A new government study of Mexico’s prison system paints a relatively favorable portrait of penitentiary conditions — at least in a regional context. But it also sidesteps some of the most glaring problems plaguing the country’s penal institutions.
The July 2017 report released by Mexico’s National Statistics and Geography Institute (Instituto Nacional de Estadística y Geografía – INEGI) presents survey data on the country’s adult prison population in more than 300 federal, state and municipal penitentiaries during 2016.
The bureau estimates that 46 percent of prisoners share cells with more than five people, while 82 percent have their own beds. Almost all (98.4 percent) are fed, 84 percent access medical services, and 75 percent receive visitors.
The report also provides data pointing to irregularities, corruption and obstruction of justice within Mexico’s penitentiaries.
Of the 62 percent of prisoners who provided statements to prosecutors, almost half were pressured by police to alter their testimony, the survey found.
More than 20 percent of prisoners were apprehended on private property without a proper arrest warrant. And 40 percent were victims of corruption, typically paying prison officials for access to basic services.
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The INEGI report’s findings regarding certain aspects of Mexico’s prison system suggest that issues like overcrowding and lack of access to basic goods and services are less severe in Mexico’s prisons than in those of some of its Central American neighbors. El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, for example, all have higher overcrowding rates than Mexico. Conditions in El Salvador’s prisons are notoriously hellish; human rights officials have criticized the lack of adequate food, healthcare and sanitation as “inhumane” and even likened the situation to the horrors witnessed in Nazi Germany.
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However, the report glosses over other controversial problems in Mexico’s penitentiaries. For example, Mexico has come under repeated fire from human rights groups like Amnesty International for a sizeable increase in torture complaints between 2003 and 2013, but INEGI failed to include torture as an indicator in its survey.
Moreover, the survey makes no mention of prison riots or the influence of organized crime behind bars, problems endemic to Mexico’s penal system that have surfaced in recent months. A May 2017 government report found that organized crime groups control 65 percent of state prisons in Mexico. That same month, the Mexican news outlet Milenio released a video recorded in one of the country’s maximum-security prisons that showed detained members of the Jalisco Cartel New Generation (Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación – CJNG) throwing a party, exemplifying Mexican authorities’ lack of control over the country’s penitentiaries.
Mexican lawmakers have previously advanced legislation aimed at addressing some of these issues, but limited political will and resource constraints suggest implementing such reforms will be a slow process.