Seventeen inmates in the northeastern Mexican state of Tamaulipas tunneled out of a prison in Reynosa, offering another glimpse of a system that is struggling to keep up with the demands placed upon it by President Felipe Calderon’s aggressive anti-crime strategy.

While jails across Mexico are vulnerable, escapes in the state of Tamaulipas in particular have become an all-too-common occurrence. According to El Universal, five of the eight documented jailbreaks in 2010 took place in the state, which has become ground zero of an ongoing territorial battle between the Zetas and the Gulf Cartel. Almost 300 inmates escaped from the state’s jails in last year, with 141 of them slipping out of a prison in Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas in December.

Mass flights from prisons outside of Tamaulipas have also earned notoriety. The most famous was the escape of 53 alleged Zetas from a prison in Cieneguillas, Zacatecas in 2009; the prisoners’ collaborators on the outside showed up to the prison dressed as Federal Police agents, and marched the convicts out the front door.

The escapes are just one of a number of problems in Mexican prisons, all of them indicating a lack of governmental control over the jails. Roughly at the same time as the most recent Reynosa escape hit the news wires, the government in Chihuahua announced the discovery of a full bar in a low-security prison outside of the state capital, complete with several hundred bottles of tequila, vodka, and beer, as well as multiple pool tables.

While the bar example was extreme, stories of powerful inmates running roughshod over the ostensible prison bosses are legion. During his time in the maximum-security Puente Grande, from which he escaped in a laundry bin in 2001, Sinaloa kingpin Joaquin Guzman alias “El Chapo,” enjoyed dalliances with prostitutes and numerous other trappings of life on the outside. A few yeas later, former Gulf boss Osiel Cardenas spent almost four years inside of the maximum-security facility known as La Palma. While there, he continued to direct his organization and lead a vicious battle with Guzman’s group.

Violent deaths inside prisons have also become quite common. In May alone, prisoners have died in Nuevo Leon, Mazatlan, Cancun, and Durango. Frequent attacks against staff, from wardens on down through the hierarchy, have left prison personnel cowed. In one of the most notorious incidents, inmates at a prison in Gomez Palacio, Durango, were being allowed to leave during the night so as to carry out executions of their rivals.

Part of the problem stems from the increased size of the prison population, thanks in large part to Calderon’s aggressive crime policy. The tens of thousands of new inmates arrested on charges related to organized crime have overwhelmed the prison system; Mexico 429 prisons collectively suffer from 25 percent overcapacity. Furthermore, in an attempt to compensate, many prisoners arrested on federal organized crime and drug charges have been diverted to state and local prisons. As a result, many of the most dangerous criminals are doing their time in the facilities that are least capable of adequately controlling them.

While improving the prison system is thankless work — especially compared to the photo op-laden efforts to arm the police with new helicopters and firepower — a comprehensive fix to Mexican security without a concomitant effort to eliminate the criminal sanctuary inside the prisons is virtually impossible. The current pattern after a major jailbreak or riot is to send in federal troops to calm the situation and, where complicity is evident, arrest the warden and members of his or her staff. However, this amounts to little more than putting out fires; Mexico has not carried out an thorough examination of the fundamental drivers of the chaos in the nation’s prison system.

As in Mexico, many of the penal systems in Latin America have been overwhelmed by inmate populations far larger than maximum intended capacity. As a result, the ostensible authorities are unable to exercise control over the prisons, ceding it in many cases to the gangs organized behind bars. This, in turn, means that prisons are not centers for rehabilitation, but rather finishing schools for crimes.

Indeed, the problem is even worse elsewhere. Whereas in Mexico prisons have failed to interrupt gang activities, in Brazil and Central America, prisons have actively fostered the creation of new gangs and ensured the strengthening of existing groups. The “Primeiro Comando da Capital” (PCC), or First Capital Command, was founded by eight prisoners in a Sao Paolo prison in 1993. The group grew in potency both within the prison system and without, culminating in a series of violent acts in May 2006 which left 141 people dead. The PCC, which is now one of the principal criminal groups in the country, has carried out assassination of law enforcement personnel, judges, and other public officials.

The maras in Central America have also used stints in jail to further their power. The quantity of members of the two principal Central American gangs, MS-13 and Barrio 18, behind El Salvadoran bars spiked in the early 2000s thanks to the “mano dura,” or firm hand, policies of President Antonio Saca. But because rival gangs were initially housed in the same jails, which were now overflowing with inmates, the facilities suffered periodic explosions of violence.

In response, El Salvador separated the members of MS-13 and Barrio 18 into separate jails, and left them to their devices. This had the perverse effect of actually facilitating their activities. They were safer in their single-gang jails than they were on the street, and had more time to plan out new criminal enterprises. The maras began to branch out into kidnapping and extortion, with the illegal schemes largely controlled by the members of the gang in prisons.

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