A Look at the Unbelievable Real Prison that Inspired 'Get the Gringo'

A Look at the Unbelievable Real Prison that Inspired 'Get the Gringo'

Jul 26, 2012

Get the Gringo is based on an unbelievable true story.

Kind of.

Mel Gibson's character of Driver, an American career criminal who ends up in a prison in Mexico after crashing right through the U.S. border, is not based on any one man. (Though you could certainly see Driver as an unofficial continuation of his character from 1999's Payback.) The experimental prison he does his time in, however, is a real prison. Or rather, it was a real prison. It was closed down in August of 2002 after the Mexican government raided the place, destroying nearly 50 years of rampant criminal enterprises in the process.

Yes, the wild things Gibson's character sees in Get the Gringo were based on real events, but the story behind the prison is even crazier. 

The radical idea behind Centro de Readaptación Social de la Mesa when it was founded back in 1956 was to make a prison where none of the normal rules applied. Not only were inmates free to abandon their prison cells, but their families were free to come and live with them in the prison if they liked. The driving force behind this Little Village, as its El Pueblito nickname translates to, was the hope that by giving prisoners a sense of normalcy it would make rehabilitation and reintroduction to society much easier. And it did in the early years.

But then the prisoners and their families started creating their own enterprises within the prison walls. Entire criminal rackets cropped up left and right, putting a price on every commodity imaginable inside, and before it was destroyed, the prison's economy did a reported $80,000 a day in transactions. Not only did the guards turn a blind eye to the drug rings that emerged, but even innocent items became pricey and rare commodities. If someone needed it, somebody else found a way to sell it, be it as little as water ($1.20 for five gallons) or as big as a two-room shelter ($7,000). These costs became institutionalized to the point where little corners of El Pueblito became family nest eggs. People planned on selling their houses in the prison to finance their post-prison lives, only to be heartbroken when the government raided the prison and shipped all of the inmates off to other locations.

As for where that income came from, it could be earned illicitly by partaking in any number of the criminal markets in El Pueblito, by working in one of the 150 restaurants or stores that families had opened up, offering wares as mundane as newspapers, and entertainment venues that charged entrance to live wrestling matches, or by having someone from the outside simply give you money so you could survive on the inside. The situation inside El Pueblito got so bad by the end that inmates had to actually pay guards a $50 bribe just to get access to a real prison cell for a night, and that didn't even include the cost of sleeping on a mattress.

So as outlandish as the prison world in Get the Gringo seems, it's not the fevered dream of a screenwriter. El Pueblito really existed. And people like Gibson's Driver really did business inside it. In fact, in the early 2000s, the prison was home to more Americans than any other foreign penitentiary on the planet. So when you see Driver scheming up plans to make it big in El Pueblito so he can make it out, or see the Kid (Kevin Hernandez) showing him the ropes of this truly unique prison, know that it all has a surprising basis in reality.

Oh, and as for how director Adrian Grunberg re-created a place as outlandish and seemingly contradictory as El Pueblito, the Get the Gringo Blu-ray offers plenty of insights there, as seen by some of the behind-the-scenes clips below.

Follow along on Twitter: @PeterSHall and @Moviesdotcom.

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