State of Mexico, when an inmate was given 25 tablazos (hit with a board) in the buttocks for not paying extortion to the gangs who control the prison, according to a video accessed by Anadolu Agency.

The fee was increased from 100 to 300 pesos, that is, from 5 to 15 dollars, just so they don’t get hurt.

For Humbertus, with the pandemic “the level of aggressiveness rose due to the total isolation of the inmates from their relatives; and above all, a great problem of violence was generated. Forms of self-government led to extortion”.

Another complaint that Humbertus filed with the CODHEM indicated that the inmates are tortured “brutally” when they do not pay extortion or are taken out at dawn to clean the entire module on their knees or naked.

Whatever the prison, under public or private schemes, inmates are submerged in hell. These are the five-star hotels to which Lopez Obrador refers.

*Juan Felipe Velez and Maria Paula Trivino contributed to this story.

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