Deadly Riot Illustrates Mexico’s Prison Woes

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The prison in northern Mexico where dozens died during a recent riot is a microcosm of all that is ailing Mexico’s penitentiary system: corruption, overcrowding, deplorable living conditions and what is described as the criminal groups’ “self-government” in the jails.

On February 14, state officials said the Topo Chico prison — the scene of a brawl that left 49 people dead last week in the northern state of Nuevo León — contained “luxury cells” replete with aquariums, air conditioners, portable saunas and a bar, reported AFP.

Authorities said the riot stemmed from a quarrel between the leaders of two rival factions of the Zetas criminal organization who were disputing control of the prison. 

Officials said police regained control of the prison and “put an end to the self-government that leaders of organized crime exerted with the complicity of some authorities.” 

Authorities have arrested the warden and superintendent of the prison on drug trafficking charges, as well as for neglecting to uphold security protocols, according to the AFP. 

In contrast to the luxurious living quarters of some criminal leaders, the majority of the prisoners at Topo Chico are kept in cells that do not have light, water or ventilation, reported the BBC.

With more than 3,800 inmates, the prison is operating at 35 percent above maximum capacity, according to the BBC.

InSight Crime Analysis

Corruption, overcrowding, terrible living conditions, and criminal rule are some of the most serious issues afflicting Mexico’s prisons. All of these factors coalesced at Topo Chico to turn the prison into what Mexican human rights organizations had previously described, Proceso writes, as a “ticking time bomb.” 

Despite the recent police intervention at Topo Chico, it is unlikely the dire conditions within Mexico prisons will see a significant improvement. Mexican authorities have consistently failed to enact long-term prison reform, and only take immediate action when a bloody riot such as the one last week grabs the attention of the media and the public.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Prisons

Even more troubling are the warning signs that authorities missed, either out of ignorance, corruption or willful indifference. According to Proceso, military intelligence sent former Nuevo León Governor Rodrigo Medina de la Cruz (2009-2015) a report describing how corrupt prison officials were enabling the Zetas to earn 15 million pesos per month (nearly $800,000 at current exchange rates) at Topo Chico prison via extortion and drug trafficking.

And yet, authorities clearly did not make a concerted effort to break the criminal group’s control over the prison until after last week’s riot. 

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