In Juarez the Prison Inmates Run the Asylum

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Video from El Paso Times

On Monday, there was a riot in the Cereso state prison in Juarez and 17 people were killed. The prison is divided between the Sinaloa and Carrillos Fuentes cartels with the various cartel gangs separated in different wings of the prison. The Mexicles are in one section, the Aztecas in another. The nicest wing of the prison is run by the powerful Sinaloa Cartel. Before the bloodshed began, prisoners were allegedly participating in an “orgy” with prostitutes and underage girls.

The El Paso Times elaborated on it further, “Officials on Wednesday confirmed witness accounts that before the violence broke out, there was a party in the Aztecas area of the Cereso that involved sex, drugs and alcohol. Witnesses told police that several teenage girls and prostitutes were at the party, and that Cereso prison officers also attended.

Officials said officers that night encountered a 15-year-old girl who had been held illegally at the Cereso since June 24.”

The fighting, or rather massacre, happened in the Aztecas wing of the prison, where men work for the Carrillo Fuentes cartel. Video footage from the prison shows masked men with semiautomiatic wepaons being let into the prison wing by guards. Mexican officials attributed the shooting to the Artistas Asesinos and Mexicles gangs, which collaborate with Chapo Guzman’s Sinaloa Cartel, according to the El Paso Times.

How could a prison be in such anarchy? Recently, I visited the Juarez jail and got a pretty good idea why. Increasingly, across Mexico powerful cartel bosses are running the prisons. While not a new concept in Mexico, prison “self rule” where the criminals run the prison is increasing in the country, USA Today reported in April. These days, jails are recruiting grounds for cartel gunmen. When cartel bosses are in need of more gunmen in their battles over smuggling territories they send a convoy to the jail to pick up inmates. Ironically, Mexican taxpapers, who pay for these prisons, are picking up the tab for feeding and housing the cartels’ recruits.

Following is a short piece in this month’s Observer on my visit to the Juarez jail:

 

It’s visitors day at the state jail in Juarez. The first tip-off that something is amiss is the sight of a young woman in black hot pants quickly being ushered inside. She’s escorted by prison guards past a line of family members patiently waiting in the broiling mid-day sun. Turns out she’s a prostitute ordered up by an inmate.

Criminals run the Juarez jail and money can get you anything you want. The nicest part of the prison is run by the Sinaloa Cartel. Inside the white stucco fortress are two restaurants, a hair salon, a store, carpentry workshops and even a cockfighting ring. The Sinaloa wing of the prison is overseen by a man the prisoners refer to as “The Assassin,” alleged to have killed at least 200 people.

With so many enemies on the outside, The Assassin is seldom seen roaming the prison. Bodyguards keep a close watch over the floor where he lives. The Assassin runs his section of the jail like a small-town mayor. He recently ordered the construction of a petting zoo with ducks, rabbits and goats for kids to play with on family days. He also instigated the planting of a garden plot with corn and beans.

Under a shaded portico, women chat with their husbands at picnic tables, eating snacks and drinking sodas as children run around the courtyard. Some children play video games. At a prison restaurant called “The Dwarf” (after the proprietor), I order a plate of beef flautas and a Coke. The owner and his wife prepare the food while their five-year-old daughter runs in and out of the kitchen. A TV on top of the refrigerator drones with a popular soap opera.

After lunch I tour the carpentry workshop. The barn-like room is stocked with wood and tools for furniture making. An older Mennonite man, serving time for transporting marijuana, plays dominoes at a card table with his wife and kids. I say “good afternoon” to a short, hunched man holding a broom and he nods back. I’m later told that he killed 20 women.

In Mexico, prisons run by criminals, often referred to as self-rule prisons, are on the rise. In a recent report by the National Human Rights Commission, the agency found self-rule in 37 percent of the country’s prisons—up from 30 percent in 2009. With so many jails being run by inmates, it’s not unusual for convicts to walk out the front door. Last year, in Mexico’s largest jail break in history, 153 men filed out of a Nuevo Laredo prison, boarded a yellow school bus and other vehicles in a cartel convoy and drove away. At the prison in Juarez, an inmate escaped after being carried out the front door in a piece of furniture. The guards never looked inside. 

Melissa del Bosque joined The Texas Observer staff in 2008. She specializes in reporting on immigration and the U.S.-Mexico border. Her work has been published in national and international publications including TIME magazine and the Mexico City-based Nexos magazine. She has a master’s in public health from Texas A&M University and a master’s in journalism from the University of Texas at Austin.