Mexican drug traffickers find a second home in prison

 The surveillance cameras captured it all: guards looking on nonchalantly as 53 inmates — many of them associated with one of Mexico’s most notorious drug cartels — let themselves out of their cells and sped off in waiting vehicles.
        The video shows that prison guards only pulled out their weapons after the inmates were well on their way. The brazen escape last May in the northern state of Zacatecas — carried out in minutes without a single shot fired — is just one of many glaring examples of how Mexico’s crowded and cruel prison system represents a critical weak link in the drug war.
        Mexico’s prisons, as described by inmates and insiders and viewed during several visits, are places where drug traffickers find a new base of operations for their criminal empires, recruit underlings, and bribe their way out for the right price.
       The system is so flawed, in fact, that the Mexican government is extraditing record numbers of drug traffickers to the United States, where they find it much harder to intimidate witnesses, run their drug operations from jail or escape.
        The latest jailbreak took place this weekend, when a suspected drug trafficker went missing from a Sinaloa prison during a party for inmates featuring a Mexican country music band. The Mexican government is considering isolating drug offenders from regular inmates to reduce opportunities for abuse.
        The United States government is committing $4 million this year to help fix Mexico’s broken prisons as part of its counternarcotics assistance program, officials said. Experts from state prisons in the United States have begun tutorials for Mexican guards to make sure that there are clear ethical guidelines and professional practices that distinguish them from the men and women they guard.
       “There’s no point in rounding all these characters up if they are going to get out on their own,” said an American official involved in the training, who was not authorized to speak on the record.
        Although Mexican prisons call themselves Centers for Social Rehabilitation, “Universities of crime would be a better name,” said Pedro Hector Arellano, who runs the prison outreach program in Mexico for the Episcopal Church.
    Business behind bars
        Mexico’s prisons are bursting at the seams, with space for 172,151 inmates nationwide, but an additional 50,000 are crammed in. More arrive by the day as part of the government’s drug war, which has sent tens of thousands to prison since President Felipe Calderon took office nearly three years ago.
        Inside the high concrete walls ringed by barbed wire, past the heavily armed men in black uniforms with stern expressions, Mexican inmates rule the roost. Some wealthy prisoners pay to have keys to their cells. When life inside, with its pizza deliveries, prostitutes and binges on drugs and alcohol, becomes too confining, prisoners sometimes pay off the guards for a furlough or an outright jailbreak.
        “Our prisons are businesses more than anything else,” said Pedro Arellano Aguilar, an expert on prisons. He has visited scores of them in Mexico and has come away with a dire view of what takes place inside. “Everything is for sale and everything can be bought.”
        For drug lords, flush with money, life on the inside is often a continuation of the free-spirited existence they led outside. Inmates look up to them. Guards often become their employees.
        Miguel Caro Quintero, a major drug trafficker wanted in Arizona and Colorado on charges of supplying multi-ton shipments of marijuana and cocaine to the United States, was jailed for 10 years in Mexico. Federal prosecutors accused him, like many drug lords, of continuing illegal activities from behind bars, using smuggled cell phones to maintain contact with his underlings on the outside and recruiting prisoners who were nearing the end of their sentences.
       When his sentence in Mexico ended, he was sent off to the United States to face charges there, becoming one of more than 50 Mexicans, most of them drug offenders, extradited this year.
        “When we keep a criminal in a Mexican prison, we run the risk that one way or another they are going to keep in contact with their criminal network,” Leopoldo Velarde, who heads extraditions for the federal attorney general’s office, said. “The idea is to stop criminals, not just jail them.”
       Escape epidemic
        The jailbreak in May at the Cieneguillas prison in Zacatecas was just one of several escapes that showed how porous Mexican jails are. The Zetas, a paramilitary group known for its ruthlessness in protecting its drug turf, planned the escape, and has organized jailbreaks in at least four states, Mexican law enforcement officials said. The Zacatecas prison has had at least three escapes in recent years.
        The situation there is so bad, according to a local lawyer, Uriel Marquez Valerio, that inmates managed to invite a musical group into the prison in 2005 to celebrate the birthday of a drug trafficker, who several weeks later found a way to escape.
       In recent weeks, the authorities have managed to catch three of the 53 escapees from May and have thrown 51 prison officials, including the director, into jail while the investigation into collusion in the escape continues. The prime piece of evidence against the prison employees was the surveillance system they were supposed to use to monitor inmates. The video, leaked by law enforcement officials and now available on YouTube, recorded the jailbreak in detail.
        It was clearly an inside job, one that prompted Interpol to issue an international alert for 11 of the escapees, who were deemed “a risk to the safety and security of citizens around the world.”
       Seeking solutions
        Mexico’s prison system is a mishmash of federal, state and local facilities of varying quality. The most dangerous prisoners are supposed to be housed in maximum-security federal facilities, but there is nowhere near enough space. So the federal government pays the states to take in drug traffickers and other federal prisoners in their far less secure lockups.
        To relieve the congestion and better control the inmates, the government is planning a prison-building spree that will add tens of thousands of new beds in the coming years. One goal, officials say, is to keep drug lords separate from petty criminals as well as the many people who have been imprisoned but never convicted, thus reducing their ability to recruit new employees.
        The government is also focusing on personnel, boosting guards’ pay, putting them through a newly created training academy and screening them for corruption. Mexico recently sent several dozen of its guards to bolster their skills at the training academy used by the New Mexico Department of Corrections.
        All of the trainees, even guards with 15 years’ experience, had to start with the basics, shining their boots, cleaning out dormitory toilets and listening to lectures on how conniving inmates can be in trying to win over weak-willed guards.
        Some of those Mexican guards who are now active participants in Mexico’s deeply flawed penal system say they welcome the moves toward professionalism.
        One prison guard acknowledged, “We have guns, but we know it is them, not us, who really control things.”