In one week Mexico has seen the army called in to break up a deadly riot in one prison, and the discovery of the severed head of an official from another, in signs of the spiralling chaos inside many of the country’s prisons.

The disturbances started in Cancun prison on Wednesday, with some 200 inmates rioting and throwing rocks to complain about service in the cafeteria. The situation only calmed hours later when soldiers and marines were called in, El Universal reports. (See video report below).

Authorities said that the riot was merely a pretext to kill an inmate who went by the nickname “El Piolin.” This follows the murder of three recently processed inmates who were stabbed to death last week, which El Piolin is believed to have witnessed.

Later reports said that the inmate who died was in fact known as “El Caguamo.”

Authorities also said that the Zetas and the Pelones are the two gangs operating within the prison, though they could not identify which group was behind the killings.

The Zetas have been considered the dominant gang in the region for a number of years. While the Pelones, who got their start as a wing of the Sinaloa Cartel, have operated in a number of southern states, they are a much less powerful group, both nationally and in Quintana Roo.

The riot in Cancun illustrates a broader problem in Mexico’s criminal justice system. Thanks in large part to the huge numbers of arrests produced by President Calderon’s push against organized crime, Mexico’s prisons are stuffed to bursting point. According to one recent report, the national system of prisons and jails is currently at 25 percent overcapacity. The Cancun prison, with some 1,200 residents, stands at 300 percent overcapacity, according to El Universal.

Largely as a result of this, corrections staffs are overwhelmed, and riots like the one in Cancun are frequent in Mexico. Many, in fact, are far more bloody. Nineteen prisoners were killed in a melee in Gomez Palacio, Durango in August, 2009; 20 more died in a similar fracas in a Juarez facility in March, 2009; and 23 inmates ended up dead after a riot in Durango, Durango in January 2010.

Mass escapes from Mexican facilities have also turned into a common occurrence. More than 56 alleged Zetas snuck out of a prison in Zacatecas, a north-central state, in 2009. Two mass escapes sprang 40 and 151 convicts, respectively, from two jails in the northeastern border state of Tamaulipas in 2010.

In the past couple of years, prison officials themselves have increasingly been targeted. In March, a prison director in Tamaulipas was stabbed to death while trying to recover control of the prison from dozens of brawling inmates. Earlier this week, a deputy director in Durango was kidnapped and later found decapitated. Prison directors and ex-directors in Michoacan, Sonora, and Nayarit, among other states, have also been killed.

While the status quo seems to scream for a larger number of prisons, Mexico’s efforts to expand the network of detention facilities have stalled. The government announced in 2008 that it would construct 12 new maximum-security prisons by 2011, but the plans have gone nowhere.

Idyllic Cancun has long been among Mexico’s safer big cities, with millions of foreign visitors lounging around the city’s tourist district, largely undisturbed by the bloodshed in the nation’s border region. However, because of its location — as the largest Mexican city in the nation’s Yucatan Peninsula, just a short flight across the Caribbean Sea from Colombia — Cancun is valuable territory for drug traffickers. As a result, evidence of organized crime has periodically cropped up not far from the nation’s most famous coastline.

In 1993, for instance, Amado Carrillo engineered the murder of his partner and rival Rafael Aguilar as he boarded a yacht on a Cancun dock, thereby taking control of the Juarez Cartel and turning himself into the most notorious capo of the 1990s. More recently, a group of Zetas were allegedly behind the murder of General Mauro Tello Quiñones in February 2009, just a few weeks after the retired officer had been hired to oversee the creation of an elite unit for the municipal police.

The region has long been associated with corrupt politicians in the pay of drug traffickers. In 2001, Mario Villanueva, the former governor of Quintana Roo, the state that houses Cancun, was arrested near the city after two years on the lam, and eventually imprisoned for six years on money laundering charges. Upon his release, Villanueva, whose flight from justice began in his final days as governor, was extradited to the U.S., where he faces charges of drug trafficking and money laundering. Gregorio Sanchez, the former mayor of Cancun and the man who hired Tello Quiñones, was arrested in May 2010 on charges of colluding with both the Zetas and the Beltran Leyva gang, and subsequently carried out an unsuccessful campaign for the Quintana Roo governor’s post while in jail.

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