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January 7, 2001

American's Death Puts Focus on Mexican Jails


NUEVO LAREDO, Mexico, Jan. 4 - Tillie Blount apologizes frequently these days about the way her thoughts wander.

"When your heart breaks," she explains, "pieces of your mind go everywhere."

Mrs. Blount's memories roam at random across decades, from her son's second-place finish in a soapbox derby as a boy to his love for a vintage motorcycle as an adult, and onward to a bitter frustration over where he lies today: in an unmarked pauper's grave in the Nuevo Laredo municipal cemetery.

While visiting this dusty, bustling border town in September, Mrs. Blount's son, James Willis Abell, was jailed on drug charges and later beaten to death in a Mexican prison.

The authorities have charged five men, including a prison guard, with his murder.

Mr. Abell, 43, was one of more than 600 Americans known to be in Mexican prisons as of Sept. 30, many of them in squalid conditions just over the United States border.

More than 250 are held near the Texas border, 48 here in Nuevo Laredo and 117 in Matamoros, across from Brownsville. An additional 61 are in Monterrey, 150 miles south of here, and 59 in Ciudad Juárez, near El Paso, American officials say.

"These people have been incarcerated for a range of offenses including narcotics violations and weapons offenses," said Steve Morisseau, a spokesman for the United States Embassy in Mexico City. "There are also cases where people are in jail for assault, for fraud or for theft."

Mexican prisons, officially known as Centers for Social Readaptation, are commonly overcrowded, filthy and dangerous, according to a State Department report issued last February, and they are frequently staffed by undertrained and corrupt guards.

The state penitentiary in Tijuana, for example, where 157 Americans are held, was built to hold 1,800 inmates but currently has 4,300. The La Loma prison, where Mr. Abell died, was built to accommodate 200 prisoners but now holds nearly 1,200.

A solid block of forbidding whitewashed concrete walls topped with razor wire, La Loma's upper stories have only barred, open slits for ventilation, and prisoners stuff blankets and newspapers into them to try to defeat the winter cold.

Prisoners complain that they must buy food, medicine and other necessities from guards, or bribe guards to allow the goods to be brought in.

"You could get whiskey, drugs, women, whatever you wanted, as long as you had the money," said Ricardo Mata, a Laredo cabby who spent three weeks in La Loma several years ago after a dispute with local policemen. "Without money, you could starve to death in there."

Drug and alcohol abuse is rampant, according to the State Department report. In 1998, Carlos Tornero Díaz, the director of the federal district prison in Mexico City, admitted that guards there supplied 40 percent of the illegal drugs smuggled into the prisons and that inmates lacked enough drinking water.

The corruption and poor conditions have led to riots that endanger inmates, officials say.

In March 1999, and again last May, the authorities stormed La Loma with federal troops after riots broke out. One prisoner was killed in May and dozens were injured. Riots have been reported recently in Ciudad Juárez and the states of Chiapas and Tabasco, resulting in at least 10 deaths.

Many of the jailed Americans may be guilty of the crimes with which they are charged and are legitimate objects of Mexican efforts to curb gun smuggling and drug trafficking. But widespread corruption among the police, as documented in the State Department's report, raises questions about others, officials say.

"Sometimes here, the police themselves can be the problem," Mr. Morisseau conceded.

Mrs. Blount's son, a painter, was charged with possession of chlorpromazine, a tranquilizer used to treat mental illness, though his family maintains he had no record of drug or significant alcohol use.

United States consular officials visited Mr. Abell twice after his arrest on Sept. 13. He appeared to be under the influence of drugs on the first visit, they said, and was uncooperative on the second. They said he refused to sign a Privacy Act waiver that would have allowed them to work on his case.

During the night of Sept. 17, Mr. Abell became agitated and wandered around the cell where he was being held with 60 other inmates, according to Mexican officials. Mumbling incoherently, the officials said, he stumbled repeatedly over prisoners who were trying to sleep.

At least four prisoners and one guard severely beat Mr. Abell, who then lay unconscious until he was taken to a hospital on Sept. 21, where he was pronounced dead.

Mexican officials have pledged to prosecute those responsible.

And as a corrective measure, the Mexican government has now agreed that Americans at La Loma will be housed together, which the inmates believe will improve their safety, Tom Armbruster, an official with the United States consulate here, said today.

It took six weeks for Mrs. Blount, 68, of San Antonio, to be notified by consular officials of her son's arrest, and by then he was already dead.

"If they had just told me he was there," she said, "I would have gotten him out that very day, and he would still be alive."

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