Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Criminal Treatment
My Time in a Mexican Jail

By David G. Young

Cancun, Mexico, January 22, 2008 --  

A run-in with the law can teach important lessons about the treatment of people on both sides of the Mexican border.

The walls of our Mexican jail cell were filthy. The concrete enclosure had institutional pastel green paint splattered with brown stains. The stench that wafted through the 8-foot by 8-foot square room hinted at the source of the discoloration. Behind a 3-foot high concrete privacy partition was a clogged stainless steel toilet. The contents was backed up over part of the cell, the filth extending to the concrete bench that served as a sleeping platform.

The overhead light in the cell didn't work. We were lucky to have a cell with a line-of-sight through the steel bars to an outdoor window. As our watches had been confiscated with the rest of our valuables, this window was not just our only source of light, but our only indication of time.

Two hours earlier, my wife and I had been strolling along the beach in the relaxed resort town of Playa del Carmen, our first return visit since our wedding there almost three years earlier. Our whimsical decision to buy a ferry ticket to the island of Cozumel was fateful. An argument with a ticket agent about the authenticity of a 200 Peso note we'd received from a cash machine at the Cancun airport landed us in police custody at the town jail. We were stripped of all our possessions, photographed with the incriminating bill, and marched past lines of rough-looking Mexican prisoners in handcuffs, then put behind bars (fortunately together in a private cell), with little knowledge of what would come next.

Fortunately for us, our stay was brief -- an hour, maybe two. My wife, who speaks enough Spanish to make herself understood, repeatedly insisted on calling the U.S. consulate. Samantha Mason, an American resident on contract for just such situations, talked to us by phone before we entered our cell, and promptly visited us at the jail. Soon after, we were released.

Two hours later, we were dining on the beachfront. My feet were in the sand, and I was drinking a Mexican beer.

Throughout the experience, we kept thinking what would happen in such a situation to a Mexican citizen in the United States. Although Mexican consulates do exist in many American cities, it is unlikely that one would provide such an immediate response, and unlikely that a Mexican would be released so quickly. Like us, a Mexican in the United States would be ignorant of the local legal customs. This highlights the immense importance of practical access to the mechanisms of the legal system. A Mexican in America may do fine if provided with a court-appointed attorney, but only after being held up to two days as allowed by law.

If not present on a valid visa, like most Mexican workers in the United States, a poor soul might be transferred to the custody of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, losing much of his access to the legal system in the process.

Would his or her cell be as filthy? Would he or she be separated from violent prisoners?

Those who assert that an equivalent situation in the United States would be handled more gently might be surprised. Unlike 25 years ago, international watchdog Freedom House now rates Mexico a free country like the United States,1 based partially on improvements in its legal system. On the other hand, after hours in custody, it became increasingly suspicious that the Playa del Carmen police were just messing with us -- teaching us a lesson for troubling them with such a trivial matter. Would this happen in the United States?

But the most important takeaway from this experience is the importance of appreciating the plight of good people who run afoul of the law. Our brief experience, however unpleasant, was trivial compared to that faced by hard-working Mexicans living in the United States who are jailed after much longer periods and deported over immigration visa violations.

During the immigration reform debate last summer, many Americans cruelly vilified such immigrants as "criminals" because they broke immigration law. Putting aside distinctions between criminal and civil law, this may technically be true. But just as true would be that my wife and I would be "criminals" for passing a 200 Peso note (about 18 dollars) should it prove to be counterfeit. Would Americans who vilify Mexican workers want the same criminal treatment for themselves if they landed on the wrong side of the law?

Good people should not be thrown in jail for innocently minding their own business, whether they arouse the ire of authorities for technical violations of currency laws or immigration laws. On each count, it seems, both the American and Mexican legal systems have a long way to go.


1. The Economist, When Freedom Stumbles, January 19, 2008