Officially, there is no sex among the male inmates at the over-packed Oriente prison on the outskirts of the Mexican capital. The only sexual relations in the male portion of the facility, administrators say, occur in the special rooms set aside for male-female conjugal visits.
But talk to the prisoners, a group of 11,300 convicted robbers, murderers and others who have run afoul of the law, and another reality emerges.
"We are a population of men, and it's normal for men to have sex with whoever is around," said Guillermo, 32, a prisoner and peer educator who has HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. "There are some who don't want to see it."
Even though scientific surveys of AIDS rates in Mexican prisons do not exist, the myths associated with the epidemic are pronounced among prisoners, and the sex that takes place is frequently unsafe, advocates say. The risk is significant enough that an American organization, Population Services International, has set up an AIDS awareness program inside this and four other Mexican lockups.
Facts about the disease are so scarce, said Ricardo Román Vergara, who helps run the training sessions, that some inmates think HIV is spread by mosquitoes, kisses or shared toothbrushes.
Just getting access to the prisons was no easy feat, since prison authorities are hesitant to acknowledge a problem. Official figures put the number of HIV-positive inmates in the capital's prisons at 62, six of them women and the rest men. But no widespread testing of the tens of thousands of inmates takes place, so the figure is considered by experts to substantially understate the danger.
In the case of the Reclusorio Preventivo Oriente, a rough place that is one of the largest prisons in Latin America, the warden, Rubén Fernández Lima, allowed the awareness sessions despite playing down the extent of infections.
"I don't know the level of HIV in this prison," he said during a tour that coincided with the 17th International AIDS Conference, which was held in Mexico City in early August. "I think it's minimal. It's almost nothing."
But the chances of acquiring the virus inside prison walls are many, as a group of prisoners, all dressed in khaki, learned this month during an education session in a community room here.
There are the syringes used to inject drugs, another activity that prison authorities play down. There are the needles that prison tattoo artists employ to mark up the inmates or pierce their bodies. Then there is sex that occurs in and out of the designated "visita íntima" areas, some of it with prostitutes, both male and female, who ply their trade within the prison walls.
Indeed, all sorts of supposedly banned activities take place in Mexico's prisons, many of them, experts say, a result of bribes being slipped to underpaid guards. During the tour, a prisoner was observed talking on a cellphone, which is banned in penitentiaries nationwide because of a history of crime bosses' continuing their illegal activities while in detention.
Oriente frequently finds itself on the front pages of Mexico's newspapers. It was where José Luis Calva Zepeda, a presumed serial killer who ate his victims and then wrote poems about them, was sent last year. The so-called Cannibal Poet was later found hanged in his cell. The suspicious circumstances of the death prompted a shakeup in the prison leadership.
Then last month, a notorious drug trafficker managed to slip out of the prison, spurring an investigation into whether prison authorities, including the warden, might have given him privileges that aided his escape.
The trafficker, Luis Gonzaga Castro Flores, was apparently allowed to have several women pay him conjugal visits. He used one such liaison to change clothes in the visitors' area and make his escape, authorities say.
The tightest ship appeared to be run in a part of the prison set aside for drug addicts. To wean them off their addictions, mostly to crack cocaine, prison officials require the addicts to engage in military-style marches and ban them from having outside visitors, who are sometimes the source of contraband.
Visitors to the prison are told not to wear khaki, so as not to be mistaken for a prisoner. Upon entering, visitors are given a quick body search, and a special ink is put on their hands to differentiate them from inmates.
Guillermo, a convicted robber who for his safety asked that his last name not be published, said most of those he counseled in the prison were hesitant to discuss their sexual partners when he first approached them. But because he is open about the fact that he is bisexual, he said, prisoners soon begin talking.
"In a place like this, the vulnerability of getting HIV is very high," he said.
One of those who praised the outreach effort was Héctor, 32, who was halfway through a six-year sentence for robbery. He has a wife and children on the outside and male sexual partners on the inside. "I don't know if I have it or not," he said of the virus. "I do it without condoms, but I'm learning now that I shouldn't."
6 months ago