CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico (CNS) — When Father Alberto Melendez began ministering at the prison in this once-violent border city nine years ago, rival gangs ran criminal operations from behind bars. Riots broke out regularly; a 2009 tragedy claimed 20 lives.
“There was no system of control inside,” Father Melendez recalled. Inmates “were the ones giving the orders.”
Pope Francis will visit the prison, known as Cereso No. 3, during a day trip Feb. 17 to Ciudad Juarez, which borders El Paso, Texas, and once held the dubious distinction of murder capital of the world. That is an image local leaders are eager to shed and a reality no longer reflected in crime statistics. The prison, meanwhile, has undergone renovations, and security officials say the situation inside has calmed considerably.
The pope also plans to celebrate Mass at the U.S.-Mexico border while in Ciudad Juarez to draw attention to migration issues and will meet with some of the employers and workers from the maquiladoras, factories for exports that underpin the economy but cause complaints over low wages and questionable labor conditions.
The prison visit is expected to draw attention to the shortcomings of Mexico’s prison system — the credibility of which was challenged by cartel kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, who tunneled out of a maximum security facility in July and was recently recaptured. Issues such as overcrowding, inmate control and corruption are rife, along with violence, according to an annual report on prisons from the National Human Rights Commission.
Officials say times have changed in Ciudad Juarez, however, with the prisons there undergoing renovations, the most dangerous inmates being sent to federal facilities and U.S. certification being given last year.
“It hasn’t improved 100 percent,” Father Melendez said, “but it’s improved greatly.”
The improvements are hard to verify. The human rights commission’s report from 2014 ranks prisons in Chihuahua state, which includes Ciudad Juarez, eighth among Mexico’s 32 states. The Ciudad Juarez prison received a lower score in the report than it did in 2011. The report also found evidence of overcrowding there.
Inmates interviewed by Catholic News Service spoke in the presence of prison staff and were unwilling to talk about any hardships suffered in Ciudad Juarez or other correctional facilities, though they said the work of the prison ministry had helped with spiritual matters.
The Ciudad Juarez prison once symbolized the city’s problems. It suffered 12 riots and 216 murders in 2010. Last year, there were no riots registered in the prison and only one homicide, according to Chihuahua state statistics.
One prison official said the pope’s visit isn’t entirely about validating their improvements, however.
“It’s not an endorsement. It’s a recognition of the work we have done and the inmate’s good behavior, too,” said Alejandrina Saucedo Hernandez, spokeswoman for the prison. “It’s a way for forgiving all that happened in Ciudad Juarez and those involved,” which includes the acts of “some of those on the inside.”
Father Roberto Luna, pastor of Corpus Christi Parish and former director of the diocesan outreach to the young offenders, echoed those comments on reconciliation, though he expressed skepticism on the claims of prison improvements. He stopped working in the juvenile facility due to disagreements after its control was transferred form the city’s social work department to the state government.
The papal visit is “a message for everyone to tell them, we can reconcile with those who did wrong,” Father Luna said. “It’s the year of mercy. … We can reconcile with everyone, even those who did wrong.”
Father Luna, speaking of his time inside prisons, says inmates paid inflated prices for personal items on the inside — $5 for a roll of toilet paper, for example — while families often feed their imprisoned relatives because the food served on the inside can be inedible.
“If you truly reform a prison, you do away with the businesses inside,” Father Luna said. Currently, “all of the privileges you have inside, you pay for.”
Father Robert Coogan, an American priest and prison ministry director for the Diocese of Saltillo, said Mexican prisons have positive points, more evident prior to the crackdown on drug cartels and organized crime that began in 2006. He said compared to prisons in the United States, Mexican prisons have more family visiting days and conjugal visit privileges, and Mexican inmates spend more time outdoors and are able to leave their cells more often. Mexican prisons also aspire to rehabilitation — a goal often not achieved — which affords more access to work in prison workshops, artistic pursuits and educational opportunities.
There are shortcomings, though.
“What was terrible and what is still terrible is the judicial system,” said Father Coogan, whose prison was controlled for a time by the Los Zetas cartel, to the point they painted his chapel over his objections.
Pope Francis’ message remains uncertain, though Father Coogan expressed hope that the plight of innocent people being put behind bars would be addressed, along with the stigmas facing recently released prisoners, several of whom live with him in an informal halfway house and face persistent police persecution.
Attracting parishioners to prison ministry work also presents problems as many express fears of working with inmates, and those making donations offer low-quality items.
“Don’t give me anything you wouldn’t give your mother,” he told one person in rejecting a donation of beat-up Bibles with torn pages.
Father Luna said he promoted sacraments in prison. He cited now-retired Pope Benedict XVI in calling sacraments “the seeds of faith.” He said many young offenders have become part of his parish community.
“I believe in rehabilitation,” he said. “I saw many young people inside hurting. Now I’m welcoming them into the church. I’m baptizing their children. I’m marrying them.”