HomeNewsAnalysisSolving Mexico's Jailhouse Chaos

Solving Mexico's Jailhouse Chaos


Mexico's prison system is in crisis, with prisoners able to distribute drugs, smuggle weapons, throw parties and even arrange their “exits." Nexos magazine offers five suggestions for how to recover control over the system.

A new piece by analyst Eduardo Guerrero Gutierrez in Nexos magazine describes the variation in rates of imprisonment and the conditions within the penal facilities across Mexico. Interestingly, there is no clear correlation between a state’s infiltration by organized crime and the state of its jails. For example, the presence of the Sinaloa Cartel in Colima does not make that state’s prisons more likely to be under criminal control than, for instance, Mexico City, where the main drug trafficking networks have a smaller presence.

The piece, which supports recent analysis from InSight Crime, details different manifestations of the prison system's troubles, from mass escapes to massacres. Both have increased significantly in recent years, with scandals like the February mass killing and escape of dozens of inmates in Apodaca, Nuevo Leon.

As with a lengthy report on the same topic from Mexico Evalua, Guerrero’s article points to quality of life within the prisons as closely linked to the absence of legitimate authority in many of the nation’s prisons. In Mexico City prison, Guerrero explains, regular bribes to guards are vital for common inmates to enjoy many of the basic elements of common life.

Guerrero offers five possible solutions to this situation: 1) Creating an information system for the prison system, to address the many holes in the data; 2) Reducing overpopulation within the prisons; 3) Transferring federal prisoners to federal penitentiaries (many of the nation’s municipal jails are filled with federal inmates, which fuels both overpopulation and chaos in the undermanned local facilities); 4) Limiting the capacity of criminal groups to operate inside the prisons; 5) Reducing the margins of independent action by prison directors, to increase oversight and protect officials when they are under threat from inmates.

What follows is InSight Crime's transformation of extracts from the Nexos piece:

Upon analyzing the figures from the prison systems in the country, the disparity between how frequently the states resort to imprisonment is striking. For example, while in Baja California there are more than 519 prisoners per 100,000 inhabitants, in Tlaxcala there are just 67. These stark differences in the rate of imprisonment don’t seem to be linked to any causal factor; neither the level of economic development, nor the crime rate, nor the geographical location, nor the party in power explain why some states rely more heavily on prison than do others. Nor do the states with a greater presence of organized crime, as might be supposed, tend to imprison more people. For example, in Coahuila there are just 92 prisoners for every 100,000 inhabitants, in Mexico City there are 475. These figures suggest that the dependence on prison does not stem from the strategic use of coercion as a mechanism to reduce crime. Nevertheless, owing to the limited literature on the subject, it is remains necessary to identify the factors that determine the wide variations in the rates of imprisonment.

At the same time, there are no systematic statistics about the funds that the prisons receive (because in the budget outlays of various states' spending on social readaptation [a Mexican euphemism for prison] are not disaggregated). Nevertheless, the available information suggests that the critical situation in the prisons is a product of a lack of budget resources only in some cases. For example, in Mexico City there does indeed exist a severe problem of lack of resources (the annual budget per prisoner is just 40,000 pesos [$300], barely 112 pesos a day); and of overpopulation (the prisons in the city operate with 73 percent of their capacity). This lack of resources owes to the fact that, inexplicably, Mexico City has a prison rate 150 percent higher than the national average.

According to testimony from prisoners’ family members, in the prisons in Mexico City, the guards charge fees for various services, and the ability to pay determines whether or not the inmates have access to a minimal level of welfare. In these conditions, guaranteeing the welfare of a prisoner implies a catastrophic expense for households, and imprisonment contributes to perpetuating a vicious cycle of poverty and delinquency.

One factor that contributes to the overpopulation in prisons that is dramatically evident in Mexico City, and less so in several states, is the practice of ordering preventive imprisonment for the majority of people implicated in a criminal procedure. Stemming from this practice, and the duration of criminal procedures, roughly 43 percent of prisoners have not received a sentence.


Overpopulation and corruption that, as I described, prevail in the systems of social readaptation in various states, are factors that have allowed criminal groups to take control of prisons. This is a product of prisons operating with informal rules, with a system of payouts, and without an authority that defends the rights of prisoners or at least guarantees their physical integrity.

Another factor that fosters criminal control over the prisons is the incapacity of the authorities to exercise effective control over their access (the so-called “customs”). It has been documented that criminal organizations have the capacity to distribute drugs, smuggle weapons, throw parties and even arrange the “exits” of prisoners. Not even when the army takes over the external vigilance of the prisons, as is the case with Apodaca, Cadereyta and Topo Chico, in Nuevo Leon, has it been possible to establish real control over who enters and who leaves the prisons.

Finally, a third factor (linked to the previous two) that explains the current crisis is the discretion with which the personnel in the prison system exercise their functions. The shocking stories of criminal control over the prisons can only be explained by the lack of the most elemental supervision over their actions by the state governments and legislatures. The discretion of the penitentiary authorities also persists because of society’s indifference. The terrifying testimony of prisoners and their family members has not been until recently an important topic for media outlets, nor has the monitoring of the quality of life in the prisons been a high priority for the human rights conditions or the principal civil society groups.

This widespread discretion, paradoxically, is predicated on the weakness of the directors and other penal officials. Without a counterweight, the officials in the prisons find themselves alone against the criminals (both against bribery and threats). The officials cannot allege that they lack the capacity, or that “they’re going to be fired,” so as to deny the first demands of the criminals. Then they cannot deny even the excessive demands (such as to allow weapons to be smuggled in) because the criminals are already the ones who essentially exercise control over the prison.

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