Psychoanalyst and anthropologist Elena Azaola is one of Mexico’s foremost experts on prison issues and criminal justice. In a recent report that she prepared for the national agency on anthropological studies, she summarizes some of the more shocking statistics that put the reality of Mexico’s prison problem in perspective.
About 65 percent of Mexico’s prisons are essentially controlled by gangs, she says, a conclusion also shared by the government’s human rights body. And while Mexico’s inmate population is indeed growing, she argues that this has more to do with prohibitionist drug policies, rather than the government’s assault on larger criminal groups like the Zetas or Sinaloa Cartel.
In a conversation with InSight Crime below, Azaola shares some of her other views on the reality of Mexico’s prison “boom.”
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
Do you have a sense of what year you started seeing this increase in Mexico’s prison population?
In Mexico, the prison population has been growing, but nor can we say that there’s been a significantly higher growth in recent years. Nor can we say there’s been a stagnation. The truth is that there hasn’t been an increase in the prison population proportional to what we’ve seen with Mexico’s fight against insecurity and crime.
So we can say that the prison population isn’t growing in relation in Mexico’s security crisis?
Exactly. And it’s not that you want the prison population to increase. What I’m talking about is that the prisons are full of people that don’t need to be there. And meanwhile, those that need to be in there aren’t, because crimes aren’t being competently investigated in Mexico. There’s a lot lacking in that area.
So for the most part, most people who are in prison are those who were caught in the act. They were caught robbing something on the street. Those are who most of the inmates are. Poor people involved in theft. I don’t want to say that there aren’t important criminals in prison, there are. But proportionally, there’s very few in relation with the entire penal population.
The truth is, much of the crimes — the more important crimes — remain unresolved. For example, 90 percent of the homicides that we saw under Calderon and during the first two years of this administration — 90 percent of those haven’t been resolved. So yes, there’s been a growth in the prison population, but it hasn’t been an exponential growth. I would describe it as steady.
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You also talk about how only 5 percent of Mexico’s inmates are women. And while the population of male inmates grew 40 percent over the past decade, the number of women in prison doubled. Why is that?
This is a result of drug policy… These women, who previously — maybe due to economic reasons — would have relied on robberies [to survive], now more than anything they are moving or selling small amounts of drugs. But what we’re highlighting in the study is that the laws in these countries [across Latin America] don’t make a distinction between the different levels of involvement these people may have in organized crime networks — the different hierarchies that there may be, or the seriousness of the crimes that they may have committed.
The women we find in prison in Mexico are in there for having consumed [drugs] or for having carried small amounts of drugs, or for having been hired to carry some small package, but they don’t form part of organized crime networks, for the most part. There are few very cases.
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Do you see any willingness in the current administration to do away with some of these more harmful practices that are contributing to overcrowding, like pre-trial detention?
That’s part of what we’re trying to call attention to. We’re not going to be able to solve Mexico’s security problems without paying attention the prisons. It’s a type of vicious circle. They don’t pay attention to inmates, they don’t give them a life with dignity, and this produces much greater damages to society than benefits.
What do you think of all the attention paid to figures like Chapo Guzman and La Barbie when they complain about their prison conditions?
Well, that’s how the media works in Mexico. When this or that or this personality, who are the big capos, start complaining and show their faces and say, we don’t like the treatment, that’s when the spotlight is shone on these issues. But if the other inmates say something similar — inmates who have exactly the same rights — what they say doesn’t get that kind of notoriety, or that kind of distribution. It’s really like these big personalities are circus animals put on display, and not human beings who are in prison and have the same rights as the other inmates.