MERIDA, Mexico -- The walls are 15 feet high and topped with jagged glass and barbed wire, ugly keepers of ugly secrets. For years they stood sentry over abuses of scores of children in state care, who were forced to eat pig food, beaten, even tied to trees for days at a time.
Beto, a homeless boy, was 10 years old when the police brought him here after they caught him stealing two shiny gold buttons from a store bin. He thought he might be going somewhere better than the street.
Instead, Betulio Chi Tzec spent the next five years behind the walls of the Yucatan state juvenile correctional facility, a little boy locked in a dormitory room with two teenagers convicted of rape.
Beto, as well as a teacher and a physician who worked there, said the woman who ran the youth detention home regularly beat the 50 children in her care. They said she kicked the children in the genitals, slapped them and sheared off their hair in fits of rage. Beto said she told the children, "You are all going to rot here," and he came to believe she was right.
According to youths who have spent time inside the system, as well as parents, government officials and many experts here, children are frequently mistreated, abused and forgotten in Mexico's "little jails," as the youth lockups are known. Officially called "schools for young offenders," many of these places are nothing more than cold prisons where classroom teaching is rare.
There are 4,200 children living in dozens of detention centers across Mexico. Conditions vary, and some centers are well run. But many operate the same way they did a century ago: out of public view and with little or no internal regulation or outside supervision. Parents are often barred from entering, though they are encouraged to slip money to guards to prevent harsher treatment of their children.
The Mexican government, battered by crime, has displayed little concern or tolerance for children who break the law. That indifference, as well as the secrecy that shrouds the detention centers, has perpetuated shoddy and often cruel practices, according to those with firsthand experience in the troubled system.
"These institutions are horrible," said Elena Azaola, a criminal justice specialist who has conducted studies of the juvenile centers. "The children live in misery."
Mexico relies on an informal and largely unregulated system of juvenile justice that has existed for decades. Children who break the law often have no access to an attorney. Administrative judges who handle juvenile cases set sentences, but there is often no judicial follow-up once children are sent to detention homes.
The real power is held by the directors of the centers. They effectively decide how long a child will be held and under what conditions. The directors are appointed by governors or other top officials in each of Mexico's 31 states.
"For children there is no system of justice. They are the victims of arbitrary decisions by those in charge," said Guillermo Alonso Angulo, a consultant for UNICEF in Yucatan state.
A system that abuses children and fails to punish the abusers is a legacy of the one-party rule that dominated Mexico for most of the 20th century. From 1929 until 2000, Mexico's presidents, and most of its governors, mayors, police and local officials -- including those in charge of youth programs -- belonged to the Institutional Revolutionary Party.
During that era, government jobs were dispensed more out of political loyalty than expertise. People running programs intended to benefit society often did little other than steal agency funds. Because of the party's hammerlock on power, they rarely had to answer to the public.
President Vicente Fox, who took office in 2000, has promised to create a new day for justice in Mexico. He has vowed that the law, not the personal or political whims of officials, will reign.
Now, the children locked away in detention centers are trying to hold him to his word.
Nearly every week recently, youths have climbed onto the roofs of their detention homes, setting fires and starting small riots to draw attention to their living conditions. When reporters arrive, the children yell over the wall that they have been beaten with brooms and belts.
On Oct. 2, in the western state of Nayarit, 37 children took over a detention center, throwing stones and screaming that they were "tired of the beatings." The day before, in the northern state of Sonora, 40 children brawled with their keepers, complaining about brutality. Similar uprisings have occurred in six other states and Mexico City this year, as angry children demand better treatment in their little jails.
Allegations of Cruelty
Mexico is struggling to transform itself into a nation where people feel protected -- not menaced -- by the law. Yet old ways prevail, as seen in the horrors of the Yucatan detention center.
The director, Maria del Rocio Martel Lopez, was a physician who had superb local political connections. Some who knew her recalled that she was tall, thin, blond and impeccably dressed.
Dozens of children under her care have now come forward to say she brutalized them. According to the findings of an investigation by the National Human Rights Commission, which issued a report in April, Martel presided for four years over an institution with "cruel and degrading treatment" of children, which included "denigrating punishments, humiliations, beatings and mistreatment."
Allegations of cruelty by Martel were reported to the governor's office as early as 1999. But the powerful, longtime governor who appointed her, Victor Cervera Pacheco, did nothing. Many here attribute his inaction to Martel's social and political standing; she is the widow of a former powerful party boss in the state.
A Merida radio station aired a report in 1999 about the allegations against Martel, but the reporter, Jose Luis Preciado, said he was pressured by state officials to drop the matter.
"Sometimes she would tell boys to pull down their pants and she would kick them in their private parts until they cried," Beto said of Martel, echoing testimony given to human rights investigators by people who worked at the center.
Psychologists and teachers, in interviews and in their statements to investigators and police, said that Martel beat children until they bled. Several recalled how she forced one homosexual boy to dress like a girl.
Many of Martel's accusers cited the case of a teenage orphan, Catalina Gijon Granados. She was held in the center for four years, often in windowless isolation, even though she had committed no crime.
Dulce Maria Alavez Soberanes, who taught crafts at the detention center, called Martel's treatment of Catalina "unforgivable." She said that Catalina was beautiful, sweet and relatively well-adjusted until she landed on Martel's bad side. After months of mistreatment, Alavez said Catalina appeared lost and disoriented and became a chronic bed-wetter, a skinny girl with sickly yellow hollow eyes.
"She was locked up for almost two months in a room without a window, given just one meal a day," Alavez said. "When she was let out, it was as if she was drugged."
For two years, Yucatan human rights lawyers complained without success to the governor and other officials. Then they called the human rights commission in Mexico City. On an August day in 2001, the commission arrived at the center to investigate. That day Martel quit her job and walked out the door.
A criminal investigation was later opened, but no charges have been filed.
Martel's answer to the allegations against her is unknown. Efforts to locate her were unsuccessful. Several months ago, neighbors said they saw a moving van pull up to her house, and they haven't seen her since. Officials at the state attorney general's office said they did not know where she was, and that she was being sought for questioning.
Rights workers here in Merida said the government allowed Martel to slip away to avoid the embarrassment of a messy trial with potentially nasty political implications. Mexico has a long history of looking the other way at official misconduct.
"They would rather bury this part," said Angulo, the UNICEF consultant. "I think there should be a criminal trial. But I don't think there ever will be."
Sleeping With Pigs
When Isis Maria Velazquez was 13, she recalled, her mother became exasperated with her misbehavior and turned her over to state care. She spent the next two years in Martel's facility.
The dates of her mistreatment remain etched in her memory. On July 27, 1999, she entered the center, and Martel chopped off most of her long, shiny brown hair, leaving it a short-cropped ugly nest. On May 9, 2000, she said, Martel forced her into a muddy, filthy pen where she spent the next three nights sleeping with 15 pigs.
"She shoved pig food in my face," Isis said. "She was crazy."
Her father, Lucio Jesus Velazquez, a retired night watchman, said poor people in Mexico are accustomed to being powerless. He said he paid staff at the center so he could visit Isis and tried to buy better treatment for her. He said Mexicans know they have to pay bribes to get service from the government, and that complaining often gets them nothing but more abuse.
"I don't know the laws," Velazquez said. "I'm not educated in them." He said that until a human rights lawyer told him the state had no right to treat his daughter as it did, he did not realize that what happened to her might have been illegal.
Isis said she watched as other children were beaten with rubber tubes and wooden sticks. She said some boys were tied to trees, blasted with cold water from a hose and left to sleep standing up.
Those allegations have been backed up by others who have complained to police and human rights officials, including Sylvia Zenteno Ruano, a physician hired by the state to make weekly visits to the center. She said she is still haunted by what she found one day: four boys tied to trees, rope wound around them from their necks to their knees.
"There was urine and excrement in their clothes so they must have been there for a while," she said. Zenteno filed a complaint with the police and waited. They did not return her call for nine months.
Isis has now been out of the center for several months. She works as a stripper in a bar called Atlantico. There, at night, she dances under a mirror ball that throws the glinting colors of the rainbow on zebra wallpaper. She said dancing helps her forget her hatred, which she described as the only thing she learned during her time in the state's hands.
"They have punished no one," Isis, now 16, said of the authorities. She now supports her father and they live in a tiny home in Merida with almost no furniture. "Some of the people who beat us are still working there. They just don't care."
"I used to have dreams," she said. "But I don't anymore."
A sad failure of juvenile detention centers in Mexico is that some of the imprisoned children have committed no crime. They are held because they had no home and the government could find no other bed for them.
The government operates few shelters for street children, ceding most of the responsibility to churches and other private groups. Thousands of children live in private shelters without any government supervision.
The risks of this unregulated system were recently highlighted in Puerto Vallarta, according to children's advocates, who said an American, Thomas White, started building a shelter for street children in 2000. He was allowed to do so with almost no scrutiny or investigation of his background or qualifications, they said.
"It is easier to open a shelter for children than a restaurant," Angulo said.
Police said they are looking for White, who has been charged with offering money and food to street children in exchange for their posing for pornographic photos and videos. He fled after a state judge issued an arrest warrant last year, and his whereabouts are unknown.
Juan Diaz Gonzalez, a Mexico City legislator, said such abuse is common. He said some shelter operators in the capital have forced children into prostitution rings or illegal adoptions. Many of the shelters are so poorly run and funded that he called them "trash cans where kids are thrown away. The government is investing nothing in these children," he said. "They are throwing away thousands of lives."
There are new efforts to clean up the system. Since Fox came to power, top officials have been replaced, but many middle- and lower-level officials have not, particularly in the ranks of prosecutors and police. The government has little money to pay good salaries for difficult jobs, such as dealing with delinquents.
Under a new governor from Fox's National Action Party, Yucatan state officials said they plan to build a $1 million detention center. They said that only children who have committed crimes would be sent there.
They promised better record-keeping to ensure that children serve their sentences and no more. They promised that lawyers and human rights observers would be allowed access. But Yucatan, like most Mexican states, has plans and promises bigger than its pocketbook. So far, the officials have had little success in recruiting people willing to take such difficult jobs for as little as $50 a week.
Years of Life Lost
Beto had been abandoned by his parents. Living on the street was tough, he recalled, but it was nothing compared to the years of misery he suffered at the hands of the government.
"I lost a lot of my life," said Beto, who is now 16 and was recently released from the facility.
Beto wonders what his life would have been like had he not been forced into the state system. His manner is withdrawn and unsmiling. He seems like a serious man in a child's body. He lives with his ailing grandmother, earning a few pesos a day pedaling a bicycle taxi in a town 45 miles from here.
He doesn't like to talk about his years in Merida.
Interviewed at a taco stand in a colorful town square, Beto paused for a long time after each question, sipping on a soda. He said he was not angry, but the what-ifs nagged at him.
"If I hadn't taken those two buttons, the police wouldn't have picked me up," he said. "I could have found a job and a place to live. You can't do that when you're in jail."
--Researcher Laurie Freeman in Mexico City contributed to this report.