Latin America

Drug cartels “rule half of Mexico’s prisons,” new report reveals

Human rights study highlights government “indifference” to overcrowding and violence

Topo Chico prison in Monterrey, scene of a riot in February that left 49 dead.
Topo Chico prison in Monterrey, scene of a riot in February that left 49 dead.EFE

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More than half of Mexico’s prisons (54%) are effectively run by powerful drugs cartels, according to a report by the country’s National Human Rights Commission. “Inmates exercise control over the rest of the prisoners through violence,” reads the study, which blames cartel members for the Topo Chico riot in Monterrey in February in which 49 men were killed, some of them decapitated.

Mexico’s prison system could be described as an abyss on the point of collapsing in on itself and its population of 250,000 inmates. The government has repeatedly backtracked on promises of reform, while a draft bill to protect prisoners’ rights and improve conditions has been stalled for the last three years in Congress. Last year 2,110 violent incidents were reported, along with six full-scale riots, 23 alleged suicides, 55 cases of abuse, 54 murders, 250 acts of disorderly conduct and 1,382 brawls.

The facts do not allow us to conclude that the penitentiary system is  organized and operated on the basis of respect for human rights

Luis Raúl González Pérez, National Human Rights Commission president

In preparing its report, the National Human Rights Commission visited 130 of the country’s 359 jails, concluding: “The main deficiencies relate to the classification of accused or sentenced prisoners, overcrowding, lack of work activities and training... poor security and lack of escort personnel, as well as prevention of and attention to violent incidents, meaning there is not enough being done to prevent incidents such as brawls, injuries, escapes, homicides and riots.”

The commission found that 54% of Mexico’s jails are overpopulated, noting that in cells “where four inmates should be housed, there are sometimes up to 30,” adding that many jails have “privileged areas” ruled by cartels.

Infectious diseases, mental illness, the absence of “programs to prevent addiction and voluntary detoxification,” along with “deficiencies in facilities’ physical conditions and hygiene” all reveal the Mexican authorities’ chronic indifference, particularly in the states of Nayarit, Quintana Roo, Guerrero, Hidalgo and Tabasco, says the report.

“The facts do not allow us to conclude that the penitentiary system is fully organized and operated on the basis of respect for human rights, and where work, training, education, health and sports are the means for inmates’ rehabilitation to avoid them reoffending,” Luis Raúl González Pérez, the commission's president, notes.

English version by Dyane Jean François.

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