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Mexican Prisons in Crisis: Cartels Murder Prisoners and Guards

by Matthew T. Clarke

One of the achievements of which Mexican President Vicente Fox is most proud is the record-breaking number of drug lords who have been arrested and thrown into federal prison during his tenure. He has a right to be proud of that achievement. However, such success does not come without a price both inside and outside the prison walls.

Turf battles by Mexican drug cartels have led to the murder of three cartel-related prisoners, in addition to violence outside the prisons. This, in turn, resulted in a crackdown on federal prison facilities by Mexican authorities. The cartels' response to the crackdown was to murder six prison employees and dump their bodies near the facility where they worked.

Two of the most infamous incarcerated drug lords are Benjamin Arellano Felix and Osiel Cardenas Guillen, leaders of cartels based out of Tijuana and the Gulf area. While imprisoned in adjacent cells at Mexico's second highest security prison -- federal prison No. 1, known as the La Palma federal penitentiary located 50 miles west of Mexico City in Almoloya de Juarez -- the two agreed to combine forces against another drug lord, Joaquin El Chapo" Guzman, leader of a drug cartel based in Sinaloa. Guzman had been a prisoner at the highest security prison in Mexico, Puente Grande federal penitentiary in Guadalajara, until January 2001 when he escaped in a laundry truck with the help of guards he had bribed. [The U.S. government has offered a $5 million reward for information leading to the 47-year-old Guzman's recapture.]

Fox's crackdown on the drug lords created a power vacuum that resulted in gang warfare among the competing cartels. One of the results of the gang war has been a significant rise in the murder rate in Mexico, especially along the U.S. border, as rival drug gangs fight for control of the lucrative drug smuggling trade. An estimated 1,000 people have been murdered since January 2005, including cartel members, police officers, attorneys and innocent citizens. Another result of the crackdown has been the exposure of rampant corruption within Mexican law enforcement. The most dramatic example was the defection of a 45-member team of U.S. specially-trained army drug-suppression troops known as the Zetas who openly joined the Gulf cartel. About a third of the Zetas have since been captured or killed. The narco-violence along the border prompted U.S. Ambassador Tony Garza to issue a travel advisory in January 2005, warning that American visitors may be at risk. Mexican government officials reacted harshly to the advisory, claiming that the level of violence was not rising and that the advisory implied criticism of Fox's efforts to crack down on the drug cartels' influence behind bars.

Fox's latest campaign against the drug lords started in the high-security part of the prison system after three high-profile, cartel-related prisoners were murdered. In May 2004, Alberto Soberames was strangled to death in a La Palma shower room. On October 7, 2004, Miguel Angel Beltran Lugo, one of Guzman's lieutenants, was shot to death with a pistol smuggled into La Palma for that purpose. And on December 31, 2004 Arturo Guzman Loera, brother of Joaquin Guzman and a lieutenant in his cartel, was shot to death in the attorney visitation area of La Palma. Jose Ramirez Villaneuva, a prisoner who was awaiting trial on murder charges, emptied seven shots from a 9mm pistol into him. Villaneuva has said that he committed the murder under threat of death, but won't say who threatened him. The slaying may be retaliation by Vicente Carrillo Fuentes, leader of the Juarez drug cartel, for the murder of Rodolfo Fuentes, Vicente's brother, outside a Culiacan mall in September 2004.

Such in-custody assassinations are reflective of the larger problem of violence and unrest in Mexican prisons. On Nov. 25, 2005 a gun battle between gang members at the Venustiano Carranza prison in Tepic left eight prisoners injured. And on December 17, 2005 six prisoners were stabbed or beaten to death during a fight involving the Aztec and Mexicle gangs at a prison in Ciudad Juarez; nine other prisoners and three police officers were wounded.

In October 2004, the Guzman family had sent a letter to prison officials warning that Arturo's life was in danger and requesting that he be moved to another facility. Guillermo Montoya Salazar, La Palma's warden, and several other former La Palma employees are being held in connection with Arturo Guzman's murder and mismanagement of the prison. According to news reports, undercover agents posing as guards videotaped the warden in his office in private meetings with incarcerated drug lords. Carlos Tormero Diaz, head of the federal prison system, resigned as a result of the scandal.
Determined to gain control of the prison, on January 14, 2005, over 750 Mexican army soldiers, supported by eight tanks and a military helicopter, raided La Palma. The reason given for the raid was that a breakout was being planned that might involve the Zetas liberating imprisoned drug lords. However, lawyers and relatives of prisoners claimed that strict new security measures at the 724-bed facility, along with a prisoner hunger strike and a protest that left ten prisoners injured, led to the army intervention. According to Undersecretary of Security Miguel Angel Yunes, the raid yielded two cellphones, personal stashes of cocaine, 20 knives and a plasma TV. The cell phones were considered an important find, as top federal prison officials said drug lords were using them to run trafficking operations and order murders while incarcerated (an imprisoned kidnapper at a Mexico City prison used a cell phone to coordinate the July 19, 2005 abduction of Ruben Omar Romano, coach of the top-ranked Cruz Azul soccer team, for a $5 million ransom; Romano was freed by police after spending two months in captivity).

The army raid and takeover of La Palma resulted in the suspension of visitation privileges for prisoners at the facility. That didn't last long. On January 18, 2005 around 200 wives of La Palma prisoners staged a protest at Congress complaining of the suspension of visitation, including conjugal visits. They found a sympathetic ear at the office of congressman Gilberto Ensastiga, who agreed that the drug lords, like all prisoners, had the right to family visits. He took the protestors' grievances to the national human rights commission. The next day, all visitation privileges were restored. On May 17, 2005 nine prisoners, including several high-profile drug traffickers, were transferred from La Palma to other maximum security facilities.

Some see Mexico's current prison crisis as the result of a decade-long attempt by organized crime to take control over the country's 450 federal, state and local prisons. Indeed, Mexico's 190,000 prisoners enjoy privileges, and relaxed security, unheard of in U.S. prisons and jails facilities. Prisoners are often allowed and even encouraged to start businesses within the prisons. Prisoners' families are frequently allowed to stay overnight. Visits with prostitutes are allowed at some prisons.
While some might see this as coddling criminals, Mexicans view it as part and parcel of their commitment to rehabilitation, which is enshrined in the nation's constitution. For instance, Moises Moreno Hernandez, director for the Study of Criminal Science and Politics, says that family and prostitute privileges account for the near absence of sexual violence in Mexican prisons. The attitude that no prisoner is beyond rehabilitation is also reflected in the Mexican constitution and the scarcity of life sentences imposed under Mexican law. And on Dec. 9, 2005, Mexico officially abolished the death penalty. While still technically on the books, the death penalty had not been used since 1961. Mexico shares the opinion that capital punishment is a violation of human rights," said President Fox.
However, Mexico's Supreme Court ruled on Nov. 29, 2005 that life sentences could be imposed under Mexican law and that defendants could be extradited to the United States even if they faced life sentences. Previously such extraditions were disallowed under a 2001 Mexican Supreme Court decision that life sentences were cruel and unusual" punishment. Despite the ruling, Mexican suspects must still go to trial in Mexico before being extradited; also, defendants who face the death penalty in the United States will continue not to be subject to extradition. President Fox welcomed the Court's decision, saying he wanted to transfer Mexico's top dozen drug-lords to the United States for harsher punishment. I hope very soon to send all of them to face [American] justice," he said during a December 2005 interview. The U.S. Attorney General's office is already considering extradition requests for Benjamin Felix and Osiel Cardenas.
The downside of Mexico's criminal justice system, and perhaps its downfall, is corruption. No place seems immune to the narco-traffickers' millions. For example, after the army takeover of La Palma, 105 of the prison's 145 guards failed lie detector and drug tests. They have been replaced, but how long will it be before the mountains of drug money corrupt the new prison employees?

The second death blow to the current system is the brazenness of the drug lords. Following the army raid and crackdown at La Palma, they made their displeasure known by having six prison employees murdered. The employees -- three technicians, two drivers and a guard who were employed at the high-security CERESO 3 prison in Matamoros -- left work in three separate vehicles around 6:00 a.m. on January 20, 2005. They were discovered blindfolded, bound and shot to death in a bullet-riddled white Ford Explorer a half mile from the prison that same day. According to Matamoros prosecutor Marco Antonio Ramirez, the prison workers were stopped at a roadblock set up near the prison by armed men, who wore black clothing and allowed other cars to pass unmolested.

Fox's reaction to the prison workers' murders was to tighten security at more high-security federal prisons. First, the day of the murders, army troops supported by a helicopter sealed off the area around the Matamoros prison. On January 27, 2005 the army raided the Puente Grande prison using tactics similar to those employed at La Palma. Puente Grande has been derisively called Puerta Grande" (the big door) since Guzman's escape. However, nothing relevant" was found at Puente Grande according to Mexican Attorney General Rafael de la Concha. Previously, during an October 4, 2004 shakedown, 57 cell phones, cocaine and marijuana had been found at the facility.

During the Puente Grande raid, Mexico's most famous drug lord prisoner, Rafel Caro Quintero, who is serving a 40-year sentence for the torture-murder of DEA agent Enrique Kiki" Camarena in 1985, was transferred to the CERESCO 3 prison. Finally, the army raided CERESCO 3. However, it once again met with mixed success. Contraband discovered during a shakedown included 15 knives, a saw, six computer diskettes, six box-cutters, five pairs of scissors and 10 pairs of sneakers with shoelaces (shoelaces are considered contraband). The local newspaper then published a derisive cartoon showing police holding a bag of sneakers and calling the raid a huge success.

Fox also reinstated most of the restrictions that had been lifted following the protest of the La Palma prisoners' wives. On January 31, 2005, someone paid for a full-page ad in Reforma, Mexico's most popular daily newspaper, calling for Fox to respect the human rights of the prisoners by restoring conjugal visits. Prisoners also complained of random beatings by hooded guards who burst into their cells, hit and kicked them, and told them that for true social rehabilitation the prisoners had to learn to obey orders. The guards also allegedly told the prisoners that they were worthless" and in prison to be severely punished" because they are the scum of society." Prisoners also claimed they were only receiving one cold meal a day at 1:00 a.m. and that they had lost their flat-screen TVs, cell phones, pizza deliveries, extended visits and ability to buy soft drinks of choice from the prison commissary [the lack of potable water makes Mexico one of the largest soft drink consumers in the world]. They said they were being subjected to subhuman" conditions and treated like dogs." The ad was signed La Palma" prisoners.

The problems in Mexico's federal prisons led to the renewal of a long-settled debate on the use of island penal colonies. One such island prison, 70 miles off the southern Pacific coast, is being renovated instead of being turned into a nature preserve as was previously planned. Some prison experts are urging the government to make even more remote islands into prison colonies. Whether this plan will take hold, and whether it could be a solution to the problem of corruption caused by narco-money, are open questions. For now the military is running the highest-security prisons in Mexico, a measure that may bring some relief until military officials become corrupted by the ocean of drug money flowing from the cartels.

Ironically, a military takeover of the prisons was the solution advocated by Mexico City Mayor Andres Lopez Obrador, an early front-runner for the 2006 presidential election and Fox's chief rival in January 2005 before the prison employee murders. At that time, Fox's government dismissed the suggestion as unworkable. Now Fox finds himself in a lose-lose situation, seeming foolish for having dismissed the idea he ended up implementing. If the military solution works, the opposition can claim credit; if not, they can blast Fox for taking action that he publicly stated could not work.
Either way, Fox continues to face problems involving the violence, corruption and overcrowding endemic in the Mexican prison system. On Sept. 21, 2005 he experienced another setback when a helicopter carrying Public Safety Secretary Ramon Martin Huerta, the cabinet minister in charge of the federal police, and 8 other people, crashed while en route to La Palma prison for an induction ceremony for new guards. All on board were killed. The crash was determined to be an accident.

Sources: Austin American-Statesman, BBC, News, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, San Antonio Express-News, El Universal, Associated Press.

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