The penal reform movement has spread out to embrace American prisoners in Mexican and other foreign jails. Some of the same people who defend and praise Chicanos on this side of the border are positively slashing in their descriptions of Chicano jailors, lawyers, policemen and judges on the other side of the Rio Grande. Corrupt, sadist, brutal are but a few of the terms applied to the personnel administering Mexican justice.
Approximately three-fourths of the 600 Americans in Mexican lockups are there for drug-related charges. The accusations against perhaps 200 of them consist of holding very small amounts of marijuana. If they had been stopped by the police for the same thing in Oregon or California or Maine, the most that would have happened to them would have been a small-change fine, but as seem from the bars of a Texas jail cell, where they still all but decapitae you if they find a joint in your pocket, the Mexican treatment doesn't look as bad.
Thus, despite the clamor for human rights for gringos in Mexican jails, the issue is murky with ambiguity. For example, one of the reasons those Americans are in the hoosegow is that the United States has been on the back of the Republic of Mexico to get tough with dope lawbreakers. We've supplied the authorities there with crook-catching equipment like helicopters, little thinking that in stirring up the zeal for law enforcement we might also precipitate the arrest of some of our own bone-headed youth.
Some of the Americans in trouble down there are decidedly un-nice customers who make the world a safer place by rotting in Jalisco penitentiary instead of walking free in the streets of Laredo. However, a considerable number of our nationals are innocent nudniks who didn't believe the thousands of radio and television commercials warning them that arrest, trial and jail in many foreign countries lack primitive amenities like the bill of Rights.
Nobody in the world can clatter like a middle-class American when thrown into the slammer. We saw that 10 years ago when the cops made a briefly serious pass at arresting white-collar types for smoking hemp. Hence, the lament over awful prison conditions in Mexico is to be expected, but it's hard to see what the Mexicans are supposed to do about it.
Should they give middle-class gringos and gringas better treatment than their own people get? Special consideration for Americans went out of style with the Huerta government 60 years ago, and any Mexican administration yielding to pressure to resume it will go the same way.
Under the term of the treaty signed by the United States and Mexico last fall, but yet to be ratified by the Senate, both governments can, with the consent of the convicts concerned, send as many prisoners back to their own countries as they wish. Once returned to their native land they will continue to serve out their Mexican or American sentences or, if the authorities choose, be paroled.
The difficulty is, assuming the courts approve, the treaty would allow our government to jail Americans who had broken no American law and had been convicted by no American court.
With far less publicity, we also have signed a similar agreement with Canada. In this case it isn't alleged that American prisoners are being mistreated in Canadian jails or that the standard of living in them is too low for our criminal classes. The reason for the Canadian treaty is simply the belief that the chances of the moral or behavioral rehabilitation of the law-breaker are greater in his own country, or so argue the advocates of modern penology.
As for the fate of middle-class American offspring who are truly having a hateful time incarcerated south of the border, merely negotiating the treaty seems to have been of some help. The Mexican government has recently taken steps to decriminalize marijuana, just as we're doing. Between 70 to 100 Americans are expected to be released shortly.