The Mexican penitentiary system: how prisons became tools for the cartels

Far from being an instrument aimed at fighting crime and reintegrating former inmates in society, Mexican prisons act as a recruiting ground for the cartels. The lack of government response to this challenge illustrates its powerlessness in the war on drugs.

The rector (headmaster) of the Universidad Iberoamericana de Puebla, David Fernandez Davalos, considers the penitentiary system in Mexico the worst thing in the country: not only does it fail to reinstate former inmates in society, but prisons all over the country have become crime schools where drug cartels are formed and organized crime members are recruited. Raul Benitez, a professor at Mexico’s UNAM (Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico) who studies security issues says that the prisons are part of two larger problems: rampant corruption and a dysfunctional justice system.

Mexican President Felipe Calderon declared a war on drugs, tackling the cartels by frontal assault. Yet prison reform is still waiting to get onto his agenda. As Eric Olson of the Mexico Institute at Washington’s Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars said recently: “The strategy has been to arrest a lot of people, but when you warehouse prisoners in prisons that are overcrowded and poorly managed, you are likely to have this kind of warfare break out inside prisons.”

In recent years violence in prisons has escalated exponentially, and the corruption and mismanagement within has also become quite evident. In Nuevo Leon, 21 guards and top officials have been arrested on suspicion of helping 37 members of the Zetas cartel to escape while other Zetas murdered 44 inmates from their rival group, the Gulf Cartel. In Tamaulipas, 31 inmates died during a similar riot, and in Reynosa 141 inmates escaped with the help of authorities and the Zetas. Probably the most shocking case occurred in Durango, where prison officials provided weapons and transport for the Sinaloa cartel who were allowed out to kill their Zeta rivals, and then returned to the safety of their prison.

In the case of the escaped inmates in Nuevo Leon, some of the guards and two recaptured inmates have described the corruption that took place inside the prison, and there has been more than one documented case where an inmate imprisoned for a minor or non-cartel-related crime has been sucked in and forced to work for the cartels, or suffer the fatal consequences. Prisons are a lucrative posting for corrupt civil servants, and even those unwilling to break the rules are ultimately forced to do so; the cartels are too powerful, and guards have no choice but to give in or have their families threatened, kidnapped, or worse. In the cartel-controlled prisons, inmates have luxuries ranging from alcohol to women, drugs, flat screen TVs and 'VIP cells', and in some more extreme cases, as mentioned before, the possibility for inmates to leave the prison and then come back to the safety of their cell.

In Mexico, the government calls the prisons CERESO, which by its acronym in Spanish means Center for Social Readaptation. Although no comprehensive studies on the prison system have been made, it is evident that far from preparing inmates for life back in society, the prisons are being used by the cartels to house their own people and recruit new members in their fight against rival gangs. “They are institutions that generate the opposite of what they were created for. The prisons are made for those that cannot pay for justice. They are disguised institutions of criminality”, Fernandez Davalos  told Milenio News.

“The Mexican prison system has collapsed”, Raul Benitez told the Associated Press. “The prisons in some states are controlled by organized crime.” While state authorities blame overcrowding in the prisons and lack of federal support for the crisis in the penal system, the federal governments claim that it is corruption at state level, and not overcrowding, that is causing the deaths, escapes, and abuses. President Calderon has said that his administration is building nine new federal prisons, and that they plan to subject the remaining staff at the institutions to “confidence” tests to try and remove the corrupt guards. Yet with the police forces spread thinly or equally accused of corruption, people have little hope that this will help. There is an evident lack of strategic planning when the issue of what to do with these criminals is raiused again years after the military has been ordered to the streets.

The lack of a penitentiary reform undermines many of the government’s efforts to fight the cartels. The level at which the prisons are failing even to contain captured gang members makes most of the 'victories' null. If the cartels and its members continue to operate with impunity from inside the penitentiary institutions, any police action that does not end with the destruction of drugs or the killing of gang members is rendered useless.

What is most interesting is that, however evident the corruption, almost nothing has been done to remedy it. Not even the pressure from the United States via the Merida Initiative has managed to pressure for a change. According to a professor at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, currently researching at the EGAP in Monterrey, “What we need is an integral reform of the whole system, and not just accept that the problem lies in overcrowding and poor administration.” The problem, he suggests, goes beyond spaces and administrative policies, and requires thorough changes in proceedings, institutions, and people. The justice system does not function because it fails to satisfy the necessities it was designed for, and because neither the government nor the justice institutions want to modernize. The Merida Initiative contains resources to digitalize all the processes and thus make corruption more complicated, but such reform has been opposed by no less than the very judges and lawyers that live off the present system.

Modernization, transparency, and better ways to monitor activity are some of the possible ways to improve the system. Other proposed solutions range from building jails exclusively for members of organized crime, to having the military, and not the police and civil forces, run the prisons. Closer monitoring by non-governmental organizations and human rights groups can help avoid corruption and violence taking place with total impunity. They can at least bring it to the public eye.  

While corruption and violence continue to occur at many of Mexico’s prisons, a sense of urgency to reform and modernize the penitentiary system grows. There is not one single solution that will fix the problem overnight, given that the prison problem is closely tied up with the cartels and institutional corruption. But with the right changes the situation can be improved one step at a time, and can pave the way for a desperately needed integral reform.

About the author
Alejandro Garcia De La Garza has an MA in Conflict, Security and Development from the University of Sussex and is an associate area specialist for the Intelligence, Security and International Affairs section of CIMBRE, the Centre for Interdisciplinary Mexican-British Research think tank