My Friend Spent Time in a Mexican Jail

Getting beat up by police and propositioned by other inmates.

Mircea celebrating in Bucharest after his release (photo by Ana Libra).

Fifteen thousand people protested on the streets of Mexico City at the beginning of December 2012, while Mexico's new president Enrique Pena Nieto was being sworn into office. Among the few dozen who were arrested was my friend Mircea Topoleanu, a Romanian photographer I met at a bar in Bucharest. It was New Year's Eve at the time, which means we did more hugging than talking, so a few days later I asked him over to our office for an account of what being jailed in a strange land is like.

VICE: Hi Mircea, I’m glad you’re back. What the hell were you doing at those protests?
Mircea Topoleanu:
After I wasting time for a bit, I started illustratiing a children's book with a guy that was working at Reforma, Mexico City's biggest newspaper. He was asked to go down to the protests and take photographs for them, and I followed.

About 80 people were arrested. Turns out most of them were just walking around doing errands. How did they pick you up?
Some woman tried to block the path of some police. A guy went after her with his video camera and the police started beating him. Then I waded in, to tell the girl to get out of there. Some cop lifted me up, another took my camera and the rest started beating the crap out of me. My head and my back were covered in bruises.

Then what?
They stuck me in a van alongside two cops and two guys who were tortured for 20 minutes by electroshock. They kept telling them: “Keep your head down, who the fuck do you think you are, staring at me?” I shat my pants and thought I would be tortured too, but they only punched my kidney, so as not to leave any marks.

Shit. What happened when you got to the police station?
They searched the detained protesters, 60 men and 20 women; they pulled the film out of our cameras and confiscated our phones. They stuck us all in a 10 metre square room with a hole in the ground that we could shit and piss in. We received two processed-meat sandwiches and a litre of water per day. We slept on the floor, nestled against each other, without blankets.

You say "we" – who were your cellmates?
There were scared children who had no idea why they were there, students, musicians, a gym teacher, a boy who was a little insane... Our relatives came to visit, but they weren’t allowed to see us.

A letter which was smuggled out of the prison through the visitation programme. It reads: “To our families, our friends, the Mexican people and the international community: We, those arrested on the 1st of December, wish to tell you that our transfers, our defence and our trials are done with many illegalities. But this did not make us lose hope. We thank each of you for fighting for our freedom and showing us your friendship and affection, which are very important to us in these moments."

So they didn't seem too keen to send you back after all?
No. Without telling us where we were going, this group of masked men lined us up and put us in trucks. We ended up in front of a wall; they made us undress and stand with our hands to the wall. The masked men kept shouting: “Stop trembling, bitches!”; “Are you cold now? Well soon you're going to shiver with fear!”; “Without pain it isn’t prison, now is it?” Stuff like that. And they kept hitting us.

What prison were you in?
Reclusorio Norte. I knew nothing about it, but as soon as one of the other prisoners realised where he were, he was like: “Shit, we’re fucked.” It is one of Mexico’s worst prisons, with 20,000 inmates.

How was it on the inside?
In the first ten minutes it hit me; I was in a bloody prison and it was going to suck. After that it was all fear. There were eight of us living in a 3 metre square cell. The temperature was five degrees celsius at night and we were only given two blankets each. It was basically like sitting outside. We were fed beans and rice twice a day and had cold showers. The toilet had a seat this time, but still everybody could see you. But the worst part was getting... that look from an inmate. Hearing them say: “Damn, how I would fuck you.”

Doesn't sound great. Was there any way to make your life there easier?
Well, right next us there was a building with drug dealers who wore jeans and normal clothes and had a Mariachi band singing for them. The prison was practically a business. You could buy guns, drugs, steak, stew, water, cigarettes. The water in the sink tasted horrible. A guard asked us: “Don’t you want to rent a TV, to see the boxing match?” It was like a supermarket, only you were locked up.

Were the guards always violent?
After two days the leftist senators from the new government asked that we were treated like political detainees, so we were separated from the real criminals and the guards stopped hitting us and calling us bitches. Theoretically we were allowed to have visitors, but people came to see me four times and were only allowed inside once. The paranoia were fucking us up: We were scared that we would stay permanently locked up, that they would put us in with other inmates, that there were microphones in the light bulbs.

How did the trials go?
Everything took place in prison. They would take us to the basement, where we just waited around for 12 hours without any bathroom break. There were only 90 lawyers for the whole prison and you only had about five minutes to talk to your own. The judge was in another room we had no access to. We spoke to our lawyers or the judge through a hatch.

The release paper that says Mircea is innocent.

Hadn’t they heard of the phrase “innocent until proven guilty”?
No. The judge was even annoyed when I told her I was an atheist. I had to be a Christian.

What happened after the trial?
I was sent to this immigrant detainment camp and had to stay there for 90 days. I was chained and taken there by car in total darkness. There were many gangs there: Africans, Chinese, Indians, Nepalese, Venezuelans, Guatemalans and people from Honduras. I could feel tensions between them, they were all mobsters doing business and playing dice and poker for money.

What did you do?
I was the only tall, thin white guy there so I went to talk to the only American there. Turns out he was utterly insane. He yelled at me: “Do you know why I’m here? Because I don’t have my glasses any more!” Later some guy got stabbed with a sharpened toothbrush because everyone found out he got locked up for raping a 13-year-old girl. I lived there for eleven days with a Cuban and a Colombian who gave me clothes, told me who not to mess with and where to sleep. Also, I read a lot of bad mystery novels.  

How were the Romanian authorities involved?
The Romanian Embassy in Mexico has only three employees: The ambassador, her brother and the consult which is her husband. The latter visited me about four times, without any real authority. After my second day in the immigration camp, I asked him to call my sister and tell her to get my passport so I could buy a plane ticket. He told me: “We’ll call her later in the afternoon.” “I think you should call her now, I’m detained in an internment camp, not a restaurant,” I said. He responded: “Oh yeah, and what else would you like? We’ve just had elections you know. Plus we have an envelope to seal and send back to Romania.”

When did you leave?
They let me go on the day my sister was getting married. I met her in the warden’s office for five minutes, three of which we spent crying and assuring each other that we were alright.

How are you feeling now?
The worst of it all was the fear. I felt it in my bones. Then there was the way time went by. Each second was like a minute. I don’t have any traumas though, which I find a little weird. I’m kind of high on optimism and freedom but I don’t want to return to Mexico. I might visit sometime, but not soon.

More about life in prison:

Romanian Prison Vogues

Estonian Prison Wankers

Don't Get Caught