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Mexican prisons on the verge of collapse, authorities warn

By Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)
January 2nd, 2013
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

Experts warn that Mexico's prison system is on the verge of total collapse. There are currently 429 prisons in Mexico. Of those prisons, 15 are run by the national government, 10 by the authorities in Mexico City's Federal District, 91 by municipal governments and the rest by the states.

LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) Statistics are uniformly grim. Studies indicate that the prison population is 22 percent, or around 40,000 prisoners -- over capacity. Even then, four out of 10 inmates are still pending sentencing. In an unheard of situation virtually unthinkable in other nations, prisoners awaiting trial are held in the same cells as convicted inmates.

Prisoners charged with serious felonies, such as federal crimes such as involvement in organized crime like drug trafficking, make up just one-fifth of the prison population.

A report by the United Nations Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture in 2009 warned about structural flaws in Mexico's penal system. The current infrastructure encourages abuses of all kinds committed with the aim of obtaining confessions or self-incriminating statements.

During former Mexican President Felipe Calderón six years in office, 2006 though 2012, the already heavy use of preventive detention became even more excessive during the crusade against local drug cartels.

The "Diagnóstico Nacional de Supervisión Penitenciaria," an assessment of the prison system presented by the governmental National Human Rights Commission in September, found that six out of 10 prisons in the country were co-governed to some extent by criminal groups.

The report named 10 prison hotspots in Mexico's 31 states. Between 2010 and 2012 alone, a total of 521 prisoners escaped in 14 separate attempts and 350 people were killed in two riots and 75 fights.

In particular, the Gómez Palacio Prison, which went through six different directors in less than three years, has been the site of high-profile escapes and acts of corruption.

A group of armed men wearing federal police uniforms walked into the prison in broad daylight and took five prisoners away with them in March of 2009.

In July 2010, Prison Director Margarita Rojas was arrested and accused by the attorney general's office of allowing inmates who later took part in a mass killing of 17 people on a nearby farm to leave the prison.

In addition, the guards there allowed a group of inmates to leave the prison at night, using the guards' weapons and official vehicles, to carry out reprisals against rival criminal groups.

The government of Durango announced on Dec. 21 the definitive closure of the Gómez Palacio prison, which will be converted into a police station.

Families are still desperately seeking information about what happened to the inmates.

"We are trying to help a group of women who came to us in a terrible state, in despair and full of fear for their loved ones," activist Verónica Villarreal of the Popular Workers Coordinating Council told IPS.

A version of this story was first published by Inter Press Service news agency.

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