Lawyers who visit their clients in the Altiplano, Mexico's highest-security prison, say they must leave behind their wallets, pens, tie clips, shoelaces. They complain that guards even check inside their underwear and female lawyers must take off their bras.
Those prisoners in solitary confinement, such as the jail's most famous inmate, drug lord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, are said to be under constant surveillance and receive just one hour of daily caged-in recreational time.
So the news last month that Guzman had organised nearly 1,000 prisoners to hold a five-day hunger strike to protest at the prison's poor hygiene, medical care and food seemed curious. Not just that the world's most fearsome drug lord was now apparently a human rights crusader, but that he had the freedom of movement and communications to pull it off.
According to sources familiar with the prison, however, Guzman is given preferential treatment: while other prisoners are forced to shave, he's been allowed to keep his moustache.
That Guzman is in prison at all is a victory for the Mexican government. He had escaped from incarceration once before, in 2001, and his legend grew as he led the Sinaloa Cartel, the multi-billion-dollar drug-trafficking operation. Guzman was once reported to be worth $1bn.
In February, a team of Mexican marine commandos burst into his Mazatlan condo and snatched him. After being briefly marched before a press conference in Mexico City, Guzman was taken to the Altiplano and out of public view.
According to lawyers, former inmates, relatives and others, life at Altiplano is hard, with dirty cells, not enough blankets and a lack of medicine. "There is mould, they get sick, it's cold, they don't take care of them," said a lawyer, who declined to give his name to preserve his access to the prison.
Mexican officials have confirmed that the hunger strike in mid-July took place, but denied that Guzman participated. "There is no way that [he] could participate, because [he is] totally isolated," an official said.
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