In Sight

Inside Latin America’s only indigenous prison

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In a small, dusty Mexican town with pastel buildings dotting the landscape sits Latin America’s only prison aimed exclusively at indigenous people.

The Guachochi prison, which opened two years ago in the state of Chihuahua, serves a niche but important purpose. Here, the indigenous Raramuri population can serve time without fear of extortion from gang cartels. Unlike indigenous people who are jailed with the general prison population, those at Guachochi can practice their cultural traditions, eat their food and speak their languages free from discrimination.

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Melissa Lyttle

Melissa Lyttle

Melissa Lyttle

This setting is rare for Latin America, where indigenous people suffer more intolerance and are often wrongfully convicted of crimes. In Mexico specifically, at least 8,000 indigenous people are imprisoned and most have yet to be convicted of a crime, according to a report by the country’s National Human Rights Commission.

Separating Mexico’s indigenous people from the general prison population is a way of guaranteeing their safety.

Melissa Lyttle

Everything about the Guachochi prison feels different. All the prison guards are required to speak the traditional Tarahumara language. Inside, people are respectful. The atmosphere is calm.

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Melissa Lyttle

About once a week, a traditional, spiritual healer name Micaela Bustillos stops by with dozens of eggs, holy water and a candle. For anyone who needs it, she performs a cleansing ritual called “limpia con huevo,” which translates to cleansing with egg.

Prisoners with aches and pains and those who believe a curse has been placed on them line up to receive Bustillos’s help. One-by-one, she runs the egg over their body from head-to-toe, following its outline with a lit candle. She focuses extra attention on problem areas.

A traditional healer visits as well, dressing minor cuts and wounds. During one visit, he tended to one prisoner — a man whose eyesight is fading — by squeezing aloe juice into the patient’s eyes.

Melissa Lyttle

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Margarita González González, 40, an indigenous leader of Guachochi, said that many of the indigenous communities in these mountains have their own justice systems for minor crimes. Punishment could involve a public beating or humiliation, so the offender and his family feel shame.

But if someone has committed a serious offense, such as murder or rape, the community pressures him to turn himself in to the prison.

Melissa Lyttle

Melissa Lyttle

Prison director Mario Perez Trevizo estimates that nearly half the inmates at Guachochi had turned themselves in, at times traveling up to 10 hours after hearing of a gentler way to serve.

Many of their families are thankful that they’ll be kept away from the cartels that run most of the state’s prisons, extorting people on the inside to control land and movement of drugs on the outside. And while statistics are hard to come by, Trevizo says the prison has made the men less likely to reoffend.