The Damned: a journalist inside Mexico's 'prison of the stars'

RNW archive

This article is part of the RNW archive. RNW is the former Radio Netherlands Worldwide or Wereldomroep, which was founded as the Dutch international public broadcaster in 1947. In 2011, the Dutch government decided to cut funding and shift RNW from the ministry of Education, Culture and Science to the ministry of Foreign Affairs. More information about RNW Media’s current activities can be found at https://www.rnw.org/about-rnw-media.

Jesús Lemus Barajas is a journalist who spent three years in a high-security prison in Mexico. In Puente Grande, jokingly called 'the prison of the stars'. A place where “they try to break you on the inside and the outside”.

Puente Grande, in the state of Jalisco, is home to Mexico’s most dangerous felons. It became a household name when Joaquín Guzmán Loaera, the most wanted drugs trafficker in the world, escaped from the prison that was meant to be the most closely guarded on the continent. Guzmán was in charge of a criminal organisation, operating in more than 30 countries.

Absurd accusations
And while it was easy for Guzmán to escape, it was also easy for the authorities to unjustly imprison Jesús Lemus. The journalist was accused of being the leader of the Golfo Cartel, the Sinaloa Cartel, the Zetas (a violent criminal syndicate) and the Michoacán Family (a drug cartel). An absurd accusation because these groups are mortal enemies and constantly feuding.

Revenge was the reason behind his Lemus’s incarceration. He had to be taught a lesson because of his articles linking local officials to the drugs trade. An armed and masked commando captured Lemus in Michoacán and took him 250 kilometres away to Guanajuato.

After three days of beatings and torture, he was taken to a regular prison for a week before being transferred to Puente Grande. Since the judge considered Lemus to be an extremely dangerous convict, he was held naked for a year in total isolation.

Psychological ‘treatment’
He slept on a stone bed without sheets or a pillow. He didn’t even have a towel. Every night, between two and four o’clock, masked guards arrived in his cell to give him a treatment which had been recommended by the prison psychologist. It consisted of beatings, torture and an ice water bath, using a fire hose. The hose’s pressure was so great that Lemus would be knocked to the ground and thrown around the cell.
Months passed. Jesús Lemus was taken to another wing of Puente Grande where he was held with other convicts: the national roll-call of top criminals. Murderers, high-level drug traffickers, kidnappers, everyone.

Click here to listen to RNW’s (Spanish-language) interview with Jesús Lemus. 

Identity confirmed

The penitentiary officials operated on the assumption that Lemus was in charge of the Michoacán Family, a cartel that produces synthetic drugs and has religious overtones. The leaders of other cartels approached Lemus to do business. Lemus swore that he was in prison because Michoacán officials wanted to take revenge against him. The drug traffickers insisted that they wanted to divide up the booming market in methamphetamines and other banned substances. Lemus told them: “Tell that to the people who had me imprisoned”. They did.

Several weeks later, the drug bosses told the journalist, “We’ve received information from our sources. They confirmed that you’re a journalist and that the mayor of La Piedad had you imprisoned because of your articles. We now know that you are innocent. We also heard that you used to be a teacher. Could you give us classes?” Lemus said yes. In exchange he asked for permission to interview them.

Journalism saved him
Living together with these convicts gave Jesús Lemus unprecedented insider information. No one ever imagined that he would get out. Almost all the prisoners were serving minimum sentences of 30 years. They knew that being released was an illusion, so they had no reason to deny an interview to a fellow convict who had been tortured and abused. An infiltrator? No way.

What kept Lemus alive was journalism. Every day he dreamt of scoring a big scoop. His jail mates recounted their lives. Lemus wrote some of the stories down on toilet paper, his only luxury in prison, and memorised the rest. One of the prisoners would jokingly yell from his cell: “Ask me, you journalist, ask me whatever you want.” And Lemus would ask.

All the convicts knew that Lemus was a journalist who pinned his faith on the Virgin of Guadelupe to maintain his sanity. He told RNW that “Puente Grande is an extermination centre. They try to break you on the inside and the outside. If you’re not religious, you become a believer and you cling on to straws.”

Starting from scratch
Thanks to the intense efforts of Reporters without Borders, Lemus was finally freed. The authorities never apologised. Instead he received death threats and had to flee his home town and go into hiding.

While he was in prison, soldiers burgled his home and took everything, even including his socks. Doctor Octavio Cavillo was moved by the story and, gave Jesús Lemus a laptop. The journalist immediately began writing. He wrote about what had happened to him. Random House accepted the manuscript and it will be published later this month under the name Los Malditos [The Damned].