02/24/12 (by cmolzahn) – A massive prison riot broke out in the Apodaca medium security correctional institution near Monterrey, Nuevo León on February 19, killing 44 inmates. Officials reported early on that the clash was between the rival Gulf and Zetas drug cartels, which have been embroiled in a bitter turf battle in the region since the two groups broke their alliance in early 2010. It was later revealed that 30 inmates escaped the prison during or following the riot, all of which were members of the Zetas cartel, and that all of the 44 inmates bludgeoned or stabbed to death were Gulf cartel members. This revelation suggests that the riot was likely an orchestrated event involving prison guards and officials in order to secure the release of Zeta cartel members. Three prison officials and 26 guards were detained for questioning.
The escape occurred between 1:00 a.m. and 1:20 a.m. in the early morning of Sunday, February 19, with the killings beginning shortly after. However, it was not until 3:15 a.m. that prison authorities requested help from the Mexican Army and Federal Police, which eventually took control of the prison. Videos from inside the prison and confessions from nine prison guards have left state officials with little doubt that the escape and massacre at the Apodaca prison happened with the help of prison officials. According to Jorge Domene, security spokesman for the Nuevo León government, around 450 armed inmates belonging to the Zetas cartel were allowed to pass from the prison’s C dormitory to the D dormitory where they carried out the attack on the unarmed Gulf cartel members imprisoned there, killing 44 of them. Meanwhile, a second group of 30 presumed Zetas, led by Óscar Manuel Bernal Soriano, “El Araña,” made their way to the prison’s tower 6, allegedly with the protection of security chief Óscar Deveze Laureano, from which they lowered themselves to the ground, where an armed commando waited for them with escape vehicles. Three days following the riot and massacre, a judge ordered the transfer of at least three presumed Zeta members to other correctional facilities, one of which is the alleged Zeta leader for the northern zone of Nuevo León. While federal police carried out the order for the transfer, prisoners reportedly burned mattresses and other objects in protest. Meanwhile, family members of Apodaca prisoners gathered outside the prison, where some burned garbage near the prison entrance and threw stones at state and federal police entering the prison.
The complicity and collusion of prison guards and officials is highly evident in this case, according to state officials, including Nuevo León Governor Rodrigo Medina. He has publicly singled out the prison director, Gerónimo Miguel Andrés Martínez, and the chief of security, Oscar Deveze Laureano, as having actively participated in the escape of the 30 presumed Zeta members, saying that they, along with 14 guards, have confessed to their involvement. Martínez has served as the Apodaca prison director since his predecessor was removed from his post following the death of 14 prisoners there on May 20 of last year. At that time, news outlet El Norte raised concern over Martínez’s appointment, citing his 2009 firing from the Santa Martha Acatitla prison in the Federal District for presumed acts of corruption. Governor Medina, however, emphasized that Martínez was never proven guilty of corruption, and that he passed his confidence control (control de confianza) exams before his appointment to Apodaca.
According to a chronology compiled by El Universal, the February 19 Apodaca riot was Mexico’s deadliest in recent memory, and followed a riot on January 5 in Altamira, in the neighboring state of Tamaulipas, in which 31 inmates were killed. Tamaulipas, and Nuevo León particularly, have seen multiple alarming incidences of deadly prison riots occur since the Gulf and Zeta cartels split in early 2010. With only six federal prisons throughout Mexico, violent offenders are often placed in already overcrowded state prisons that are not equipped to handle them. Of the around 47,000 federal prisoners in Mexico, 29,000 are currently being held in state prisons, a problem consistently alluded to by governors following prison riots in their states. According to its most recent annual report, the Public Security Ministry (Secretaría de Seguridad Pública Federal, SSP) documents that during 2011, Mexican prisons registered over 3,200 riots, along with 316 inmate deaths and 320 escaped prisoners. The SSP also cited 83 suicides and 107 prisoners on hunger strike. Of Mexico’s 431 correctional institutions, 207 are above capacity, representing an overpopulation of 42,110 prisoners.
The increased incidences of prison riots and escapes and the following allegations of corruption have coincided directly with the surge in cartel violence in the northeast border region comprising Tamaulipas and Nuevo León, which has overwhelmed state and local security forces, and placed an unprecedented strain on state penitentiaries. Governor Medina cited overpopulation in the prison and a critical mass of federal prisoners as the principle causes of the February 19 riot. Medina cited 8,500 individuals that the state government has detained and processed since 2009, 60% of which were charged with federal crimes, and a majority of which are linked to either the Gulf cartel or the Zetas.
Interior Minister Alejandro Poiré announced at a press conference on February 22 that all federal prisoners being held in state penitentiaries will be moved to federal prisons by November 30 of this year, when President Calderón’s administration comes to an end. For his part, President Calderón announced during a trip through Querétaro that the federal government is currently building ten new federal penitentiaries, most of which will be ready for operation before the end of the year. Without acknowledging the February 19 Apodaca riot and prisoner escape, he characterized the prison situation in Nuevo León and Tamaulipas as a “crisis,” saying that his administration is addressing the problem with a prison building effort not seen in Mexico in at least 20 years. The SSP cites 12 federal prisons under construction that were announced in 2008, but at an estimated 500 prisoners apiece, they will account for only a half of the country’s estimated overpopulation.
Some security analysts, however, argue that increasing capacity is not the best solution for addressing Mexico’s ailing prison system. Guillermo Zepeda, a researcher at the Instituto Techológico de Oriente and author of the book Crimen sin Castigo, argues that a better approach is to “be more prudent with who we assign the sanction of prison.” He also cited the 97,000 prisoners currently in pre-trial detention. Zepeda said that as of July 2011, there were a total of 227,671 prisoners nationwide, representing a cost of 140 pesos per day per inmate, or a total of nearly 32 million pesos (nearly $2.5 million USD) daily. This, he argues, is diverting needed funds from the “authentic” fight against high impact crime.