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The first new state penitentiary in nearly two decades to open in Mexico’s Baja California Norte, El Hongo, was hailed as a model prison when its first inmates were bused into the maximum security facility back in 2002.
Located on a windswept, arid plain dotted with creosote and mesquite bushes about 30 miles from downtown Tijuana, the prison houses some of the region’s most dangerous criminals – murderers, rapists and drug cartel hitmen, to name a few.
And for the last two weeks, the jail has been the home of U.S. Marine Sgt. Andrew Tahmooressi.
The active U.S. Marine reservist who served two combat tours in Afghanistan was moved to El Hongo after spending over a month in the notorious La Mesa prison in Tijuana. Tahmooressi was detained in the early morning hours of April 1st as Mexican officials surrounded his black Ford F-150 pick-up loaded with everything he owned – including three registered firearms – after he made a wrong turn and ended up in Mexico.
A number of U.S. lawmakers are fighting for his release from custody in Mexico and have put pressure on politicians on both sides of the border to secure the Marine's release.
After receiving death threats, an escape attempt and enduring weeks shackled to a bed at La Mesa, Tahmooressi’s conditions have dramatically improved at El Hongo. Housed in a private cellblock that is empty except for an armed guard, Tahmooressi’s mother, Jill, said her son is feeling better thanks to the safer conditions.
“He’s unshackled and apart from the other prisoners in a private cell,” Jill Tahmooressi told Fox News Latino “That’s reassuring.”
El Hongo may be a safer and in more secure location than Tijuana’s notorious La Mesa prison, a facility that saw two separate riots in September of 2008 that left 21 inmates dead and 12 injured. But that does not mean that it is an ideal location for a high-profile prisoner like Tahmooressi – or really anyone – to be detained.
Besides being home to murderers and other hardened criminals, El Hongo and most other Mexican prisons are controlled – either openly or in the shadows – by the country’s notorious drug cartels. Through bribes and coercion, life in Mexican prisons is run by the jailed cartel leaders.
"On the outside, we do jobs for the bosses who are in prison," one drug dealer in Tijuana told Reuters. "A lot of people think that when the big guys are arrested, it's over. But no. They are even more protected (in jail)."
A report from Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission found that 65 of the country's 101 most populated prisons were under the control of convicts in 2012, a 4.3 percent increase from 2011. The group found in one prison that kept 19 prostitutes, 100 plasma screen TVs, and marijuana for the inmates.
According to most accounts, however, El Hongo – or “the mushroom” in Spanish – is one of the few prisons in Mexico that continues to have some semblance of order.
"We can be a model not just for Mexico, but for Latin America," Jesús Cureces Ríos, head of prison rehabilitation programs for Baja California, told the San Diego Union-Tribune when the jail opened.
The $45 million facility houses just under 3,700 inmates and has strict rules for who can be sent to the prison and what they can do. Drug addicts are not accepted to El Hongo, which has special equipment and trained dogs monitoring what comes into the prison, and where, unlike in other Mexican prisons, inmates are not permitted to carry money.
Another rarity in Mexican prisons is that inmates are offered counseling, vocational training and jobs inside the prison walls. The grounds also house 18 basketball courts, a baseball diamond and a soccer field.
Not that Tahmoorressi will be able to enjoy these recreational activities – he is being kept separate from other inmates for his own safety.
Jill Thamooressi said that while her son is still very vulnerable, given his history of post-traumatic stress disorder, he appears more relaxed in calls to his mother since he was moved to his private cell.
“I’m still very faithful and know God will help us out,” Jill Tahmooressi said. “We’re just praying that the due process is revealed.”
The first chance for any legal proceeding to begin in Tahmooressi’s case is May 28, when Mexican officials will hear the testimony from the Mexican border guards who arrested the Marine in April.