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."
Acosta estimates that 80 to 90 percent of the kids in San Diego's system have some family involvement in their rehabilitation. Félix wishes she could say the same. Asked if most kids receive family visits, she looks crestfallen. "No. A huge percentage never receive visitors. For example, last Sunday, out of more than 250 sentenced inmates -- the presentenced ones have visitors on Saturday -- only 83 had visitors." That's 33 percent.
Asked to explain the low visitor rate, Félix answers, "One reason is the family is separated and dysfunctional. Another is that the family is just fed up with the kid constantly being here, and they abandon the child. And an unfortunate thing that happens is the family sometimes loses their sense of obligation for the child once the child is in here. They feel the state is taking care of them now. 'They're feeding them, clothing them, educating them now. Our job is done.' "
Roberto is a 20-year-old inmate at the consejo facility who is serving time for a homicide he committed as a teenager. (I wasn't allowed to ask him for any details about the incident. "We want to look forward," Félix explained.) Asked if he receives visitors, the fair-skinned, light-eyed young man, who had been frowning nervously, smiled widely. "Yes, gracias a Dios. I'm fortunate that my family comes to visit me every Sunday, and I really look forward to it every week.
"At first," Roberto recalls, "when my parents came, we didn't have anything to say to each other, particularly my dad and I. It was just, 'Órale... Órale...' And then we would sit there trying to think of things to talk about. It was very uncomfortable. But then we started doing family therapy, all of us together. For the first time in my whole life, I saw my dad cry and I heard him tell me he loves me. Now we've gotten to know each other, and I love it when they visit."
Much as he loves his visits with his family, Roberto admits to feeling a little bit guilty when he returns to the dormitory or mess hall. "I always feel great after seeing my family every Sunday," he explains, "and I want to tell all of my friends all about it. They listen, and they're happy for me. But so many of them never receive visitors, and I can see they're sad about it. Then I feel bad for being so happy."
Félix says not only do some families not visit, they refuse to accept the child back when his term is up. "We try to tell them about the program the child has completed," she says, "but they don't want to know anything about it. They're tired of the whole situation. So we start looking for other relatives. We have agreements with institutions all around the country to help us find family members, because the majority of the kids from here, even when they were born and raised here, the majority have relatives in other states in Mexico. So we contact these relatives in other states, and sometimes they take the child under their protection."
When inmates are released from the Consejo Tutelar para Menores Infractores, they carry no criminal records with them -- because only adults can commit crimes in Mexico. And about 30 percent, Félix estimates, have no home to go to. In that case, if the inmates are over 18, Félix and her associates steer them toward the army. "We know that the discipline of the army will be familiar and welcome to them after living here," she says. If they're under 18, the consejo turns them over to Mexico's social security agency, Desarrollo Integral de la Familia.
"Soon," Félix says, "we're going to release 50, and 10 of them have no home to go to. Those youths have worked hard and behaved well. We've seen the effort that they put into their programs. And even though they were misbehaving at their homes before they came here, they've made a big effort to get education and rehabilitate themselves while they were here. And then their families don't want them. That is very sad for them, and for us who see it."