Mexico City: The surveillance cameras captured it all: guards looking on nonchalantly as 53 inmates — many of them associated with one of Mexico’s most notorious drug cartels — let themselves out of their cells and sped off in waiting vehicles.
The video shows that prison guards only pulled out their weapons after the inmates were well on their way. The brazen escape in May in the northern state of Zacatecas — carried out in minutes without a single shot fired — is just one of many glaring examples of how Mexico’s crowded and cruel prison system represents a critical weak link in the drug war.
Mexico’s prisons, as described by inmates and insiders and viewed during several visits, are places where drug traffickers find a new base of operations for their criminal empires, recruit underlings, and bribe their way out for the right price. The system is so flawed, in fact, that the Mexican government is extraditing record numbers of drug traffickers to the United States, where they find it much harder to intimidate witnesses, run their drug operations or escape.
The latest jailbreak took place this weekend, when a suspected drug trafficker vanished from a Sinaloa prison during a party for inmates featuring a Mexican country music band. The Mexican government is considering isolating drug offenders from regular inmates to reduce opportunities for abuse.
The United States government, as part of its counternarcotics assistance program, is committing $4 million this year to help fix Mexico’s broken prisons, officials said. Experts from state prisons in the United States have begun tutorials for Mexican guards to make sure that there are clear ethical guidelines and professional practices that distinguish them from the men and women they guard. “There’s no point in rounding all these characters up if they are going to get out on their own,” said an American official involved in the training, who was not authorized to speak on the record.
Although Mexican prisons call themselves Centers for Social Rehabilitation, “Universities of crime would be a better name,” said Pedro Héctor Arellano, who runs the prison outreach program in Mexico for the Episcopal Church.
Mexico’s prisons are bursting at the seams, with space for 172,151 inmates nationwide but an additional 50,000 crammed in. More arrive by the day as part of the government’s drug war, which has sent tens of thousands to prison since President Felipe Calderón took office nearly three years ago.
Inside the high concrete walls ringed by barbed wire, past the heavily armed men in black uniforms with stern expressions, inmates rule the roost. Some well-heeled prisoners pay to have keys to their cells. When life inside, with its pizza deliveries, prostitutes and binges on drugs and alcohol, becomes too confining, prisoners sometimes pay off the guards for a furlough or an outright jailbreak.
“Our prisons are businesses more than anything else,” said Pedro Arellano Aguilar, an expert on prisons. He has visited scores of them in Mexico and has come away with a dire view of what takes place inside. “Everything is for sale and everything can be bought.”