Civilians call for Prison Reform in Nuevo Léon

09/24/20 (written by mlopez) – Nuevo Léon’s penal system has been facing critique as the protocols and adherence of inmate rights are being questioned by locals and authorities. The prison system in Mexico has long had its issues with overcrowding and gang violence, as well as recent complications with COVID-19. These factors are making the cells inhabitable for Nuevo Léon’s inmates. Families of the detained are now calling for a fair and impartial investigation into these prison environments. 

In September 2020,  two respected human rights watch group organizations — Human Rights Watch (HRW) and the Ciudadanos en Apoyo a Los Derechos Humanos (CADHAC) — co-authored a letter demanding the investigation into the suspicious deaths of three inmates. HRW’s Jose Miguel Vivanco and CADHAC’s Hermana Consuelo Gonzales addressed the letter to Nuevo Leon’s governor, JRC, “El Bronco.” In it, they ask for clarity on the prisons Apodaca 1 and 2.

In these jails, there are allegations of gang violence and corrupt payoffs, unsafe and unhygienic social distancing and safety guidelines pertaining to COVID-19, and a lack of medicinal support for any COVID-19 cases. The three deaths mentioned in the letter by HRW and CADHAC add to the complaints made by other inmates’ families and have raised suspicion among the public. The first involved Estanislao Aguilera Escamilla, who died of electrocution on July 14, within a day of being detained. The second victim was Modesto Martínez de la Cruz who died of pneumonia on July 24, within three days of being detained. Just two weeks later, Óscar Hugo de León Martínez was also found dead after having allegedly committed suicide. HRW and CADHAC are urging Governor Rodríguez Calderón to take action in these prisons and to protect prisoners’ rights.

Nuevo Léon’s prisons

One of the nine banners hung in Monterrey, NL’s plaza. The banner directly calls for the governor to look into these two commanders who allegedly protected an inmate for the sake of being hostile to other prisoners and to trafficking drugs. Photo: Especial

The prisons themselves have been harshly critiqued by authorities and by the families of inmates. El Norte’s Christian Lara reported on the display of mantas (banners) in Monterrey Plaza. This public display was an attempt to bring the conditions of the prisons to the forefront of the issues that Nuevo Léon is facing. These issues include penitentiaries that are overcrowded, influenced by gang activity, and unsanitary. Overcrowded prisons have a low guard to inmate ratio, there is supposed to be 1 guard per 3 inmates, yet realistically there is one guard per every 5.91 prisoners. Due to this imbalance of guards, riots and gang violence persist through the detention centers. Two notorious such riots were those of Topo Chico in 2012 and 2016. While authorities have promoted cutting the lifeline of gangs in detention facilities, there are still allegations of families having to pay off gang leadership in prisons to protect their families that are incarcerated. Carlos Jáuregui, former public security secretary, stated, “the problem is that the majority of Mexican prisons are out of control. They are run by organized crime and the prisoners themselves.”

Shutting down of Topo Chico

The 2016 closure of Topo Chico, in Monterrey, Nuevo León, was in response to how inoperable the facility was and due to all the violence that erupted in this facility. Its closure meant the relocation of 2,000 inmates to Apodaca 1 and Cadereyta with the caveat that they would be under surveillance. Some lawyers saw this move as dangerous as it would be a mezcla — or mix — of gang leadership, which could result in more violence. Many inmates have detailed that certain cartels and gangs controlled various aspects of Topo Chico, signifying the prison officials were out of the loop. Yet, Carlos Martín Sánchez Bocanegra, Director of prison reform group Renace, claimed Topo Chico was primarily shut down because it no longer met national standards, citing a shortage of custodians. Meanwhile, others claim that it was the prison’s infrastructure that posed a threat to the guards, visitors, and inmates. 

Topo Chico was the home to the largest penal massacre due to gang violence between Zetas and the Gulf Cartel, two of the most notorious organized crime groups in Mexico. This resulted in 49 dead and the escape of 37 gang leaders. Nevertheless, despite the massacre, the Zetas and the Gulf Cartel were still believed to have had influence within the prison. Governor Rodríguez Calderón responded to these prison riots saying “The self-governance (of prisons) will not return because we made the decision: no more extortion of prisoners, of depriving people’s liberties, to their families that have lost heritage as well as tranquility. Imagining and building are what is best. I imagine that Nuevo Léon will recover its happiness.” [author’s own translation]

COVID-19 as a new factor in prisons

The latest challenge to the livelihoods of prisons is the novel coronavirus. Although Governor Rodríguez Calderón encouraged all of the state’s businesses to implement the proper guidelines to reduce the virus’ spread, prisons have fallen through the crack with reports of minimal social distancing measures in place.  In fact, 37% of Mexico’s detention facilities report having overcrowded cells. “Our main aim is to depressurize the prisons in the face of the overpopulation we have,” Maribel Cervantes, the security secretary for Ciudad de Mexico, told EFE. She further highlights that the state’s prisons are designed to house 13,500 inmates but currently contain 31,000 prisoners. With the lack of COVID preventative measures, there is also a lack of proper testing for inmates. Citizens in Monterrey Plaza called for intervention from “El Bronco” by means of the banners they displayed in May of this year. Since then, prisons reportedly have had 100 cases of Covid-19, 79 suspected cases, nine deaths, and three riots linked to the virus since the outbreak of the pandemic according to Mexico’s National Commission for Human Rights (Comisión Nacional de Los Derechos Humanos, CNDH).

There has yet to be a response from “El Bronco” on this specific letter from the HRW and CADHAC. However, Mexico has responded to the inefficient health measures in prisons by asking the judicial branch to release at least 380 prisoners who are serving under five-year sentences or are chronically ill to minimize the crowding in prisons. Penitentiaries are notorious for having substandard living conditions, yet Mexico has been attempting to rebrand the prisons in the country. The 2016 reform of Article 18 in the Mexican Constitution, for example, further defines the mission of detention centers as a resocialization effort to promote work, education, sport, health, and basic human rights. The overcrowding, lack of gang control, and inefficient prevention of disease present serious challenges to upholding this mission.


Malkin, Elisabeth. “At Least 49 Inmates Killed in Mexican Prison Riot,” New York Times. February 6, 2016.

Barrios, Adrián Franco. “En Numeros: Características de la población privada de la libertad en México,” Instituto Nacional de Estadística y Geografía. March 2018. 

“Nuevo Léon opens its doors to reveal 76 years of history,” Mexico News daily. September 2019.

Carrizales, David. “Topo Chico Cierra Penal Incontrolable,” El Universal. September 9, 2019.

Campos Garza, Luciana. “Termina la era de Topo Chico, uno de los capítulos más oscuros del sistema penal,” Proceso. September 30, 2019. 

I Admetlla, Eduard Ribas. “Mexican Prisoners at serious risk for COVID-19,” La Prensa Latina. May 14, 2020. 

Lara, Christian. “Aparecen mantas; reportan ‘abusos’ en penales,” El Norte. May 24, 2020. 

Vivanco, José Miguel. “Letter to the Governor of Nuevo León regarding abuses in state prisons,” Humans Right Watch. September 2, 2020.

Gang violence, overcrowding, corruption underpin deadly Topo Chico prison riot

Topo Chico prison

Families and friends of inmates in Topo Chico waited anxiously to hear updates on their loved ones following the February 11 riot. Photo: Daniel Becerril, Reuters.

03/06/16 (written by kheinle) – A prison riot last month in Monterrey left 49 prisoners dead and more than a dozen others hurt, five of whom suffered serious injuries. The fight broke out in the Topo Chico prison in Monterrey, Nuevo León on Thursday, February 11. It took a combined effort between the Mexican Army (Ejército), Navy (Secretaría de Marina, SEMAR), and Federal Police (Policía Federal, PF) to get the brawl under control, which lasted more than an hour. The brawl allegedly began between prisoners from rival factions of the Zetas criminal organization vying for control of the prison, some with allegiance to Los Zetas’ leader Jorge Iván Hernández Cantú, “El Credo,” and others to leader Juan Pedro Saldivar Farías, “El Z-27.” Reports indicated that prisoners carried knives, razors, bats, clubs, and other homemade weapons; they also set fire to part of the prison.

The deadly riot was the worst such incident in the last three decades in Mexico, and the latest in several smaller uprisings just in Nuevo León alone in recent years. In September 2015, a leader of Los Zetas was stabbed to death in the Topo Chico prison where he was serving time; 11 other inmates were also injured in the fight. Several years prior, 44 prisoners were killed in a fight that broke out in the Nuevo León prison of Apodaca in 2012 between inmates from rival cartels, Los Zetas and the Gulf Cartel (Cartel del Golfo, CDG). In 2011, 11 more inmates were killed in Apodaca, although that incident was allegedly not related to organized crime violence, and another 11 prisoners were killed in the Cadereyta prison in Nuevo León that same year. According to Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission (Comisión Nacional de los Derechos Humanos, CNDH), 82% of the 1,737 violent incidences that occurred in prisons throughout Mexico in 2014 were due to infighting among inmates.

At the time of the February 11 fight, Topo Chico was 35% overpopulated, with nearly 3,800 inmates incarcerated. Prison overcrowding is a serious issue in Mexico, which fuels the environment for riots and deadly brawls like the Topo Chico fight. A report published by the Center for Studies on Impunity and Justice at the University of the Americas in Puebla, the “Global Impunity Index (IGI),” found that state prisons in Mexico are overcrowded by 30%, while the world average is 17%. Prisons are thus understaffed to accommodate the number of inmates. As translated by Mexico Voices, the IGI reports, “the ratio of prison staff responsible for caring for inmates in state rehabilitation centers [in Mexico] is only 20 guards per 100 prisoners. The average for [all] IGI countries is 47 per 100.” Mexico therefore has almost double the amount of prison overcrowding compared to all other IGI countries studied while have less than half the number of prison staff to safely and effectively manage the prisons.

Topo Chico prison

Prisoners set fire to one of the buildings in Topo Chico prison during the brawl. Photo: EPA.

In addition to prison rioting and overcrowding, staggering levels of impunity and corruption further undermine Mexico’s penitentiary system. The National Institute of Statistics and Geography (Instituto Nacional de Estadística y Geografía, INEGI) ranks Mexico 58th of 59 countries studied for highest levels of impunity in its 2015 ENVIPE survey (Encuesta Nacional de Victimización y Percepción sobre Seguridad Pública), adding that perpetrators in only 1% of all crimes in Mexico are held accountable. INEGI further argues that impunity is one of the ten most pressing issues Mexican society faces today. Even the perpetrators of crime and violence that are found guilty and serve time are not all held to equal standards, a reflection of the corruption that underpins the prison system with prison wards and administrators often bought out by inmates with deep pockets and/or criminal connections. This was the case in the Topo Chico prison, which was unearthed following the brawl in February when it was discovered that the prison was filled with “luxury cells” for incarcerated organized crime group (OCG) leaders including El Credo and El Z-27, reported BBC News. Such inmate cells allegedly include king-size beds, large TVs, mini-bars, air conditioners, mobile saunas, and more.

Since the deadly brawl in Topo Chico, 233 prisoners have been transferred to other prisons in Mexico to reduce the overcrowding and to allow authorities to investigate the incident. Several administrators and guards have also been released or arrested for abuse of authority or charges of homicide, the latter of which is being pressed on one guard who allegedly killed an inmate during the fight. While such actions are steps towards addressing the specific situation at Topo Chico, the fight between rival incarcerated Los Zetas factions that left 49 inmates dead in a prison 35% overpopulated that ultimately led to the discovery of “luxury cells” is indicative of a much more serious problem facing Mexico with its corrupt penitentiary system operating in a climate of impunity. “We are living through tragedy due to the conditions in the prisons,” lamented Nuevo León Governor Jaime Rodríguez Calderón. The former Nuevo León public security secretary added, “The problem is that the majority of Mexican prisons are out of control. They are run by organized crime and the prisoners themselves.”


“Encuesta Nacional de Victimización y Percepción sobre Seguridad Pública.” Instituto Nacional de Estadística y Geografía. September 2015.

Mexico Institute. “Mexico’s Security Review 2016: Assessing the Outlook for the Rule of Law.” Conference. Woodrow Wilson Center. January 21, 2016.

Centro de Estudios sobre Impunidad y Justicia. “Índice Global de Impunidad México: IGI-MEX 2016.” Universidad de las Américas Puebla. February 2016.

Centro de Estudios sobre Impunidad y Justicia. “Índice Global de Impunidad México: IGI-MEX 2016; Resumen ejecutivo.” Universidad de las Américas Puebla. February 2016.

“Mexico Justice System: 99% Impunity for Crimes.” Translation. Mexico Voices. February 4, 2016.

Malkin, Elisabeth. “At Least 49 Inmates Killed in Mexican Prison Riot.” New York Times. February 11, 2016.

Paullier, Juan. “49 muertos en enfrentamiento en la cárcel de Topo Chico en México.” BBC News. February 11, 2016.

“Mexico dismantles ‘luxury cells’ in Topo Chico riot jail.” BBC News. February 15, 2016.

“No solo en Topo Chico…también en Apodaca hay lujo y droga.” CNN Expansión. February 18, 2016.