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Massacre exposes Mexico’s long-standing prison crisis

February 29, 2012

The escape of 30 inmates – after murdering 44 members of a rival criminal gang –  from a Nuevo Leon penitentiary this week was the latest in a long string of prison riots and jailbreaks across Mexico.

The incident at the Apodaca prison near Monterrey was indicative of the country’s weak, overcrowded and astoundingly corrupt prison system.

In the early hours of Sunday morning, prison guards opened certain cell doors, allowing 30 members of the notorious Zetas syndicate to ascend a guard tower and slip down ropes to vehicles waiting outside.

Shortly afterwards, the guards opened other cell doors, enabling more Zetas to enter cell blocks where inmates from the Gulf Cartel were sleeping. Over the next hour, the Zetas stabbed, strangled and beat to death 44 of their rival gang members.

Only two hours later did prison officials alert the authorities. The prison director was sacked soon after and has since been arrested, along with 28 other prison staff. At least nine guards have confessed to receiving 10,000 to 20,000 pesos a month from the Zetas, in return for directly aiding the carefully planned escape and massacre of their enemies.

“It is hard for us to accept that the treachery, corruption and complicity of some can undermine the good work of the police and military who risk their lives every day for public security,” said Rodrigo Medina, governor of Nuevo Leon.

Responding to Mexico’s prison “crisis” this week, President Felipe Calderon announced the government will build ten new federal prisons this year. Mexico’s prison system has been swamped by a tidal wave of inmates since Calderon launched a war on organized crime upon assuming office in December 2006.

State prisons such as Apodaca have struggled to cope with the influx of prisoners convicted or awaiting trial for federal crimes. The government says the number of federal prisoners has increased sixfold in just five years, from around 3,000 in 2006 to over 18,000 in December 2011. As a result, the Ministry of Public Security estimates that Mexican prisons suffer from overpopulation by about 30 percent.

This week’s incident was the ninth major prison riot since November 2007. During the Calderon administration, at least 182 people have died and 167 have been injured in prison riots in the northern states of Baja California, Chihuahua, Durango, Nuevo Leon and Tamaulipas.

Mass jailbreaks are equally common. In May 2009, guards at a prison in Zacatecas allowed 53 inmates, most of whom were Zetas, to walk out freely, while another 151 prisoners escaped from jail in Nuevo Laredo in December 2010.

The most far-fetched episodes occurred in 2010, when inmates at Durango’s Gomez Palacio prison were let out of jail and given guards’ vehicles and weapons to carry out a series of mass killings, before returning to their cells.

The prisoners committed three massacres, killing over 30 people in the nearby city of Torreon, Coahuila. At least 16 people were murdered in attacks in Torreon bars on February and May, while the prisoners killed another 17 and wounded 18 in a massacre at a party in July 2010.

Police tests matched the assault rifles used in the killings to those assigned to prison guards. Investigators said these were “revenge attacks” by incarcerated cartel members who “were allowed to leave with authorization of the prison director.”

Perhaps the most infamous prison break in Mexican history occurred in the maximum security Puente Grande just outside Guadalajara in 2001, when Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman made his escape concealed in a laundry cart.

The head of the powerful Sinaloa Cartel – and now the world’s most wanted criminal – Guzman enjoyed favorable treatment from prison staff and regularly smuggled contraband into the facility, but when faced with the possibility of extradition to the United States he decided it was time to leave.

The billionaire drug lord allegedly had the prison director and guards under his payroll, as well as members of the police in Jalisco – to ensure that he was not immediately recaptured. Officials said 78 people were implicated in the escape, which is believed to have cost Guzman around 2.5 million dollars.

One Comment leave one →
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