Katie Orlinsky

Prison Portraits: The Ciudad Juarez Women's Prison

Over the past three years there has been a 400 percent increase in the number of women imprisoned for federal crimes in Mexico. Ciudad Juarez is the most dangerous city in Mexico, plagued by drug war violence, not to mention poverty and unemployment, which has only escalated after the financial collapse. The rise of women’s involvement in narcotics related crime in Juarez has also escalated, directly linked to poverty and lack of employment opportunities.

The women's prison of Ciudad Juarez, known as El Cereso (Centro de Readaptacion Social), currently contains 143 incarcerated women, 80 percent of which are there for narcotics related crime. The majority of female inmates are women of a very low economic status. Many of these women are young, uneducated, and vulnerable, easily tricked and used by men to become involved in smuggling and kidnapping because of their economic circumstances.

The expansion of the drug cartels into working directly with street gangs has also led to more female involvement. In a widely circulated video, Rogelio Amaya of the Juarez based gang La Linea says there are between 20 and 30 young women that are part of the gang and trained to kill. He says that they specifically use pretty teenagers in order to trick their opponents.

Meanwhile life inside El Cereso for female inmates is not what one would expect. The women share cells that resemble dormitories, rather than an institution for incarceration, and the rooms contain many comforts such as TVs and small refrigerators. There are no mandatory uniforms and each inmate is allowed to walk around the complex and socialize. Daily life for these inmates includes productive and learning activities, academics (at the men’s prison next door) and religious study. Some women have their young children with them; there is no one left on the outside to take care of them. Other women have babies on the way, many of whom are conceived in prison (many women have boyfriends who are incarcerated at the men’s prison next door and conjugal visits are accepted).

At the same time, the situation in the prison remains tense. A large-scale riot in the men’s prison occurred in August 2010, and the well-liked prison director was murdered months later in November.

Claudia Ramirez Contreras, 21, in prison for kidnapping.
Maria Sol Zocoro, 42, in prison for homocide.
Lorena, 50, in prison for drug trafficking.
Abril Alvarado Ortega, 32, in prison for drug trafficking.
Manuela Angelica Munoz, 21, in prison for drug trafficking.
Laura Érika Mar, 23, in prison for homicide.
Julia Fragozo, 28, in prison for drug trafficking.
Yazmín Mendoza, 27, in prison for drug trafficking.
Nancy Nunez, 22, and daughter Claudia Marlen, 3. Nunez is in prison for drug trafficking.