The Crisis inside Mexico's Prisons

During a routine patrol in Ciudad Juárez earlier this year, military police grabbed 35-year-old Juan Chavez on the street and hauled him off to the state penitentiary facility on the outskirts of this border city. They charged him with disturbing the peace and possession of drugs. Chavez also admits to being a member of Los Aztecas, a notoriously ruthless gang who work for the powerful Juárez cartel, which gives the authorities another reason for wanting him behind bars. "I'm innocent," says Chavez, standing in the prison block reserved for members of his gang. "But it doesn't really matter to them, does it?

Mexico's war on drug trafficking has led to the arrest of more than 70,000 people in the past three years. Now the nation's prisons, which were already considered overcrowded, are on the brink of chaos. More than 200,000 criminal suspects and convicts in Mexico are now being held behind bars, creating conflicts between rival gangs and potentially fostering new criminal networks, experts say. The Mexican government is building new maximum-security prisons devoted to members of organized crime, but they won't be ready for at least two years. "One day, it's going to explode," says Jaime Cano Gallardo, the warden of the state maximum-security prison in Matamoros, Tamaulipas, on the border with Texas.

Inmates have staged dozens of violent jailhouse riots and uprisings so far this year. In February, Cano Gallardo watched helplessly as inmates from rival gangs attacked each other in a prison courtyard in Tamaulipas. By the time the Army and federal police arrived, two inmates had died and more than 30 were injured. On Aug. 15 at the state prison in the northern state of Durango, rival gang members used smuggled guns and other weapons to attack one another, leaving 20 inmates dead and 26 injured. Similar riots in Juárez, Tijuana, Veracruz, and Reynosa have put the authorities on edge. And in the most brazen prison break since drug lord Joaquin (El Chapo) Guzman snuck out of a maximum-security facility in a laundry cart in 2001, 53 alleged drug traffickers went free in May after they were escorted out of the prison in Cieneguillas, Zacatecas by criminals masquerading as federal agents.

The Ciudad Juárez state facility, where Juan Chavez is being held, is at the epicenter of the problem. Located on a key drug-smuggling route to the United States, it holds criminals from all the major gangs and from all corners of the country. In March, a riot broke out between members of Los Aztecas and a rival group. Four prison guards were taken hostage. By the time the Army arrived, 20 inmates were dead and dozens more injured.

Mexico's correctional facilities have become breeding and training grounds for criminals. Shortly after the Ciudad Juárez riot, prison officials built a huge wall separating the two gangs' cell blocks and began patrolling the grounds 24 hours a day. Although the wall may keep the major gangs separated, it leaves the vast array of rival arms traffickers, drug smugglers, and other criminals free to mingle. One 22-year-old woman inmate in a Mexico City prison, who asked that her name not be used, says she has made "wonderful" contacts on the inside, including connections with members of Los Zetas and other organized-crime groups, whom she calls from one of the three mobile phones she keeps hidden in her cell. National Human Rights Commissioner José Luis Soberanes has denounced the nation's lockups as "schools of crime."

The arrests have slowed Mexico's gangsters, but haven't stopped them. Even while under lock and key, many criminals have maintained a startling ability to control their enterprises on the outside. Rights-commission investigations have revealed that drug bosses live like kings in special cell blocks, with access to almost anything. When El Chapo was in a maximum-security jail in the 1990s, he and his cohorts purportedly met with prostitutes and had their pick of drugs. Another capo, Osiel Cárdenas Guillen of the Gulf drug cartel, allegedly ran his operations for years before he was extradited to the United States, where he now awaits trial. Given the availability of everything from cell phones to drugs to other contraband, including weapons, prisoners have been able to conduct all sorts of illicit activities. In late 2008, inmates at several Mexico City prisons conducted a spate of cell-phone kidnapping scams: an inmate would receive a phone call and be told to hand over a ransom for a kidnapped loved one (who in fact had not been kidnapped). Earlier this summer, police broke up a real kidnapping gang in Mexico City after finding that it was being run from inside the Reclusorio Sur prison. The operation was exposed by a local newspaper; one of the alleged kidnapping leaders, an inmate, called up the editors to refute the charges and deny the gang had cell phones inside—apparently with no sense of irony.

To deal with the crisis, the government is working on overhauling its judicial system to make trials quicker and fairer, and is considering implementing special drug courts and prisons that would expedite trials and separate drug traffickers from run-of-the-mill criminals. In the meantime, it is extraditing as many drug criminals as possible to the United States (about 100 each year) and building 12 maximum-security prisons by 2011. The United States is also designating a portion of its current anti-drug assistance to improving Mexico's penitentiaries.

The focus on maximum-security facilities, experts warn, is a disturbing trend because it threatens the nation's tradition of rehabilitation. Activists warn that the new prisons will trample on inmates' rights. In recent weeks, several congressmen have joined the outcry, expressing concern over Mexico's impending "Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo problem."

Many prison officials are working against the odds to maintain the rehabilitation ethos and preserve inmates' rights. Cano Gallardo, the warden of the state prison in Matamoros, boasts that his inmates have formed a crackerjack baseball team and sell their woodworking in regional markets. Officials at the Juárez prison, in a bid to maintain peace among its large and mixed population of inmates, have recently begun to encourage more family visits, conduct psychological testing on new inmates, and provide entertainment on weekends. On a recent weekend in the prison courtyard, a band performed narcocorridos, a genre infamous for lyrics extolling the exploits of Mexico's drug traffickers. As the song blared an ode to El Chapo the drug boss, one prison official eyed members of the rival Los Aztecas gang. "Be careful," he said. "It barely takes anything to set them off."