MEXICO CITY (AP) — Inmates are carrying out vendettas inside prison walls, planning escapes and running their outside-world drug empires — even at Mexico's highest-security penitentiaries, prompting Mexico City's mayor to call for the army to intervene.
Mexican prisons have always been infamous for illegal activity. Guns are often smuggled into cellblocks, guards take bribes, and authorities are just getting around to blocking cell phone use, even in model prisons built in the 1990s as part of the country's war on drugs.
Photo: Officials say inmates at Puente Grande State Penitentiary outside Guadalajara are dealing drugs and planning to escape. By Guillermo Arias, AP
But chaos this week, including two inmate vendetta killings, have even Attorney General Rafael Macedo de la Concha admitting that problems have reached a crisis level.
"What is happening is that a breakdown is occurring due to corruption," Macedo de la Concha said soon after Arturo Guzman, brother of fugitive drug lord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, was shot to death by another inmate Dec. 31 at the top-security La Palma prison, just west of Mexico City.
Just a day after Macedo spoke, another inmate was shot to death — again with a smuggled pistol — at a prison in the western state of Michoacan.
La Palma is Mexico's showcase prison, but its warden was fired after the killing. He is being questioned in the death after failing to cooperate in the investigation.
It was the second assassination at La Palma since Oct. 6, when a prisoner gunned down another associate of Guzman's with a smuggled pistol.
Mexico City Mayor Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, an early presidential front-runner for the 2006 elections, said that "given the seriousness of the situation, the army should be brought in to temporarily take over the running of the prisons," a suggestion rejected by President Vicente Fox's government.
Jalisco Gov. Francisco Ramirez Acuna — whose state includes the second-highest security prison, Puente Grande — says he's had enough, and doesn't want any more dangerous federal inmates transferred to his state.
"They should keep them in La Palma and enforce adequate security there," Ramirez Acuna said.
In 2001, "El Chapo" Guzman himself escaped from Puente Grande by bribing guards. Prosecutors contend that Guzman and other drug lords practically ran the prison, putting guards on their payroll and smuggling in alcohol, drugs, prostitutes — even Viagra.
The credibility of prison officials has gotten so bad that on Thursday, when police beefed up a security cordon around Puente Grande, rumors flew that its highest-profile inmate had escaped — and the only way authorities could quell the rumors was to offer a video of him still in custody.
The inmate — Rafael Caro Quintero, serving a 40-year sentence for the torture-murder of a U.S. DEA agent — was among dozens of inmates moved to Puente Grande in August after evidence emerged of a planned jailbreak at La Palma.
Officials argue the fact the men are in jail at all is a testament to Mexico's increased anti-drug enforcement. But they acknowledge they are still dangerous.
"Some inmates, because of the economic power and organizational strength of their gangs, put prisons under a great deal of pressure," Macedo de la Concha said.
He said Osiel Cardenas, a suspected drug lord held at La Palma, "has made his presence felt and has tried to exert his power not only inside the prison but outside as well."
Organized crime prosecutor Jose Luis Santiago Vasconcelos acknowledged that Cardenas and accused trafficker Benjamin Arellano Felix had forged an alliance while locked up in La Palma to fight turf wars against interlopers like Guzman through gunmen acting on their orders on the outside.
Cardenas may have decided to fight inside the prison, as well.
For many years, authorities say drug lords continued to run their cartels from inside prison, either by using smuggled cell phones or passing orders through lawyers and relatives with visiting rights.
It was only recently that cell phone signals were blocked at La Palma, though they still work at Puente Grande. Officials say blocking equipment is being installed there.
"These guys want to keep carrying out their criminal activities and their confrontations with other gang leaders" inside prison, Macedo de la Concha said.
The crisis has led Mexican authorities to revive an island penal colony 70 miles off Mexico's southern Pacific coast that had been scheduled for conversion to a nature reserve.
Now, experts like Luis Jose Hinojosa suggest Mexico must turn to even more remote prison islands, like the Revillagigedo Islands, over 400 miles off the western Pacific coast.
Public Safety Secretary Ramon Martin Huerta, who oversees Mexico's prisons, concedes that "given the problems of overcrowding, underfunding, and corruption, we have to urgently restructure the country's prison system."
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