A Very Unusual Mexican Prison
By John Lamkin
19 Aug 2012
CERESO Chetumal is a unique prison that has seen no violence in many years and that has an excellent arts and crafts program that teaches the prisoners and sells to tourists. The prison is located about two miles south of Chetumal, capital of the Mexican state of Quintana Roo--about four hours drive south of Cancun, close to the border of Belize, Central America.
According to Warden Victor Terazzas there has been no violence in the prison for more than ten years. "When there is a disagreement, we have the inmates involved put on the gloves and get into the boxing ring," relates Terazzas "After about two rounds the dispute is usually over."
How I Discovered the Prison
I saw Mayan muralist and artist, Francisco Hoil's paintings in a cafe in the town of Bacalar and asked where I could find the artist. I was told that he could be found in the mornings at a certain cafe in Chetumal. So I went to the cafe and met Hoil and he showed me his studio/classroom nearby, then we went around the city to see some of his murals. Finally he took me to the prison where he gave painting classes.
Meeting Warden Terazzas
Hoil took me to meet warden Terazzas, a large man with a great mustache, wearing a blue guayabera (traditional Mexican shirt). He appeared to be very congenial and neither he nor his young assistant were wearing guns. He talked for a while explaining the operation of the prison (of about 1100 inmates) and how there had been no violence since he became warden. He then gave me a wooden nut cracker in the shape of a duck, a sample of what the inmates made.
A Tour of the Prison
Terazzas took Hoil and me on a tour of the prison. First past the hammock sales room with its many colorful and well-made hammocks, then out into the courtyard. The prisoners were wearing civilian clothes, some lounging around, some active--going places, trying to sell us necklaces, hammocks, purses, carved wooden pieces--dolphins, etc. Others were selling fruit and other treats. Many just wanting the chance to speak English. The courtyard also had a few small food stands. Touring the grounds, the warden and assistant were still without guns and there were no guards in the yard. Most everybody was friendly--wanting to interact and the inmates seemed to like the warden. We bought a few trinkets from the prisoners, some jewelery and the warden bought a beautiful carved walking stick.
Also, around the courtyard, seemingly somewhat haphazardly placed, were a spa with massage and holistic treatments, a classroom for language and regular school classes, a well stocked library, a computer lab, a gym, the kitchen--with its Belgian chef, and a conjugal-visit "hotel."
Next we visited the arts and crafts studios where Francisco Hoil teaches. Many of the crafts were made with recycled materials: paper mache, soda cans and bottles, including classy purses made from soda bottle labels. You could see that several of the paintings were influenced by Hoil's style. The artists and crafts persons make a good living in the prison, some have TVs, stereos, and all the"comforts of home." There are also "distributors" and vendors working selling to outsiders, tourists, family members, and to other prisoners.
A visit to the Conjugal Hotel
On the way to see the conjugal "hotel" we encountered a man and a woman with a baby. Both were inmates. The baby was born in the prison and every night at lockup time he goes to the women's section with his mother. The conjugal rooms have red hearts on the doors, "TE AMO" one said (I LOVE YOU). Families can visit every two months for one or two nights.The inmates pay 10 pesos a night (about $1 US) and they bring their own sheets, towels, fan, TV, etc.
CERESO Prison Not Like an American White-Collar Prison
This is not like an American "country club" prison where politicians, white collar criminals and CEO's are sent. These people are here on offenses such as robbery, drugs and the like. With the excellent treatment they receive many leave with a new trade and the return rate is extremely low.
How to Buy Arts and Crafts from the Inmates
Tourists can go to the front gate from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and tell the guards that they want to buy handicrafts (artesanias in Spanish). The prisoners will bring their art and crafts to the main door of the prison. Some of the best hammocks in the area are made at the prison, a large hammock will cost about $50 U.S. Dollars (you would pay $200-350 in the U.S.) There are also fine woodcarvings and many other craft items including wooden shop work, beaded work, crochet work and jewelry--mostly beaded, all at bargain prices.
If You Go
Mexico Tourism: http://www.visitmexico.com/en-us/
Quintana Roo Tourism: http://www.caribemexicano.gob.mx/en/
Lodging: Hotel Rancho Encantado (Click on Idioma/English) http://encantado.com/