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THE AMERICAS

No answers in death of Ohio man beaten in notorious Juarez prison

  • William Allen Smith, of Columbus, Ohio, died under mysterious circumstances last month in a notorious Juarez prison.

  • Officials don't know why an Ohio man who died in a notorious jail under suspicious circumstances was in Juarez. (AP)

The body of an Ohio man who appears to have been beaten before dying in a notorious prison here remains in the local morgue as authorities try to figure out how he died nearly two weeks ago.

William Allen Smith, 37, Columbus, Ohio, was found dead Oct. 30 in the notorious Cereso prison with a fatal gash to his left wrist and extensive bruising to his head and back "consistent with a beating." According to Jorge Chairez, a spokesman for the Chihuahua state prison, Smith was locked up Oct. 22 on a burglary charge after being picked up by the Juarez Municipal Police.

"He was put into a segregated medical observation cell by himself where he was being treated for a psychological disorder," Chairez said.

Chairez said Smith received treatment soon after his arrival, but would not disclose what the treatment involved. When medical staffers went to Smith's cell at 1:30 p.m. on Oct. 30 to administer a second treatment, he was found in the cell bathroom with a deep gash to his left wrist. Authorities don't know how the wound was caused and are also baffled by extensive bruising found to Smith's back and head.

"These wounds could be consistent with a beating."

- Juarez Medical Examiner Dr. Jorge Villa Sr.

Juarez Medical Examiner Dr. Jorge Villa Sr. said Smith's body was brought to the forensic lab across town for an autopsy the same day he was found dead.

"We found deep bruises that were as old as four days and as recent as two days on his back and head," Villa said. "These wounds could be consistent with a beating."

Villa said the toxicology report was not ready.

The bruises to his head and back would not likely have been the cause of death,"" Villa said.

It is customary for officials in the American Citizens Service Unit at the consulate to make daily phone calls to local hospitals and jails to see if there have been any incidents involving American citizens. There is no indication they were aware Smith was in prison since his Oct. 22 arrest. The U.S. Consulate in  Juarez was notified the day after Smith's death by prison officials.

"We are working with the family to repatriate Mr. Smith's body to the U.S.," said Olga Bashbush, spokesperson, U.S. Consulate in Juarez.

Smith's family could not be reached for comment.

The process to retrieve the body is an arduous one. The consulate can help, but a family member must claim Smith's body by providing an original and copy of his birth certificate to the morgue in Juarez. The individual must also present personal identification of direct relationship.  

It wasn't the first time Smith was jailed at Cereso prison. According to a U.S. State Department source, Smith was arrested in December 2006 on a car theft charge. During his incarceration the official said they were in regular contact with him until his release.

The curious nature of how Smith's body was found does raise questions as to the circumstances of his death pending the outcome of an investigation but human rights advocates have raised concern about alleged cases of torture at the hands of federal, state, and local police.

As recently as March, a 43-year-old inmate was found beaten to death in his Cereso prison cell. In 2011 seven Municipal police, including Julian Leyzaola, the controversial police chief of Juarez, were implicated in the beating death of a suspect.

A November 2011 report by Human Rights Watch that examined allegations of abuse by security forces in five Mexican states, including Chihuahua, over a two year period found 170 credible cases of torture, 39 disappearances, and 24 killings.

"We found a systematic use of torture in these states," said Nik Steinberg, senior researcher for Mexico, Human Rights Watch.

He said the majority of abuse cases occurred shortly after a suspect is arrested.

"The concern with cases of torture in Mexico is thaat they are not adequaately investogated," Steinnberg said.

He said since 1994 only two Mexican officials have been sentenced for torture.

Cereso prison was the scene of a bloody riot in July 2011 that left 17 dead and 70 injured. Two of the dead were reported to have been U.S. citizens.

Joseph J. Kolb is a freelance reporter in New Mexico