A new report from Mexico’s National Commission on Human Rights documents the deplorable conditions in the nation's prisons, highlighting a fundamental obstacle to improvements in security.
The National Commission on Human Rights (CNDH) recently published its annual examination of Mexico’s prisons and jails, and the 585-page report offers a detailed radiography of the system’s many ills.
The CNDH measured the state and national prison facilities according to five categories: how well a facility protects the physical and moral condition of an inmate; whether it guarantees a dignified stay; the facility’s governability; its success in preparing inmates for societal readaptation; and whether it protects at-risk groups, like HIV-positive inmates.
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The state prisons secured an average rating of 6.02 out of ten, their lowest rating in the past four years. There was a great deal of variation in the scores, from a high of 7.59 in Guanajuato to a low of 3.66 in Quintana Roo. There was little correlation between a state’s ties to organized crime and the condition of its prisons. Violence riddled northern states like Sinaloa, Guerrero, Tamaulipas, and Nuevo Leon were all among the eight lowest scorers, but equally chaotic states like Chihuahua and Baja California both scored well above the national average. Similarly, some of the most peaceful states were among the worst performers.
The federal prisons, known in Mexico as "ceferesos,” generally scored higher and saw lower variation from one center to the next. The average score was a 6.83 out of ten, ranging from a score of 5.59 in a Ciudad Juarez prison to an 8.18 for a federal prison in Morelos.
While their scores were more constant, the federal prisons showed an enormous amount of variation in the populations housed within. Some of the most notorious prisons were drastically overpopulated, a long-term problem in Mexico. One prison in Sonora was designed for 2,520 inmates, but was housing nearly 3,500 the day of CNDH’s visit. The Juarez prison that stands at the bottom of the CNDH’s rankings was built for 848 inmates, but was home to 1,150. The Altiplano prison, from which Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman escaped earlier this year, has 1,140 people living in a space designed for 836. As Alejandro Hope has written, any prison that is so dramatically above its residency capacity has no hope of actually providing maximum security against escapes, massacres, or criminal activity within the prison, notwithstanding the label.
At the same time, many other federal prisons are nowhere near capacity.
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Mexico’s chaotic prison system remains one of the foremost obstacles to a safer nation. The most glaring example of the system’s defects is Guzman’s escape, but such cases are legion. In 2010, 191 prisoners slipped away from jails in Tamaulipas in two separate incidents. Thirty inmates escaped from a prison in Nuevo Leon during a 2012 riot, in which 44 prisoners lost their lives. In perhaps the most notorious recent incident prior to Guzman’s escape, more than 50 alleged members of the Zetas were filmed walking out of the front door of a Zacatecas prison in 2009.
Escapes are hardly the only manifestation of the jails’ breakdown. Mass killings inside the prison have been regular occurrences in recent years. In addition to the Nuevo Leon riot, since 2009 dozens of prisoners at a time have died in riots in Gomez Palacio on two occasions; in Juarez on two occasions; in Durango; in Mazatlan; and in Tamaulipas. No system that has hosted so many bloodbaths in such a short time period can be fulfilling its goals.
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Inmates often control the prisons to the degree that they can continue carrying out criminal activities from behind bars. Many virtual kidnapping rings -- which falsely attempt to convince their targets that a loved one has been kidnapped so as to secure a ransom payment to be deposited into a bank account -- operate from behind bars. There are also several examples of top drug kingpins retaining control over their empires despite living behind bars, which has been one of the justifications for increased extraditions to the United States in recent years.
Unfortunately, there has been little sustained effort to improve Mexico’s prisons. Former President Felipe Calderon pushed to construct new prison facilities, but it does not appear that his efforts actually led to a substantial increase in capacity nationwide. It also seems that prison reform lacks any dedicated support within the Peña Nieto administration.
Unfortunately, as the CNDH report makes clear, there is lots of work left to be done.