How to Fix Mexico’s Broken Prisons

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Mexico’s prison system is slipping into anarchy, with inmates escaping and slaughtering one another at alarming rates. InSight Crime considers the consequences of this breakdown for justice in Mexico, and its possible solutions.

An incident earlier this week at the prison in Apodaca, in the tumultuous northern state of Nuevo Leon, resulted in the escape of 30 inmates and the massacre of 44. The dead, who succumbed to beatings and stab wounds, were members of the Gulf Cartel, while the perpetrators and the escapees belonged to the Zetas, a rival group. While the incident was widely described as a riot,·it seems to have been a carefully planned assault rather than a spontaneous eruption of violence, as with the mass killing in a Juarez jail last summer.

Such incidents of mass violence have become common in Mexico’s prison system. While the Apodaca killing was the worst on record, several comparable massacres have been documented in recent years: 19 prisoners were killed in a Gomez Palacio, Durango facility in 2009; 20 died in a Juarez facility in 2009, and another 17 were killed last year; 23 inmates wound up dead·in an incident in Durango in 2010; in Mazatlan, 28 prisoners were killed in 2010; and just last month, 31 inmates were killed in a Tamaulipas prison.

While it certainly adds an aggravating element to the massacre, the flight of 30 prisoners in Apodaca doesn’t even rank among the biggest mass escapes of recent years. In one of the most notorious recent episodes, more than 50 inmates linked to the Zetas were caught on camera walking out of the front door of a Zacatecas facility in 2009. A year later, 40 and then 151 convicts escaped from prisons in Tamaulipas in two separate incidents.

Many of the jailhouse problems have been especially pronounced in Tamaulipas, which shares a long border with Nuevo Leon and is home to the same two groups, the Zetas and the Gulf, that clashed in the Apodaca massacre. In 2010, the state was the site of five of the eight breakouts that took place in Mexico that year.

The Consequences

The chaos in Mexico’s prison system hurts the chances of an effective anti-crime policy. The fact that the government is unable to keep hold of even the most dangerous criminals drastically reduces the deterrent effect of jail time; from a criminal’s perspective, why worry about the prospect of being arrested if you can, with a bit of luck and some well-placed bribes, steal away whenever you wish?

The inability of the criminal justice system to impose penalties on convicts may, as InSight Crime has noted, have contributed to a rise in extra-judicial killing by the security forces. Government statistics have revealed a surge in deaths in “enfrenamientos” — shoot-outs with the military or police. One explanation for this phenomenon is that, when confronting suspected criminals, troops may be more likely to use lethal force rather than carrying out an arrest if they think that the suspects will be out on the streets in a matter of days anyway.

Whether or not this is valid, there is little question that the government’s inability to impose proper penalties on captured criminals encourages vigilantism, and even paramilitarism.

Potential Solutions

While there is no quick fix to the constellation of problems presented by Mexico’s prison anarchy, there are various actions that could help alleviate the pressures that manifest themselves in gruesome massacres or embarrassing mass flights.

Many of these relate to lowering the size of the prison population. An overstuffed facility is far harder for authorities to keep under control, and Mexico’s prison system stands at roughly 25 percent overcapacity. According to reports following the Apodaca incident, the prison, with roughly 2,500 inmates, stood at 180 percent of its intended capacity. This bloating is largely a product of the ongoing war between the Zetas and the Gulf Cartel in Nuevo Leon, with the Apodaca prison population growing by more than 1,500 in the past year.

Other proposed solutions focus instead on the guards, who often cede control of the prison to the criminals over whom they are meant to keep watch. In Apodaca, more than 20 prison officials, including the warden, are under investigation for their suspected role in the massacre and escape, which is typical: punishing prison guards is often the only visible government response to jailhouse mayhem.

More prisons — One obvious and oft-suggested fix for Mexico’s overburdened penitentiary system is the creation of more prisons. Indeed, the Calderon administration announced a plan to construct 12 new prisons a few years ago. However, progress on the prisons has fallen behind schedule, and the project was less ambitious than it was made out to be: many of the “new” prisons were in fact projects that were already underway.

Procedural changes — One of the drivers of Mexico’s swollen prison population is incentives at the lower levels of the police structure. “Ministerios publicos” — officials who combine many of functions of the prosecuting attorney with the investigating officer — are often assigned a quota for cases, but without regard to the quality of the arrestee. That is, a major drug trafficker counts as much for the arrest quota as a working-class teenager splitting a bag of marijuana with a friend. Truly dangerous criminals require a great deal more work than the petty thief or small-time drug user, and as a result investigators fill their quotas — and the prison — with people who do not present a significant danger to society.

Another factor that increases the number of prisoners in the Mexican system is the practice of jailing convicts who are unable to pay fines handed out as a sentence. Consequently, the prisons are full of people who are essentially behind bars because of poverty. The inability to conduct trials with sufficient speed also ensures that the prison population is swollen with those who are just passing through: 40 percent of all inmates in Mexico have yet to receive a sentence, while in Apodaca, 70 percent had not even been convicted. Unclogging judicial bottlenecks and moving arrestees through the system rapidly would cut the number of prisoners at any given moment.

Geographical targeting — Given the fact that most of the recent escapes and violence have taken place in the north and northeast of the country, the authorities might consider shifting resources toward prisons in Nuevo Leon, Tamaulipas, and other northern states. More could be done to separate rival gangs; in the case of Apodaca, federal officials could send the Zetas south, to prison facilities far from their stomping grounds. Moving prisoners in this way would be a costly logistical nightmare, but it could defuse the tensions that often spill over into mass violence.

Army patrols — In 2010 Malcolm Beith, the author of “The Last Narco” and an InSight Crime contributor, suggested that the military, which is widely perceived to be less corrupt than the prison guards, be given a greater role in preventing escapes. According to Beith, this wouldn’t require any big change to the military’s mission; a “few humvees and well-armed soldiers” patrolling the streets around a jail would discourage inmates from trying their luck in an escape.

Institutional improvement·— Ultimately, however, none of these proposals would have much impact without a more trustworthy group of prison guards controlling the nation’s prisons. As with any of the proposed institutional fixes for Mexico’s security agencies, carrying out real reform to this vast bureaucracy will be an exceedingly difficult task.

Mexico’s decades-long improvement of its police agencies offers some lessons, despite its problems. One is that the mere creation of a new agency — through, for instance, centralizing all of the nation’s prisons under federal control — does not amount to a step forward. To actually change the incentives of the guards working in Mexico’s prisons, a raft of other measures must be implemented in tandem, from greater vetting and ongoing polygraph testing to transferring guards under threat from inmates, and offering higher salaries.

Perhaps the most important element in all this is patience, because the challenge of reforming Mexico’s prisons is enormous.

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