Under Peña Nieto, prison incidents have doubled and escape attempts are on the rise. Five federal penitentiaries have been witness to jailbreaks in the past three years with Joaquín Guzmán's being the 12th.
Joaquin Guzman became the third prisoner to successfully escape from a federal prison since Enrique Peña Nieto took office in December 2012 as jailbreaks have increased under the new administration.
From 2002 through 2012, only one prisoner successfully escaped from a federal penitentiary. In 2011, there were 12 separate attempts to get out of the Islas Marias prison. Each one failed.
Incidents in federal prisons have increased over the past three years as well, nearly doubling in the first two years of Peña Nieto's term. An official count of riots, deaths, suicides and assaults rose by 95 percent in 2013 and 2014, in comparison with the final two years of the Calderon administration.
The Altiplano maximum security prison went nearly two decades without experiencing a breakout attempt until Guzman, "El Chapo," was tunneled out on Saturday, July 11.
Complicity in escapes
Official data from the federal prison administration system – whose director, Juan Ignacio Hernandez Mora, was fired after Guzman's breakout – reveals that five separate federal penitentiaries each witnessed one escape attempt during the past two years.
Overall, 12 different inmates made breakout attempts and three were successful. The other nine were stopped before getting outside the walls or recaptured shortly afterward.
The first jailbreak under Peña Nieto took place at the Islas Marias penitentiary on Feb. 22, 2013. The official report shows four inmates tried to escape from the minimum security prison located on the northernmost – and largest – of the Marias Islands archipelago in the Pacific Ocean. The incident began as a riot attributed to the reduction of food rations. The rioting inmates set fire to mattresses and cardboard as a literal smokescreen for the breakout attempt. The rioting left 25 inmates and guards injured.
The escape was foiled because boat landings had been stopped a few hours earlier unbeknownst to the four prisoners.
In 2014, three separate federal prisons were subject to escape attempts, one of which proved successful. The federal penitentiary located in Ciudad Juarez – No. 9 North – was the site of the successful jailbreak.
The latter incident took place on March 16, 2014, when a group of inmates climbed over the perimeter wall using hooks and ropes. The official report shows that at least three prisoners took part and two got away. The escapees were part of the Juarez Cartel enforcers known as "La Linea." The Federal Attorney General's Office (PGR) investigation resulted in the arrest of the warden, José Luis Armas Cuevas, and four guards. A federal judge released all five suspects a few days later citing a lack of evidence.
Other incidents that occurred in 2014 include two interrupted escape attempts, one each at prisons located in Veracruz and Sinaloa. Another prisoner was injured at the Guasave (Sinaloa) prison, but specifics about what happened are incomplete.
El Chapo's successful escape through a tunnel accessed in his shower make it five separate federal penitentiaries that were hit by breakout attempts during the first half of Peña Nieto's term and the third successful escape. Authorities believe prison officials were involved.
Juan Sanchez, the attorney representing the Altiplano prison guards detained for questioning in connection to El Chapo's escape, talks to reporters on Monday. Photo: Cuartoscuro
According to information culled from public information requests, during the Felipe Calderón administration there were 12 escape attempts at the Islas Marias prison – all in 2011 –and none were successful.
One successful jailbreak took place at Penitentiary No. 6, Southwest located in Tabasco. On May 26, 2011, convicted kidnapper/murderer Federico Alvarez Avila managed to get out by climbing over the perimeter wall using tools and equipment that had been left unattended during a remodeling project.
The PGR investigation accused warden Cesar Cue Busto and 14 guards but were unable to make the charges stick.
The rise in escape attempts is only one sign of a federal prison crisis. Violent incidents have also increased in recent years. Official data compiled by the Interior (Gobernacion) Secretariat form 2011 through 2014 indicate this clearly.
In 2011, there were 561 violent incidents at Mexico's federal prison installations but by 2014 that number had climbed to 1,262 cases. Comparing the final two years of the Calderon administration (2011-2012) with the first two years under Peña Nieto (2013-2014) serious incidents at prisons rose by 95 percent.
The incidents that occurred in 2014 involved a total of 2,459 inmates – the highest in the history of the current federal penitentiary system. Breakout attempts last year alone took place at three separate federal prisons, but riots were an all-too-common occurrence. Last year, official records show 779 separate riots involving 1,789 prisoners took place, leaving 70 people injured seriously.
Attacks on prison guards or visitors were the second-highest type of violent incident recorded at penitentiaries last year, with 349 cases identified. Murders are not specified as such, but six deaths were ruled suicides. Another 33 inmates died in prisons.
Those federal prisons seeing the most violent incidents were No. 4 Northwest in Nayarit (355), No. 13 South in Oaxaca (352) and No. 3 Northeast in Tamaulipas (339).
These events and El Chapo's escape cost Celina Oseguera Parra her job as director of the federal penitentiary system (she served from July 30, 2014, until her dismissal on Monday. Also sacked Monday were Juan Domingo Hernandez Mora, the federal penitentiary system administrator, and Altiplano prison warden Valentin Cardenas Lerma.
Research and reporting by Arturo Angel.