09/21/12 – On Monday, September 17, 131 convicts escaped from the Piedras Negras State Prison in the border state of Coahuila. It was originally believed that the prisoners, four of which were women, escaped through a tunnel that connected the carpentry workshop inside the prison to the outside fence, but authorities have since retracted the statement and now believe that the prisoners escaped through the front gates with assistance from the prison guards. 86 of the escapees were incarcerated for federal crimes, primarily murder, and 45 of the fugitives were imprisoned for local crimes, mainly robbery. The Mexican government has offered a reward of 200,000 pesos (approximately $15,591 USD) to anyone with information regarding the escaped fugitives. The District Attorney’s office (Procuraduría Fiscalía) has called on support from the United States to closely monitor border crossings, as Piedras Negras sits opposite of Eagle Pass, Texas, on the U.S.-Mexico border.
Following Monday’s escape, authorities indicated that a Special Forces Unit (Grupo de Fuerzas Especiales, GAFES) was in transit to the jail when they were attacked by hired assassins in the municipality of Castaños, Coahuila. Four of the assassins were killed during the attack.
Since the prison break, federal and state police, the military, and the marines have been searching for the escaped inmates. On the night of Tuesday, September 18, a helicopter found two of them in Zaragoza, Coahuila, 55 kilometers from Piedras Negras. The inmates, whose identities were revealed as Jorge Mendoza Bárcenas and Mauro Antonio Valdés González, were found driving a Ford Diesel with a Texas license plate. During the apprehensions, both sides fired shots; authorities eventually confiscated a dozen heavy weapons and a grenade launcher, as well. The apprehension followed the discovery of heavy weapons that were found in an empty van, a discovery that has been associated with Monday’s prison break. On Wednesday, a third apprehension was made in Monclova, leaving 128 inmates still at large.
In the aftermath of the prison break, a tunnel was discovered on prison grounds that measured nine and a half feet deep, four feet wide, and 21 feet long. Although it was originally believed that the prisoners escaped through the tunnel, La Crónica de Hoy reported that they instead fled through the front gates, an allegation later confirmed by Secretary of Security Morán Delgado. The prison director, along with 16 of the guards, are being detained as investigations continue into the nature of the incident, especially considering that prisoners allegedly escaped around 2:15pm, but security did not sound the red alert until 3:21pm. State Attorney General Homero Ramos Gloria said that two buses were waiting for the inmates upon their escape.
According to Vanguardia, Ramos Gloria believes that the majority of the 131 escaped inmates were affiliated with the Zetas cartel, and that the Zetas coordinated and planned Monday’s prison break. Since May 2008, the Zetas have been responsible for prison breaks resulting in 546 escaped inmates, including the December 2010 escape of 151 inmates. Ramos Gloria argued that the Zetas facilitate prison breaks to show the government’s weakness in the fight against drugs.
As 128 inmates are still on the loose, the Piedras Negras break adds fuel to the fire for those who have demanded prison reform, particularly given similar breaks and riots that have occurred in just over a year. Despite many calls for reforms to the prison and police systems throughout Mexico and real initiatives being taken to professionalize police forces, Monday’s events nevertheless highlight the prevalence of corruption within the justice system.