New York osteopath Victor Grippaldi won't be going home for Christmas.
Grippaldi, who is serving a seven-year prison term for cocaine smuggling, is one of several hundred jailed Americans who become eligible Wednesday to finish out their sentences in U.S. prisons.
Some 215 American inmates have opted to take advantage of the new U.S.-Mexican treaty and will be transferred to U.S. penitentiaries between Dec. 9 and 17.
Grippaldi, however, has elected to sit tight in the Santa Marta men's jail. The reason: despite the all-too-true horror stories of tortune and beatings, some Americans regard Mexican prison life as la dolce vita compared with what awaits them in prisons in the United States.
At Santa Marta, for example, prisoners can furnish their cells with all the comforts of home - gas stoves, televisions, stereos, whatever they can afford. If the prison menu does not suit their palate, they can send out for food and drink. Conjugal visits are allowed up to three times a week, and inter-prison parties are held so convicts can meet new friends and lovers.
Grippaldi, who has married a local girl, gets by quite nicely these days turning out bone carvings in a prison workshop. "I make an easy $100 a week," he said, proudly handing me his business card.
U.S. consular officials here point out that it is not always possible to earn money that easily in Mexican prisons. Their records show that the majority of the 572 American prisoners in Mexican jails receive money from home - an average of $300 a month from relatives and friends in the United States.
Grippaldi and his friends, however, say that many of the 96 Americans held in the Santa Marta jail simply were too lazy to work.
"They'd rather carry on the emotional blackmail of their relatives," remarked one Texan, who said he had learned several trades while jailed here.
"One guy had the nerve to tell me how hard it was for his mother to collect the money she was sending him," scoffed Grippaldi. "You know what he was using that money for? He was paying off the guards so he wouldn't have to get up for rollcall in the morning. On top of that, he got himself a heroin habit. A lot of these guys were shooting themselves up and getting the money from home."
The widespread availability of liquor and drugs in Mexican jails always used to be a forbidden topic when inmates talked to reporters. They feared that publicity might bring a crackdown. Now that many American inmates are about to leave, however, they suddenly feel free to talk.
The drugs scene at Santa Marta has also changed since a new director, Juan Alberto Antolin, took over earlier this year.
"The previous director got a kickback to let the stuff pass," Antolin said in an interview. "I was offered $9,000 per week by a prisoner in charge of the network if I let the heroin in."
Instead, Antolin, had the prisoners, nicknamed Michael, placed in solitary confinement, and ordered a massive midnight raid with drug-sniffing dogs. Simultaneously, 120 agents and guards stormed the four prison dormitories.
"Of the 1,300 inmates, we found 268 heroin addicts and 450 frequent drug users - many of them Americans," Antolin said. One American who had been an addict described the days following the raid as "hell."
"Imagine hundreds of guts going cold turkey, sweating, hallucinating, taking cold showers and screaming at night," he said.
The period was hell for Antolin as well. One night, his car was riddled with bullets.
The period was hell for Antolin as well. One night, his car riddled with bullets.
While prisoners report that marijuana and liquor are still availabel at Santa Marta, the heroin is gone - and virtually all the inmates agree that life has been a lot better ever since.
William White, 51, a former addict who plans to take advantage of the new treaty to return to the United States, said that before the drug crackdown, "people were fighting, sticking each other up, stealing from each other's cells." The situation at Santa Marta, he said, is greatly improved.
While, who has served 20 years of a 59-year sentence in Mexico for homicide and jail breaks, is convinced he will be better off returning to the United States.
"I'll get a much earlier parole date than here," he said "In Mexico, my mandatory release date is the year 2017. In the U.S., it will be 1993."
Then main attraction for most of the American prisoners returning to the U.S. seems to be that they will become eligible for release much quicker there than they would here. Mexico, for example, requires that drug offenders serve their full sentences with no chance of parole.
According to the U.S. Embassy, almost 60 of the 215 prisoners who are awaiting return to the United States will be eligible for immediate release. The other, who will be held initially at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in San Diago, have been promised prompt meetings with parole boards.
Many of the American prisoners who will remain behind are not eligible to transfer to U.S. jails under the new program To qualify for transfer, a prisoner must have already been sentenced, must have no appeals pending, and must receive permission from both the Mexican and U.S. governments. Prisoners jailed on political or immigration charges are not eligible.
At the Santa Marta men's jail, excitement among the Americans preparing to leave was mounting as the long-awaited day nears.
"Guys are making deals to sell their radios, televisions, the businesses they own," said one old-timer. "I'm selling my stove, but I guess I'll give my pots and pans away."
In the view of some of the inmates who opted to remain behind, it will be good riddance.
"I'm glad they're going so there'll be an end to the whining," snorted Grippaldi. "'Mummy, mummy, your dear little baby got busted'. That's all you hear. The dear little baby was trying to make a fast few thousand bucks smuggling dope. So he got caught."