Sat, half laid down with his back propped up against the wall, on a mattress on our living room floor, Clay laughs nonchalantly as he starts to tell me about his time spent in a Mexico detention centre for unauthorised travellers. His dark hair flicks over his eyebrow, which he frequently pushes out of his face as he chats and laughs charmingly at what he is saying, his eyes, a mixture of blue and brown, look at me in a warm and calming way as he begins to unveil his story. Clay has a classic style of a well travelled, clued up guy. His modest clothes of a long sleeved grey t shirt and bootleg blue jeans are offset by his bare feet and yogi style beard which dangles a few inches from his chin into a point, “I had a legal right to be there, the idiots just didn’t stamp my passport” he exclaims to me. Taking me right back, he begins his story.
Clay planned to spend six months travelling from LA to Mexico, meeting some friends. Only after he had crossed the border into Mexico did he realise that they hadn’t stamped his passport, something which we usually take for granted whilst handing our passports to government officials, but Mexico of course doesn’t play by the rules.
Managing to avoid a few problems along the way, and being advised to be very careful travelling without a stamp, Clay tells me that it didn’t worry him because he had six months on his visa for the US. Unbeknown to him at the time, even American citizens have to have their identity, green cards and stamps to cross the border. After avoiding any trouble for a while, one experience of his wasn’t quite as lucky as the previous three.
Tell me what was happening the morning you were detained.
It was two o’clock in the morning, the bus came to a stop in Tecate and the police came aboard checking everyone’s passports. This time they were taking people off the bus. Clay tells me he wasn’t worried because this had happened so many times to him by this point. They scraped past his spot on the bus and started to harass a young boy. Becoming more and more vexed by this situation, Clay thrust his hand, holding his passport, into the policeman’s face, gently but firmly bumping his arm into the policeman’s side. This drew the policeman’s attention, who immediately saw he had no stamp and marched him off the bus. At no point did any of the officials ask Clay for money, which surprised him as usually payoffs are a regular occurrence in this area. “In my mind I was thinking that if I paid off this check point, but I have seven to go, there’s no way I would have enough money to get out of every check. So I may as well have got taken in then” Clay tells me.
What happened then? Did they hurt you? Threaten you?
“No, no, they never hurt me at all. They all had big guns but I later found out this must have been a deterrent only because the guards used to fall asleep with their chins on the top of the rifle mouth”. Only after three days of detainment did they start the supposed paperwork to find out who Clay was and why he was in Mexico with no stamp. They interviewed Clay, in Spanish mostly (which Clay doesn’t speak), and were convinced that he should speak Spanish if he was here with Mexican friends. They then didn’t believe that Clay could possibly have Mexican friends. Clay’s previous job, amongst many all over Australia, was a hostel manager; of course he would have friends from all over the world, it’s in the job description!
A basic human right is to have access to an interpreter in any formal police or government interview. Clay was denied the right to this. Even though there were even some security guards that spoke English, they were not allowed anywhere near Clay. They accused Clay of going to Mexico for work, instead of travel which, coming from Australia, you can imagine the joke that sounded like. “They took my prints and after twenty minutes they put me back in the yard”.
Later on they used false information and attempted to tell Clay he was from India. After clarifying this, he was later informed that he would be detained for a minimum of three weeks. The only reason for this, was that two policemen wanted to get their visas to visit Australia by escorting him home. He found out that he could he been released after ten days if it wasn’t for this.
Clay goes on to inform me that at some point throughout his imprisonment, he was forced to sign a contract about his detainment. He was able to understand that the document was stating that he had been treated well in his time in the detainment centre, that he saw a doctor and was given medical attention if he needed. He had to sign a bill of health confirming he had no illnesses and therefore had not needed to see a doctor. “There was no doctor in sight” Clay says. “I had food poisoning twice from the slop they served me and I had to deal with that on my own”.
Something to note is that TB is still at large in Central and South America, so he was at risk of catching this as well as any other illness carried by any of the other detainees. None of them were ever checked by a doctor.
Can you tell me about the living areas, your meals, your every day life?
“So in one room there were six beds, one shower, two toilets and lights above each bed, but I ended up alone in my cell because the lights on the other beds didn’t work so the others asked for another room”. I immediately assume his relief for that when he was suffering with his food poisoning. He tells me that people always used to come into his cell to use the showers because he was alone. The doors were clear plastic, so you can always see in and out of the rooms. They were not locked in so to speak like prisoners in a cell who have committed real crimes, but they couldn’t leave the block. Clay told me they spent a lot of time outside, and he met lots of people. Some of which he remains in contact with, but they were still treat like inmates. They were not allowed phones or cigarettes, although of course some corrupt guards would smuggle things in for Colombians such as phones, cigarettes and drugs for money. You were allowed to have two hundred Mexican Pesos on you, the rest was kept with your other belongings away from you.
“We got three meals a day but it was disgusting” he tells me. Usually the meals consisted of potato, carrot and a hot dog like the ones you get in a jar. “The veggie option was actually always slightly better, so I had that most of the time, it was lentils and rice”.
“I didn’t find out that there was a library until my last few days, otherwise I would have just read a load of books”.
Did you meet any interesting people whilst you were in there? Did you make friends or was it a hostile environment?
They were over four hundred people in the detainment centre so Clay tells me. He mentioned that he managed to get to know quite a lot of them, which doesn’t surprise me with his open and friendly personality. Most of the inmates were Central or South Americans, seeking a better life. However, a few stories that Clay told me particularly stood out.
Two Egyptian detainees had been scared out of $7000. Their families back home had transferred funds across in hopes to get their loved ones out of prison with no avail. They had been there for forty days already, quite clearly being exploited for any money they have. They told Clay that their families had made five or six bank transfers by this point. I think we all know that this was going straight into the officers’ pockets. Learning English must be hard enough for an Egyptian, never mind trying to understand Spanish whilst being threatened by the thought of being stuck in a tiny Mexican prison for the rest of their lives.
Eleven Indian men were detained, however their families refused to pay. For them, they explained to Clay, they had no hope of a better life. Two men had explained to Clay that they had saved all their money and sold everything they had in India to fly illegally into America and seek asylum. They had used many different false passports to travel across the globe and on their final flight into the States, they had used their real passports. Now that they had been caught and imprisoned, they would be flown back to their home towns and denied entry for a lifetime into America. Whatever awaits them at home, if they ever get let out of the prison, will most certainly be their only future, however tough and dangerous it may be.
The final story that Clay let me in on was the most shocking of all. An Israeli man, a pilot, and a wealthy man at that, was asked several times to fly 20kg of cocaine from Mexico to Miami. He turned down the offer, unsurprisingly, and so one day after the third time of being asked, the police raided his house and burned his identity documents right in front of him. The police then declared he had no papers to prove he was a citizen of Mexico, although he had lived there for twenty two years, and they took him to prison. When Clay met him he had been there for one month already. He had gone on a hunger strike for eleven days, which was met with no empathy. In fact the prison officers seemed to be of the opinion that it was one less mouth to feed, Clay postulates. Eventually the Israeli found to be a legitimate citizen and released. He moved to New York.
“There were a few fights whilst I was there” Clay tells me. This was what I really wanted to know. Was it like a scene out of Prison Break, I was constantly asking in my head. “One young man was nearly killed for stealing” Clay begins to explain. He continues by telling me that when this happened the boy was put into what they called isolation, but in fact this was just an area next to general population where everyone was able to enter, with five cameras watching him. The boy made two suicide attempts whilst in the prison. Besides the morose setting described by Clay of this incident, he couldn’t help but laugh at how ridiculous his surroundings were. He tells me that this isolation room was make shift and in no way any better than general population, there was no doctor to see the boy or psychologist to help him out of this dark moment. The guards would chat with them and get along, they would work twenty four hours straight, have the same amount off and then work another twenty four and get two days off. Consequently he often saw the guards asleep, many of them with their chins pressed on the barrels of their guns. So, he concludes, “the guns couldn’t have been loaded because one slip and they’d blow their heads off”.
It becomes so frightfully clear to me that although he was not in any physical danger, this prison was some make shift detainment centre being used as a means, in many cases, to exploit and ransom foreign people to gain money illegally. In some cases, such as the Indians, they were detained for committing a crime, and likely not to be leaving any time soon, however there seems to be an awful lot of below the books activity that happens in these places.
How was the plane ride home?
“I slept most of the way to be honest” Clay begins. “We flew to Taiwan first, where I was given a lounge room free of charge with my ticket, but the guards weren’t. So I went to the desk and explained we were three people, one detainee and two guards being escorted home on a repatriation flight, of course they presumed that I was the guard, and let us all through to the lounge. So we sat and ate and watched TV for hours until our next flight. The two Mexicans were having a great time”.
Did you not feel any anger towards them for what happened to you?
I had to ask this, because I was confused about his feelings towards the event. “They did nothing wrong to me, they might work for the corrupt police force, but they were just two guys trying to get the best out of sending me home”.
Clay was allowed his phone back on the way home, and finally he was able to update people on his whereabouts. He laughs as he tells me that upon his entry into Australia, he explained again that they were three people, two guards and one man being escorted home for repatriation. Again they thought that one of the Mexicans was the detainee as they spoke next to no English. Clay was questioned in Sydney airport and then finally released after they realised he wasn’t smuggling cocaine into the country.
What happened to the guards?
“I don’t know, I actually helped them find a place to stay and I guess they will just explore Sydney and then go home”.
Clay tells me that he did the calculations and to have sent him home on a flight with all his luggage, and the two guards with their visas and flights, the Mexican government would have spent over $10000. He seems completely chuffed with himself that he was able to get all his baggage home for free, he wouldn’t have been able to otherwise!
Something I found surprising about Clay throughout our afternoon together chatting about this, is that he never showed me any sign of anger. His compassion for the men escorting him back, and his utter placidity talking about an absolute waste of three weeks of his life, at the control of the Mexican government, confirmed to me my first thought of him when I saw him peacefully slouching on his mattress this morning. He is simply a happy and peaceful guy. However, the others are still incarcerated, possibly never to leave, or to be conned out of thousands and thousands of dollars. Who knows what difficulties they may encounter, and what dangers lay on the road ahead of them. For some, their big American dream is shattered into pieces, their safety compromised and their home destroyed in their own country.
I would like to thank Clay, if he gets around to reading this article, for giving me his time and his open spirit to creating this article with me.