SANTA FE, N.M. — Lilia wore a wide smile and perfect posture as she walked away from the 30 other Mexican cadets training at the New Mexico Corrections Department Training Academy gym.
Her father was a police officer in Mexico and, despite graduating from a university in Mexico with a degree in marketing, she couldn't be happier to be a corrections officer in the federal prison system in Mexico.
"Since I was a child, I always wanted to be a police officer," Lilia said. "I returned to what I wanted to be when I was a kid. I love it."
For her protection, Lilia's last name and hometown were not released because of the threat of retaliation against peace officers in Mexico.
Lilia is one of 11 females in the group and is calling Santa Fe home for the next four and a half weeks as part of this spring's international class.
Through an agreement with the U.S. State Department, the New Mexico Corrections Department is training cadets from Mexico and Central America, and will continue to do so for the next three years.
Since receiving accreditation in 2009 by the American Correctional Association, the New Mexico Corrections Department Training Academy, located off N.M. 14 south of the city, has graduated 439 foreign cadets.
Cadets have traveled to Santa Fe from Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala and Belize. There have been 89 females among the graduates. The current group of 31 cadets, scheduled to graduate April 27, includes the largest number of women, five of whom are trained instructors. The first class of 24 only had two women.
Antonio Maestas, the corrections training adviser for the Mexican Federal Prison System (Academia Nacional de Administracion Penitenciaria), was one of the only officers who could translate for the Mexican cadets in 2009's first class. He translated everything from registration forms to slideshows.
Today, the academy annually trains three to four classes averaging 30 cadets each.
Maestas said the U.S. State Department looked at corrections departments in the all 48 states in the continental U.S. as well as departments in Germany, England and Australia when choosing an international training program for Mexico.
"They chose New Mexico because of the similarities in our cultures, the language and the proximity," Maestas said. He said there were also similarities in the drug and gang cultures that can exist inside prison walls.
In 2006, Maestas said, when President Felipe CalderÓn took office, the prison system in Mexico was in a state of chaos. There was no separation between state prisoners and federal prisoners. There was no classification system for degrees of security needed for individual prisoners. In some cases, prisoners already sentenced for crimes were jailed with people who had not even appeared before a judge regarding their alleged crimes.
President CalderÓn decided to change that, Maestas said. He separated the federal prison system from the state system and, Maestas said, has increased the number of accredited federal prisons from four to 10 in three years.
By the end of 2012, Maestas said, the goal is to have 22 accredited prison facilities, including an all-female prison that will hold about 900 prisoners.
"With the war against the drug cartels," Maestas said, "the amount of inmates has really increased."
In classes at the New Mexico Corrections Department Training Academy, cadets learn New Mexico's six-level security classification system — with Level 6 being the highest.
The Mexican cadets are living on the academy campus with other cadets. The groups go through the same four-week basic correctional officer training program.
This includes classes on interpersonal communications, officer safety, rape elimination, ethics, report writing, and a drug and gang awareness class. Cadets then break off into three weeks of specialized training.
They take classes that include a defensive-tactics instructor course, a chemical-agent instructor course and a train-the-trainer instruction course. The final three weeks prepare the international cadets to return to their countries to teach their own officers what they've learned.
"We're showing them our system, how it works, and then they can implement it the best they can," said Capt. Clarence Olivas of the Training Academy.
Olivas said instructors don't take the approach that other systems are wrong, but rather that cadets may be able to take ideas from the U.S. systems.
Lilia has been working in a corrections facility for about a year.
She said she believes she was selected for the program in Santa Fe based on "the performance of her duties" in Mexico.
With Maestas translating, she said, "Females over the last year and a half have been allowed to do more work in a male institution. They no longer just have male officers."Comment on this story
Maestas was recently assigned to Mexico's only accredited academy and said that of a class of 250 cadets, 150 were women.
"We've noticed how much better male inmates respond to female officers," Maestas said.
Two of the female cadets in the academy this spring have already been through the classes at least four times. They are now instructors, teaching the first-timers, like Lilia, things that may benefit them as they try to improve their prisons at home.
"They're teaching us a lot, not only physically but mentally," Lilia said.
Information from: The Santa Fe New Mexican, http://www.sfnewmexican.com