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 U.S. 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 have been 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.
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.
Another official at the prison, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he said he could be killed for talking about the cartels, said the facility was under criminal control before the escape occurred. A dozen inmates had been murdered in the past six months, he said, some decapitated or burned alive in the cellblocks.
Asked which group was in control of the facility and its 1,200 inmates, the official looked carefully around the cafe where he had asked to meet, then drew a Z with his finger on the table, the sign for Los Zetas.
"The one in charge was called Charlie," he said. "He lived in an air-conditioned cell with carpets and two plasma TVs. He brought in anything he wanted: drugs, liquor, women. He escaped with the rest of them, but he left some of his people behind. There's too much money to be made."
Every inmate in the facility is forced to pay an extortion fee, the prison official explained, or go to work for the gang.
Mexico has an inmate population of 223,000, of which 45,000 are federal prisoners, a status typically indicating a conviction for drug trafficking, gun violations or drug-related killings. But only 9,000 of the federal inmates are held in federal facilities. The rest are at state prisons, such as the one in Nuevo Laredo.
Mexican and U.S. officials say the Calderon government is moving quickly to build federal penitentiaries. Plans call for increasing the federal system from eight facilities to as many as 20 by the end of next year, according to Patricio Patino Arias, the federal prison system's second-ranking official. Mexico will spend about $800 million this year on the expansion, he said.
With U.S. help, the Calderon government has opened a new training academy for the system, subjecting recruits to rigorous screening procedures. Of the 16,000 applicants who have sought positions in the federal system since May 2009, only 1,700 have been hired, Patino said.
The U.S. government has allocated about $14 million of its $1.6 billion Merida Initiative to help with Mexico's prison system, mostly by providing training and equipment.
But those programs have done little to address the system's immediate security flaws, and U.S. communities along the border are alarmed by the prospect of fugitive convicts fleeing into the United States.
After the big breakout in Nuevo Laredo, the Webb County Sheriff's Office in Laredo circulated posters with the inmates' mug shots.
Across the border, the newly appointed police commander in Nuevo Laredo, retired Brig. Gen. Manuel Farfan Carriola, said he hadn't seen the fliers and had to call a subordinate to ask whether any of the inmates had been caught.
"We're more focused on preventing street crime," he said at his office in a late January interview, touting his recent success against bands of petty thieves downtown.
But if Farfan Carriola's strategy was to avoid clashing with organized crime, it did not spare his life. He was gunned down after leaving his office Wednesday night, along with four bodyguards and an assistant. He had been on the job 32 days.
Prison expert Elena Azaola Garrido, a researcher at Mexico's Center for Advanced Studies in Social Anthropology, said the Nuevo Laredo breakout is the predictable result of a chronically neglected penal system now buckling under new pressures.
"It seems like an extreme, shocking incident, but to a lesser extent it's happening all around the country," she said. "It's not an isolated incident."
Nor is it especially new. After all, the billionaire leader of the Sinaloa drug cartel and the man considered to be the country's most powerful drug kingpin, Joaquin "Chapo" Guzman, is a fugitive, having slipped out of prison in 2001 by hiding in a laundry cart.