Ongoing Prison Clashes Underscore Growing Criminal Violence in Zacatecas

01/25/21 (written by rramos) — The latest outbreak of prison violence in Zacatecas continues to highlight the state’s emergence as a key epicenter of organized crime-related violence in Mexico. In the early morning hours of January 15, a riot erupted at the Cieneguillas Regional Center for Social Reinsertion, a prison located just west of Zacatecas City. Fighting between inmates took place in multiple locations throughout the facility, and lasted roughly two and a half hours. After security forces were deployed to restore order within the prison and the surrounding vicinity, authorities confirmed that at least one prison inmate had been killed, and six more had been injured.

This most recent incident of inmate violence at Cieneguillas prison is merely the latest in a string of violent clashes that have occurred over the past year. In an interview with La Jornada following the January 15 riot, Zacatecas Secretary of Public Security Arturo López Bazán described Cieneguillas as a “time bomb,” and recounted that the prison also suffered a three day-long riot from December 31, 2019 to January 2, 2020 in which 18 inmates were killed and 20 more were injured. López Bazán went on to point out that Cieneguillas was the site of five additional outbreaks of prison violence throughout the rest of 2020.

Cieneguillas prison in the central state of Zacatecas has been the site of frequent prison clashes throughout the past year. Photo: NTR Zacatecas.

Cieneguillas: A Reflection of Expanding Sinaloa Cartel-CJNG Competition

The increasing frequency of violent confrontations between prisoners at Cieneguillas comes at a time in which the organized crime situation in Zacatecas is evolving. As La Jornada reported, many of the inmates housed at Cieneguillas are prone to conflict because they belong to rival organized crime groups that compete in Zacatecas, most notably the Sinaloa Cartel and the Jalisco New Generation Cartel (Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generación, CJNG). Both the Sinaloa Cartel and the CJNG are reported to be increasing their presence in Zacatecas, with media outlets pointing to numerous narcomantas and videos in which the two groups declare their presence in the state. Concurrently, the two cartels have been assessed to be behind a growing number of deadly clashes in various parts of Zacatecas, including a streak of armed confrontations in and around the city of Jerez throughout November and December 2020.        

In an interview with El Universal last year, Ismael Camberos Hernández, then-public security secretary, stated that Zacatecas had acquired strategic importance for drug trafficking organizations due to its centralized geographic location. In particular, organized crime groups are looking to gain control of two major highways that run through the state and that have become critical routes to transport drugs, including fentanyl, to the northern border with the United States. Camberos identified Federal Highway 54, which runs from the Pacific state of Colima (home to the massive port of Manzanillo) to the U.S. border in the northeastern state of Tamaulipas, and Federal Highway 45, which links central Mexico to the U.S. border near Ciudad Juárez, as the coveted trafficking routes that have drawn some of the country’s largest criminal organizations to Zacatecas. Furthermore, Camberos testified before the Zacatecas legislature in June 2020 that while there are other organized crime groups operating in the state, such as the Northeast Cartel and Los Talibanes, the CJNG and the Sinaloa Cartel are the “main” criminal actors in Zacatecas. He even went on to testify that the CJNG had forged an alliance with Gulf Cartel-linked cells in Zacatecas in an attempt to ward off Sinaloa Cartel incursions coming into the state from neighboring Durango.

Zacatecas: Troubling Hotspot of Violence in Mexico

As a consequence of intensified organized crime competition in the state, Zacatecas is facing a dramatic surge in violence. According to Animal Político, data released by the Executive Secretariat of the National Public Security System (Secretariado Ejecutivo del Sistema Nacional de Seguridad Pública, SESNSP) revealed that Zacatecas was the state that suffered the largest increase in homicides in 2020. The total number of reported homicides skyrocketed from 577 in the period from January to November 2019 to 945 during the same period in 2020, a 63.8% increase in one year. This upward trend is especially worrying for Zacatecas given that violence in Mexico at the national level, while still at extremely high levels, seemed to stagnate somewhat in 2020, with the total number of homicides seeing a minuscule decrease of 0.4% compared to the prior year. In a subsequent interview days after the January 15 riot, Secretary of Public Security López Bazán noted that as the Sinaloa Cartel and CJNG have escalated their rivalry in the state, they no longer view the state merely as a transit zone used to transport drugs. Instead, these groups have expanded into other illicit activities, such as extortions and kidnappings, signaling the possibility that the state may face another year of heightened violence in 2021.

Sources

Mejía, Irma. “Zacatecas: Merodean cárteles por moda de fentanilo.” El Universal. February 3, 2020.

O’Reilly, Eimhin. “Fentanyl Trade Fuels Cartel Battle in Central Mexico.” InSight Crime. March 2, 2020.

“El CJNG irrumpe en Zacatecas; desafía a rivales y autoridades.” El Financiero. April 20, 2020.

“Cártel del Golfo se une al CJNG en Zacatecas para combatir al de Sinaloa.” Zacatecas Online. June 3, 2020.

Vergara, Rosalía. “El CJNG y el Cártel de Sinaloa se disputan a balazos la plaza de Jerez.” Proceso. December 25, 2020.

Angel, Arturo. “En 2020, la violencia en México se mantuvo en niveles récord; en 11 estados aumentaron asesinatos.” Animal Político. December 29, 2020.

López, Rocío. “Reportan motín en el penal de Cieneguillas, Zacatecas; hay un muerto y seis heridos.” Milenio. January 15, 2021.

Mejía, Irma. “Motín en penal de Cieneguillas, Zacatecas, deja un muerto y seis lesionados.” El Universal. January 15, 2021.

Valadez Rodríguez, Alfredo. “Un reo muerto y seis heridos en motín de penal de Cieneguillas.” La Jornada. January 15, 2021.

Valadez Rodríguez, Alfredo. “Zacatecas, atrapado en la guerra entre los dos principales cárteles.” La Jornada. January 18, 2021.“Tasa de homicidios sigue siendo alta en México pese a COVID.” San Diego Union-Tribune. January 20, 2021.

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