ARLINGTON — Robert Hood left for a fishing trip along the coast of Mexico, and when he finally returned, he was never the same.
Mexican police arrested Hood on arson charges after someone set fire to a fishing shack near where he was staying in San Felipe. Hood, a World War II veteran with a spotless record, languished for days in a filthy, crowded Mexican prison in 1982.
Hood was eventually released after a barrage of bad press from both sides of the border began to hurt tourism.
He came home 50 pounds lighter and was broken emotionally, said his son, Gary Hood of Stanwood. His father talked of hearing other prisoners being tortured and beaten. The prison was so crowded, his father spoke of sleeping standing up.
“It changed my dad,” Hood said. “He became reclusive, not as happy. He was like a prisoner of war.”
Hood can’t help but be struck by the apparent similarities in his late father’s case and that of Edward Chrisman, 88, who is being held in a Mexican prison, the Carcel de Mexicali in the state of Baja California Norte.
Edward Chrisman, a longtime resident of Arlington, was wintering in Yuma, Ariz., when he decided to take a quick trip across the border with his grandson, Gary Chrisman Jr. Mexican police arrested both men the same day, Jan. 8, saying the pair tried to pay young girls to pose nude for photos.
The Chrisman family maintains the men are innocent. The family said Gary Chrisman Jr. stopped at a convenience store for a soda and, while there, asked a mother if he could take photos of her daughters. He’d been taking photos of Mexican culture all day with a new camera. The mother granted permission and he gave her $25. He snapped head shots of the two fully-clothed girls and left the store. Edward Chrisman never even went into the store.
Family members were asked by an intermediary to pay $2,000 to the prosecuting attorney “to make the situation disappear,” Shannon Perkins, Edward Chrisman’s granddaughter, said. The payment was not made.
The pair has been held in a crowded Mexicali prison as their family members travel across the border daily trying to get them released. They fear Edward Chrisman, who apparently has contracted pneumonia at the prison, won’t survive the ordeal.
Trial could be months away.
About 400 Americans are detained in Mexican prisons at any time, said Charles Smith, a public affairs officer for the U.S. Consulate General in Tijuana. His office monitors the Baja peninsula in Mexico, where the Chrismans are being held. Of all Americans arrested on foreign soil, one in five is arrested in Baja California.
U.S. has little recourse
When Americans hear about cases such as the Chrismans, they want to know why the U.S. government can’t do something to help. The U.S. Consulate only has the authority to monitor conditions of American prisoners. No other agency or U.S. politician can do much more.
While in Mexico, “You are subject to the same judicial system as the people living in Mexico,” Smith said.
And Mexico is no place to get tangled up with the law.
Human rights organizations report problems with overcrowded prisons, corrupt officials and human rights abuses for both prisoners and victims.
Americans won’t find that mentioned on Mexico’s tourism Web site.
A chasm exists between Mexican law and how justice is meted out, according to a 2007 report from Amnesty International.
Individuals are sometimes detained on the basis of obviously flawed or spurious evidence, often well beyond the country’s legal limits allowed for pretrial detention, the organization found. Others are denied access to adequate legal advice at precisely the point when they are most at risk for torture and other abuses.
Joe King, a former U.S. Customs special agent who worked in San Diego, has a more blunt assessment.
“It’s a dump,” said King, who now teaches about terrorism and organized crime at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. “The prisons are all rat traps and they’re all corrupt.”
King has worked in law enforcement internationally, including undercover in Northern Ireland and Beirut, Lebanon.
When it comes to Mexico, “The only way I’d go back there is if I were a hostage,” he said.
He said it’s common for cars with American license plates to get pulled over in Mexico. It happened to him regularly.
“Who are you going to shake down, a local guy who knows you or your cousin? Or somebody who is not likely to complain?” he said.
It’s not unheard of for Americans to become entangled with the Mexican judicial system without cause, said David Shirk, a University of San Diego professor involved in the Trans-Border Institute. The research institute advocates for changes in the Mexican judicial system.
“We do see cases of predatory behavior by law enforcement who are trying to extract bribes, especially by tourists in cases where they can extract material gain,” he said.
However, Shirk said he doesn’t see how police would gain by improperly detaining the Chrismans.
Holes in the system
The concept of Mexico’s legal system is similar to that in many European countries. Unlike the U.S. model, two sides do not vigorously compete in front of a neutral court.
In Mexico, a prosecutor gathers evidence and then presents it to a judge, who decides if there is enough evidence to move forward with a trial, he said. It’s presumed the court is engaged in finding truth. Until recently, the Mexican court system was less public and relied heavily on slow-moving rulings made in writing.
A legal system like Mexico’s works markedly better in Spain and France, where there is well-developed legal infrastructure, Shirk said. Mexico doesn’t have the professionals needed to support the system, and that results in backlogs, delays and little ability to determine if someone should be released on bail.
More than 40 percent of prisoners in Mexico have never been convicted of a crime, Human Rights Watch reported in its 2009 World Report. These prisoners are held in pretrial detention, often waiting years for a trial. Inmates frequently are subject to abuses, including extortion by guards.
In 2008, Mexico passed constitutional reform to overhaul the criminal justice system.
Jorge Vargas, a law professor at the University of San Diego, said he receives calls from all over the U.S. seeking his counsel on cases like the Chrismans’ ordeal.
“My impression is sometimes the information you get from families is objective and sometimes it’s rather exaggerated,” he said.
Many Americans arrested by Mexican police are quick to cry corruption, he said.
“In some cases, the Americans aren’t truthful and the system is not that lousy,” said Vargas, who has worked as an attorney for the Mexican government and in international law for the United Nations.
American prisons have serious problems too, including racial disparities, gangs, drugs, murders and other violence within penitentiary walls.
The Chrisman family has been told it may be months before the cases against Edward Chrisman and his grandson go to trial.
The family fears that Edward Chrisman’s health is failing.
He appears pale, weak and dehydrated, said his son, Gary Chrisman Sr. The family learned from a prison doctor he’s being treated for pneumonia and extreme insomnia. Prison officials moved him to a section for the elderly where conditions are better, including warm showers and a bed with a mattress.
Earlier, Edward Chrisman was kept in a small, concrete cell with dozens of other men. He had to sleep on a metal bed frame with no mattress. That’s where his grandson remains.
Mexican prisons generally are overcrowded and often unsanitary, Shirk said. The quality and quantity of food served is often poor. Prisoners have to buy virtually everything they need, including blankets and clean clothing, Shirk said.
On the other hand, Mexican prisoners often have more freedoms behind the walls than in American institutions. Some prisons feature mini-villages where prisoners can set up taco stands. Inmates are allowed conjugal visits.
Still, Mexican prisons are harsh places for the elderly, Shirk said.
“His family has cause to be concerned,” he said.
In 1982, it was bad publicity, not the law, that set Gary Hood’s father free.
“These border towns need tourists spending their dollars,” Hood said. “Even in that short period of time, it was bad enough the mayor and the police chief made things happen.”
Hood grew up in the California border town of Chula Vista, south of San Diego, but you won’t catch him setting foot in Mexico.
“I wouldn’t go to Mexico if they paid me a billion dollars,” he said. “My dad was never the same.”
Reporter Debra Smith: 425-339-3197 or firstname.lastname@example.org.