They keep on coming – jailhouse massacres and mass breakouts.
The mayhem that left 44 dead started shortly before 2 a.m. when Los Zetas inmates armed with stubby stab knives, clubs and bricks filed into a cellblock housing inmates from a rival crime group, the Gulf cartel, and set about them.
Only hours before most inmates—and many of the guards—had been glued to televisions in the jail watching Santos Laguna, a contender this season for the championship of the Mexican premier soccer league, being held to a one-all draw by Monterrey.
As the jail settled down, though, the pre-dawn assault unfolded in a well-planned well, say Nuevo Leon officials.
Some Gulf members managed to elude initially their attackers by fleeing from their cellblock D and made a dash for the exercise yard at the state prison in Apodaca, 40 kilometers from Monterrey, but even here they were chased, cornered and bludgeoned.
Local residents and TV camera crews alerted to the riot stood outside and saw smoke spew from the jail as inmates added to the confusion by, according to Nuevo Leon state Security Council spokesman Jorge Domene, setting mattresses and other fixtures alight.
For two hours the melee continued until quelled by soldiers dispatched to the prison. A furious Nuevo Leon state governor, Rodrigo Medina, who held a press conference the day after the February 19 riot, said there was at least one beheading.
And a nun, Sister Consuelo Morales, who visits the prison regularly, told Milenio television of horrific injuries . “Some of them no longer had eyes,” she said.
The riot, officials now say, was a diversion that facilitated the escape of 33 Los Zetas inmates, including Oscar Manuel “The Spider” Bernal Soriano, Los Zetas’ boss in Monterrey when he was arrested in October 2010 on a charge of murdering a police chief. Domene told a local radio station that for “15 minutes” of the riot some guards had allowed the escapees to slip out of the jail.
The February 19 Apodaca riot and mass escape comes close on the heels of a similar January 4 battle at a jail in Altamira, near Tampico, in Tamaulipas state that left 31 dead. And on October 13, 2011 seven inmates were killed in a confrontation between inmates in another Nuevo Leon prison in Cadereyta.
Mexican officials acknowledge they are racing the clock now to implement massive prison reforms to try to a halt the riots and mass escapes that are plaguing the country’s penitentiaries.
In July, the federal government blamed corruption and the “avoidance of systematic control measures” for the escape of more than 400 inmates from several Tamaulipas prisons between January 2010 and March 2011. In December 2010, 141 inmates fled a prison in Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas, while another 85 and then 12 escaped from a Reynosa prison in September and July 2010 respectively, and 41 successfully fled from the Matamoros prison in March 2010.
The interior ministry said the escapes were “unacceptable” and were “undermining the work of authorities.”
In July, a riot at a prison in the border city of Juarez left 17 inmates dead. Mexican authorities detained the director and four guards over that brawl as surveillance video showed two inmates opening doors to let armed prisoners into a cellblock. In 2009, 38 inmates were killed in two separate riots at a prison in Gomez Palacio, Durango. Twenty-three people were killed in a prison riot in Durango city in 2010 and 29 inmates lost their lives in prison fights the same year in Mazatlan.
The Mexican government has been struggling to stem jail breakouts and to impose order on a prison system that has seen a huge increase in the numbers incarcerated since President Felipe Calderon launched the “war on drugs” five years ago.
Massive change is in the works for the federal prison system that includes a huge jail-building program, but in the meantime over-crowded and underfunded state penitentiaries where most of Mexico’s approximately 223,000 inmates are housed remains a source of embarrassment and danger.
Only 9,000 inmates are held in federal facilities, although that will change when eight planned federal prisons are completed. The rest are incarcerated in prisons controlled by state authorities, according to the Mexican attorney general’s office.
Experts say that until the overhaul is completed the prison system will remain vulnerable to rioting. They reject the suggestion of one Nuevo Leon mayor that inmates from the cartels should be separated into different prisons as impractical.
“Organized Crime criminals should be housed in federal maximum security prisons,” Alberto Islas Torres, a former adviser in the Zedillo administration. “You can put a violent Zeta member in a state prison but he will break out,” he told Agora.
Prison expert Elena Azaola Garrido, a scholar at Mexico’s Center for Advanced Studies in Social Anthropology, blames the lack of past investment for the crisis in the jails. “Investment has been neglected and the prisons are in very poor condition, putting the inmates and personnel at risk all the time,” she said.
She added: “It also has to do with corruption, that is what explains these jail breakouts.”
Tejada Jorge Montaño, a professor at the Universidad Jesuita de Guadalajara, agrees. “The prisons are overcrowded and where a facility has a prison population of 80 percent higher than it was designed for you are always on the brink of catastrophe because the authorities lack control,” he said.
Since 2006 Mexico is averaging seven major prison riots a year, he adds.
In his press conference on February 20th, the Nuevo Leon governor placed some of the blame for the riot at Apodaca on overcrowded conditions, arguing that more than 8,500 people have been arrested in the past two years in his state. At the time of the riot, there were 2,514 inmates in the Apodaca jail, well above its maximum capacity of 1,522. Sixty percent of the inmates were being held for federal crimes and of the 33 inmates who escaped, 25 were federal prisoners, he said.
Ironically the Friday before the Apodaca riot, a U.N. spokesman, Rupert Colville, had issued a general warning about the “alarming pattern of violence” stemming from the “endemic problem” of over-crowding in prisons in Latin America. His comments were in response to the fire that swept through a jail in February in Honduras in which 359 prisoners died.
But Gov. Medina placed blame also for the riot and escape at Apodaca on some corrupt prison guards, lamenting that “the treason, corruption and complicity of some undermined the service of good police officers, soldiers and marines.”
Medina fired the prison’s warden, his deputy and the state’s director of penitentiaries hours after the riot. And authorities have detained also for questioning 18 guards who were on duty at the time. Nine have been charged.
Medina and federal officials acknowledge that one of the hardest challenges facing the Mexican system is trying to ensure that guards remain honest and reject bribes. “The most important thing is to make sure that the people working on the inside are on the side of the law, and that they not be corrupted and collaborate with the criminals,” Medina said.
With that in mind, federal authorities have included in their prison overhaul the recruitment of new guards and far more stringent training and re-training of prison staff.”