The holding cells that served as a legendary hellhole for unlucky tourists may soon take on a new role — tourist attraction.
According to the newspapers in Baja California, the Tijuana municipal police headquarters known as La Ocho is finally being closed after 60 years in operation, at the end of this month.
To Tijuana residents and old gringo Baja hands alike, that news is likely to be met with a mix of chuckles and shouts of “good riddance!”
This also was the municipal jail, which would “host” generations of drunken sailors, wayward teenagers and tourists who simply crossed paths with a crooked muni cop looking for a bribe. It was where you would be held until you were brought before a judge — or until you paid up, whichever came first.
On this side of the border, La Ocho was immortalized by the Kingston Trio in their 1959 folk song “The Tijuana Jail:”
“So here we are, in the Tia-juana Jail.
Ain’t got no friends to go our bail.
So here we’ll stay, ’cause we can’t pay.
Just send our mail to the Tia-juana Jail.”
The song made the place sound like a joke. The reality, as indicated by the Baja California newspaper El Norte, was anything but:
“Known as La Ocho for being located on Eighth Street, it was the place where citizens and foreigners alike knew the rigors of corruption and confinement for infractions as light as traffic violations…Through this headquarters passed hundreds of people who had the misfortune to face its justice and injustice, from dangerous hitmen to juvenile offenders or gang members known in the 1950s as ‘pachucos.’ ”
Back in the 1970s, enterprising merchants in San Diego were hawking T-shirts that read: “I survived Tijuana Jail.” For most of its history, enduring La Ocho and its dank, fetid conditions could be considered a minor achievement.
Tijuana mayor Jorge Ramos told El Norte that the old police complex would be converted into a cultural and historical center, but offered no details.
THE SAME, BUT DIFFERENT
Tijuana muni police were long infamous for bribery and extortion. They called it “la mordida,” the bite — and they wouldn’t hesitate to put the bite on you.
This is what happens when you make less in a month as a cop than what a teenager at Mickey D’s makes in a week.
Back in the day one Saturday afternoon, four of us were at an intersection in downtown TJ when a muni cop standing on the corner waved at me to turn left, pull up to him and stop.
“Good afternoon, señor,” he said in his courteous English. “I’m going to give you a ticket.”
“For making an illegal left turn!”
Ignoring for the moment that I never would’ve turned in the first place had he not told me to, I asked him what made the turn illegal. He couldn’t tell me, but insisted that it was. He took my driver’s license and asked a bunch of questions — where was I from, who was in the car. Typical cop stuff.
Then, incredibly, he let me go. To this day, I still don’t know why. Instead, he sent me off with a smile, and a warning:
“Now remember, Señor Gross: In Mexico, the rules are the same…but different!”
— Greg Gross
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