Organized crime groups control 65 percent of state prisons in Mexico, according to a government report about prison conditions in the country published this week. The figure reaffirms the poor conditions of Mexican prisons, which have long been plagued by corruption, escapes by top criminal suspects, and the participation of prison officials in various crimes.
The recording shows a party held in Puente Grande, one of the country’s maximum-security prisons. Various members of the Jalisco Cartel – New Generation (Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación – CJNG) are shown celebrating José Luis Gutierrez Valencia, alias “Don Chelo,” who is suspected to control the penitentiary. Tellingly, there is no discernible presence of security officials in the video.
The new report also highlights the situation of violence within the prisons. According to data from the National Commission of Human Rights (Comisión Nacional de los Derechos Humanos – CNDH) cited in the report, there were 2,110 violent incidents in 2015, of which 1,382 were brawls, 54 were homicides, and six were riots.
According to the National Security Commission, which was also cited, 81 brawls and 27 homicides were registered in July 2016 alone. The CNDH says that there is a lack of security and custody personnel to prevent these types of incidents.
Mexico’s prisons, moreover, are overpopulated. According to the new study, half of the detention centers were overpopulated in 2016. In part, this is due to the problem of pretrial detention, with 40 percent of the country’s 236,886 prisoners being held without a conviction.
The CNDH acknowledges that there are “deficiencies in material and hygienic conditions” in these facilities, but it also notes that some penitentiaries have “areas of privileges” where prisoners have access to luxuries.
InSight Crime Analysis
The new government report uses hard numbers to illustrate a problem that is already well-known in Mexico and the rest of the region. Although it does not offer specific details about the influence exerted by criminal groups within Mexican prisons, there are other cases that illustrate the lack of control held by authorities.
The most emblematic of these cases is that of Sinaloa Cartel boss Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, who successfully escaped from prison on two occasions with help from prison officials, despite being being held in a maximum-security prison as one of the most wanted criminals in the Western Hemisphere.
Another recent case was the March jailbreak of Juan José Esparragoza Monzón, the son of Juan Jose Esparragoza Moreno, alias “El Azul,” an important member of the Sinaloa Cartel leadership. Merely a week later, 29 inmates escaped from the Ciudad Victoria prison in the state of Tamaulipas, which was presumably controlled by ex-members of the Zetas.
The power held by these criminals groups is also related to the violence occurring inside the prisons. In February 2016, for example, 52 individuals died during a riot in the prison of Topo Chico as a result of an alleged clash between two rival factions of the Zetas vying for control of the facility. The Zetas were also able to turn the Piedras Negras prison in Coahuila into a clandestine grave where the group buried 150 of its victims.
Investigations carried out by InSight Crime have concluded that the problems of overpopulation and poor conditions have made it almost impossible for authorities to maintain control of the country’s prisons, resulting in penitentiaries becoming prime recruiting and strengthening grounds for criminal groups.
This is only worsened by corruption on the part of authorities, who often permit inmates to continue carrying out their illicit activities from prisons. In Topo Chico, for example, the Zetas presumably earned approximately $800,000 a month behind bars through extortion and drug trafficking activities. Drug kingpins like Alfredo Beltrán Leyva, alias “Mochomo,” have also continued to direct their cartels while still being held in maximum-security prisons.