Mexican prisons failing to keep drug traffickers on the inside

Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, February 3, 2011; 1:30 PM

NUEVO LAREDO, MEXICO - Just as Mexican authorities are struggling to put drug traffickers in prison, Mexican prisons are struggling to keep them there.

Hundreds of dangerous inmates have escaped from state penitentiaries along the U.S. border in recent months, some through spectacular action-movie breakouts, others by simply walking out the door.

The rash of escapes comes as the Mexican government and its American advisers are engaged in a vast overhaul of the country's federal penal system. But those reforms have done little to improve security in Mexico's much larger state-level prison system.

On Jan. 17 in the northern state of Chihuahua, more than a dozen inmates escaped from a state lockup when their criminal comrades opened fire on guards and smashed a truck through the perimeter fence. In July, guards at a facility in Durango freed a team of assassins from their cells, lending them guns and vehicles to carry out a massacre against 17 of their rivals.

But the biggest embarrassment for the Mexican government came in December in this city across the border from Laredo, Tex., when 153 inmates walked out of a state penitentiary and rode away in a cartel caravan, staging the largest prison escape in Mexican history. None of the fugitives has been caught.

"I lock them up, and they let them out," President Felipe Calderon said in frustration, blaming local officials.

That incident came just three months after 85 prisoners pulled off a similar escape from another facility in the same state, Tamaulipas. In all, about 350 inmates escaped from prisons there in 2010, according to Mexican media tallies, and only one has been recaptured. Large sectors of the Tamaulipas state government are believed to be infiltrated by the Gulf cartel or its rival, Los Zetas.

Prison experts say a big reason for the security breakdown is that the federal government launched its offensive against the drug mafias before it developed a penal system capable of incarcerating their members.

Instead, tens of thousands of federal prisoners - including powerful drug bosses and vicious killers - are being held in overcrowded, underfunded, poorly guarded state institutions, some of which are virtually under the control of criminal gangs.

'They came for their own'

During a visit inside the state lockup in Nuevo Laredo, where the 153 prisoners escaped, inmates said cartel vehicles - including a yellow school bus - arrived at 6 p.m. Dec. 17 and began loading up gang members and new recruits, who calmly walked right past guards and out the prison's service entry.

"They came for their own," one inmate said. "I wish I could have gone with them."

The prison's interim director, Rebeca Nicasio, said in an interview that all 43 of the guards and supervisors on duty during the escape are behind bars, awaiting trial in the same prison where they had worked. Her former boss, the prison director in charge at the time of the escape, is now missing, and Nicasio said she didn't know whether he had run off with the criminals or been killed.

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