December is awash with reasons to celebrate in Mexico. A man carries a traditional Christmas pinata on his head. Photo: AP
Mexico City: On the way home from a pre-Christmas fiesta, Mauricio Rodriguez, after "two tequilas", felt clear-headed and focused, "not dizzy or anything."
So when the IT help desk employee failed one of Mexico City's feared alcoholimetro - those pervasive holiday breath-test checkpoints - he knew he would be saying goodbye for a while. No ticket. No warning. "Come get my wife," he told his father by phone before being whisked off in a squad car. "They're taking me away."
Rich or poor. Legislator or bricklayer. Foreign or domestic. Anyone in Mexico's capital city who exceeds the legal .08 alcohol limit must take a strange little journey to a squat brick building next to a playground on the west side of town where they can sit - and sit, and sit - and think about what they've done. Part prison, part time-out for adults, the official name is the Centre for Administrative Sanctions and Social Integration. But everybody knows it as "El Torito."
"It's like jail-lite. Mild jail," Jorge Emilio Gonzalez Martinez, a senator with Mexico's Green Party, told reporters after he spent his drunk-driving penance there earlier this year. "They make you conscious of your error. I have learned."
Winter holidays are Torito's boom time. In Mexico, the whole month of December seems devoted to one bacchanal or another. Celebrations for the Virgin of Guadalupe blend into nightly pre-Christmas posadas and boozy company lunches that bubble over into New Year's celebrations. Christmas bonuses, required by the government, flesh out the national wallet.
"The end of the year we see an exceeding amount of people arriving," said Torito's director, Rosa Maria Laguardia. "Very powerful people. Humble people. Engineers, lawyers, artists, journalists. Everyone. Everyone ends up here."
The place is not without its charm. One recent day during the holiday rush, several inmates, including one wearing a Corona T-shirt, played a spirited game of volleyball in the courtyard. A refreshment stand nearby served soft drinks and chips. There's a library, movies and a small glass shrine to the Virgin Mary decorated with flowers. Christmas Eve warranted a special menu: turkey in plum sauce and spaghetti soup.
"Prison I'm sure is worse," Mr Rodriguez said.
A former slaughterhouse, Torito has been drying out drinkers since the late 1950s, but only in the past decade, since the introduction of the city's breath-alcohol test program, has it taken on such cultural import. More than 100,000 people have slept it off within its white-washed brick cells in those 10 years, spending up to a day and a half before walking free.
Mr Rodriguez was worried when he saw Torito's sign in the wee hours Saturday.He entered the white metal doors and stepped onto the cold stone floor. "I asked one of the guards here, 'Hey, what do I do? What's the dynamic? I don't want to get stabbed.' He's like, 'No, everybody just wants to leave.' "
Unfortunately, you can't. Depending on the severity of the infraction, inmates must spend between 20 and 36 hours at Torito. They sleep on concrete bunks and the cells have metal bars, but they're not locked and the guards don't carry guns. By 6:30 am they are roused for breakfast, no matter the hangover. There are medical checks, discussions with psychologists, classes on the dangers of drugs and alcohol.
Outside, family members wait nervously for their kin to be released.
"Freedom!" Mr Rodriguez yelled and raised both fists in the air. He hugged his wife and daughter.
"Right now I'm going to go for some cold beers," he said. "I'm not going to drive though."