Sunday, June 20, 2004

Morales loses freedom but little else in Mexican jail

Morales loses freedom but little else in Mexican jail

Morales loses freedom but little else in Mexican jail
June 20, 2004

MEXICO CITY -- Marco Morales digs a few pesos out of his pocket, lifts his finger and orders a young man to fetch him some bottled water.

Later, as he walks by a small crowd, Morales, with a generous waistline and a calm demeanor, commands attention, as several men offer him their hands and call out: ''Good day, Senor Morales.''

This isn't Chicago seven years ago, when Morales worked as a high-rolling city contractor.

This is Mexican federal prison -- far from the stereotyped grit and gloom one might imagine -- where Morales has managed to wield the kind of clout he did in Chicago.

As in those days, Morales knows how to work the system. A Mexican official who did not want to be named said Morales likely pays about $200 a month for nicer quarters.

"If you want better treatment, you have to pay for it. It used to be horrible -- you could even buy drugs in jail," the source said.

Drug dealers pay upwards of $2,000 a month for even better treatment, landing individual rooms with their own protection, the source says.

Morales, 59, is fighting extradition to face a five-year U.S. prison sentence on a mail fraud and bribery conviction, stemming from the federal Silver Shovel investigation. Morales told federal authorities he bribed two City Hall officials and told the Sun-Times there were many more.

The Reclusorio Sur federal prison is set in the green hills of Xochimilco, an area on the southern edge of Mexico City.

Most of the inmates don't have a great view of those hills, but Morales does.

And while most of the inmates get ground up "hot dogs" slopped onto their plates for dinner, Morales often dines on steaks or chicken that he and the eight others in his area chip in to buy, he said. He said his family in Mexico gives him the money.

They cook on a simple stove they share. On this day, steam rises from chicken cooking on a grill beside a barrel of filtered water.

"It'll be ready in 20 minutes, would you like to stay for dinner?'' one of Morales' cellmates, Luis Enrique Hernandez, asks the visiting reporter.

They deny they pay for the better conditions.

"No, we don't pay anything,'' Morales said. His attorney, Jaime Tacher, said Morales is treated better because he hasn't beencharged with a crime in Mexico. Also, Marco is older and he's nonviolent.

The difference is dramatic.

In the general population area it reeks of sewage, bug spray and clouds of cigarette smoke.

Walking up the two flights of stairs to Morales' room, the air is cleaner and the din subsides. Morales calls out to another inmate, who unlocks the doors from the inside.

Off the common area, Morales shares a tiny room with one other man. There's a television, a tiny shower and a bathroom right inside. Underwear hangs over a bucket to dry in the shower. Morales sleeps on a 6-inch foam mat on a slab of concrete.

"Down there, they don't even have this. They sleep on the floor," Morales said.

They play dominoes at night; they watch local soccer games on television. There are tennis courts; Morales said he visited just once.

Mexican federal prison, Morales admits, isn't so bad. But it's far worse than the life Morales knew as he hid out since 1997 in Merida, in the Yucatan peninsula.

Still, he was on the run, and compared to his life in Chicago, Morales said Mexico "is pretty boring."

In Chicago, he had built up a construction business, PolMex, named for his Polish ex-wife's heritage and his Mexican descent.

Morales said he wasn't used to having money, and his power got out of hand. He juggled mistresses, having children with three women. He said while he was with his wife, he'd juggle the other relationship by meeting her at restaurants or at her house, then left by 9 p.m. "I never spent the night," Morales said.

But Morales said he had broken it off with her and only visited her for the children.

Before he fled, Morales said, he was mostly with yet another girlfriend, Maria Velazquez, with whom he had a son, Marco.

Morales told the Sun-Times he was with Velazquez just before he opted not to go to jail in Milan, Mich., in November 1997. The two flew there together and rented a car. He showed her the prison, then dropped her off at the airport and told her he would take a cab back to jail. Instead he took a flight to Chicago.

"I had it all. Sometimes I think, why did I do that?'' Morales said of getting into trouble with the law. "Sometimes I regret it. No, I really do regret it."


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