San Diego Luz María Félix Figueroa, president of the Tijuana branch of Baja California's juvenile detention agency, shakes her head. She's been asked whether she agrees with the American trend of trying as adults minors who commit serious crimes, and she winces at the idea. "No," she responds, "a minor is a minor. Even if he's 17 years and 11 months, he's still a minor. And when minors commit homicide, there's always a reason it happened, some psychological or emotional problem."
The juvenile detention facility lies seven or so miles east of downtown on the Via Rápida. One has to pass through double security gates, built of heavy iron bars and watched by guards, to enter the building. Down the hall to the left lies Félix's office, where she sits on the edge of her leather desk chair leaning her elbows on the black lacquered desk. She's dressed in a pinstriped charcoal pants suit over a hot pink sweater. Her eye shadow and lipstick match her sweater, and her dark hair hangs down over her shoulders. Eleven framed diplomas hang on the wall behind her, while to her right hangs a five-by-five-foot needlepoint illustration of a small church under which are the words (in Spanish), "Jesus says, 'I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.' "
In a singsongy speaking voice, Félix explains that not only are people under 18 never tried as adults for crimes in Mexico, they're technically not capable of committing crimes at all. "The Mexican penal system," she says, "only applies to adults. Legally speaking, only adults can commit crimes in Mexico."
That doesn't mean Mexican authorities look the other way when children under 18 rob, assault, murder, or perpetrate other infractions -- "With children, we call them infractions, not crimes," Félix says. When police in Tijuana, Rosarito, and Tecate pick up minors for committing crimes, they bring them here, to the Consejo Tutelar para Menores Infractores, or Minor Infractors Guardianship Council. "Except the higher-risk kids," Félix says, "they go to our Tecate facility. We determine who is high-risk with a criminology test."
Once the kids are brought to the consejo facility, they enter what Félix describes as "a strange legal middle ground." Because Mexican law doesn't admit of the idea of minors committing crimes, cases involving kids aren't tried in front of judges. "We are an administrative entity to promote the rehabilitation of minors," Félix says. "We are not part of the judicial or penal systems."
Yet her organization does prosecute, sentence, and incarcerate people under 18 years old. "It's a strange system, because we are judge and prosecutor at the same time. We initiate the penal process, investigate, judge them, give them a sentence, and then give them rehabilitation treatment. It's all done right here."
The total number of inmates at the facility changes almost daily. But on this late-December day, there are 257 boys and 23 girls within the walls. Félix describes the program they live through while here. "The legal process takes about two months. During those two months, the attention is mostly on education, sports, and their psychological and medical health. They're given a place to sleep and a uniform. It's a little bit military. They're given a short haircut. Our personnel who work with the children do not carry any arms or pepper spray. We have those things here, but they're under lock and key. We keep them in case there's a riot or something like that. The first thing we're trying to accomplish with the kids here is to get them to respect authority. We put a lot of emphasis on how they present themselves to the guards. The children are monitored 24 hours a day. They have a full schedule, all the way from making their beds, to showering, to taking their meals. They live in cells of four, with two bunk beds, a shower, and a toilet. And they have four lockers. The only thing that they can have in their cells is two complete changes of clothes: underwear, T-shirts, sweatpants, sweatshirt, and slip-on tennis shoes (because we don't want shoelaces). They can only have deodorant, toothpaste and brush, toilet paper, and a towel. No pens or pencils. No cards or anything like that."
Meanwhile, Félix and her coworkers investigate each case from both prosecutorial and defense standpoints. When they're done gathering evidence, they hold a hearing and pronounce sentence on the child. "The longest we can give, for very serious infractions, is 7 years. For an adult in Mexico, the sentence could be from 50 to 70 years for a homicide. For minors, 7 years maximum."
Félix continues, "Once they're sentenced, we start the rehabilitation treatment."
Whenever possible, Félix says, they try to involve parents or some family member in the treatment process. "From the first moment the child has contact with the system, we take all of their family data. If it's proven that they don't have any relatives here, which happens often because the family may have crossed the border, or the child himself came to cross the border and hasn't tried yet, or they tried but were deported... Or maybe they were left here with some relative, an aunt, uncle, cousin, or something, then we work to find out what relatives the child has in the city."
A great effort is put into locating family, Félix says, because rehabilitation is more likely to work when family is involved. "We have family-therapy programs in which the child and three direct relatives can take part in therapy as a family. And regular visits from family are important to the rehabilitation of the child."
The Consejo Tutelar's thinking on the necessity of family involvement in the rehabilitation of minors mirrors the San Diego County Probation Department's. "When the parents don't want to be involved," says department spokesman Derryl Acosta, "we will try to find another family member that will, especially in our Breaking Cycles program, which is for kids who repeatedly get into trouble. We'll try the grandparents, an aunt or uncle, or sometimes an older sibling."