The Topo Chico massacre, Mexico’s fire this time

Yet again, women gather outside prison gates to find out if their loved ones are still alive. This time, it’s the Topo Chico prison, in Nuevo León, in northern Mexico.

Yesterday, something happened that left at least 49 prisoners dead and 12 injured. That `something’ has been variously described as a battle, riot, clash, brawl, fight, pitched battle, and gang war. It was all of those, and it was more. It was a predicted event, and to that extent, irrespective of the violent histories of the individual prisoners involved, it was a planned massacre.

In 2014, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, Juan E. Méndez, visited Mexico’s prisons, including Topo Chico: “Overcrowding … is a serious problem … The Government reported a total prison population of 248,487 men and women, distributed among centres with a total capacity of 197,993 persons … Overcrowding is … caused by a failure to use alternatives to prison and by abuse of pretrial detention, especially its mandatory application. Of the total prison population of 248,487 detainees, 104,763 have been charged … In … Topo Chico … inmates have excessive control over services, benefits and the functioning of the prison (inmate “self-rule”), which gives rise to disparities in the exercise of rights, corruption and situations of violence and intimidation among inmates, all of which the State has a responsibility to prevent. The Special Rapporteur accepts that protective measures must sometimes be taken and that it is often inmates who request them, but such measures cannot involve cruel, inhuman or degrading conditions. He draws attention to the conditions observed in the Topo Chico prison “doghouse”, a small enclosure where over 40 detainees allegedly in need of protection are living in unacceptably cramped and insanitary conditions … In …Topo Chico … inmates generally had no water, light or ventilation in their cells. Health conditions were usually grim and many inmates had to sleep on the floor or in shifts … Solitary confinement generally involves critical overcrowding in small cells and appalling conditions, particularly in … Topo Chico.”

In the same year, Mexico’s National Commission of Human Rights assessed all the prisons in Mexico, and rated Topo Chico a 5.72 on a scale of 10. The Commission reported that Topo Chico was designed for a maximum of 3635 prisoners, and held 4585. The Commission found that, in 2013, the male wing of Topo Chico was 55% over its limits, and the women’s section was 56% overpopulated.

None of this is new. Topo Chico was a well known bomb set to go off, and it did. That the pieces of that bomb are gang members or have violent pasts, or not, is a distraction. The real violence is the cramming of more and more bodies into less and less space that is itself less and less livable.

James Baldwin wrote, “There is a limit to the number of people any government can put in prison, and a rigid limit indeed to the practicality of such a course. A bill is coming in that I fear America is not prepared to pay.”

For Mexico, this Topo Chico massacre is the fire this time. The bill came in, and now, as so often, the women stand at the gates calling, weeping, mourning.


(Photo Credit: Juan Cedilla / Proceso)

In Colombia, Fernando César Niebles Fernández died today


Fernando César Niebles Fernández died today … or was it Monday. It’s hard to tell. Anyway, he didn’t die. He was murdered.

This past Monday, January 27, a fire broke out in the Modelo prison, in Barranquilla, on the Caribbean coast of Colombia. By day’s end, ten prisoners were reported dead, over 40 injured, many seriously. Today, the death toll rose to 11.

The fire has been described as an inferno, but the real inferno, the real hell, is the prison itself. Designed to hold around 400 prisoners, at the time of the fire, Modelo held close to 1200. The cellblock where the fire broke out was designed to hold 196. At the time of the fire, it held 716 That’s 265 percent of capacity. Modelo was and is a death trap, pure and simple. Colombia prison system is at almost 200 percent capacity.

When the fire broke out, it was thought to be a conflict between different groups. And so the staff shot tear gas into the cells and that was that. As the fire intensified, the bars remained closed. The inferno was not the fire. The inferno was `protocol.’

And now? The stories of the families pour forth, with photos and videos and words, words, words. Mothers and fathers, like Rocío Cantillo Torres  and Atanasio Mutis, wait for their sons. Sisters, wives, daughters, friends, neighbors, strangers wait for news, wait for death. Modelo was and is inferno. The event of death is important, but the death itself was long foretold. Who could survive such conditions?

And today, it’s Mercedes María Suarez’s turn. She’s Fernando César Niebles Fernández’s mother. Her son lived with severe mental health issues, caused by a road accident four years ago. He needed help. Instead, he got prison. It’s a common enough story. She weeps for her son, and asks how the State could have done this, could have come to this pass.

The ordinariness of the story of Fernando César Niebles Fernández and Mercedes María Suarez doesn’t reduce the suffering, the personal and individual tragedy, but don’t let anyone tell you it’s a national or historical tragedy. It’s not. It’s happened too many times, in Colombia and Brazil, in January, and around the world. Stuff the prisons to beyond bursting and what do you think will happen? The deaths at Barranquilla, like the deaths earlier this month in Maranhão in Brazil, were no accident. They were public policy. As James Baldwin once argued, “It is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime.”

There will be more fires, and some day the fire, the fire next time, will not be the fire of the criminally innocent: “God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more fire, the fire next time!” But today, weep for Fernando César Niebles Fernández, weep with Mercedes María Suarez.


(Photo Credit: El Universal (Colombia))