INMATES UNDERCUT DRUG WAR
President's Efforts Stalled By Corruption
MEXICO CITY The drug traffickers' wives clicked through the halls of
Congress in high-heeled boots, glowering behind designer sunglasses. For several days, they had been barred from La Palma federal penitentiary, and they were upset that their usual privileges -- including conjugal visits -- had been suspended.
The visits were halted when the government sent hundreds of army troops, backed by tanks and helicopters, to take control of La Palma on Jan. 14, after federal officials learned that drug traffickers were running criminal empires from their cells in the maximum-security prison and ordering executions both inside and outside its walls.
But Gilberto Ensastiga, a congressman who listened to the wives'
complaints, agreed that all prisoners had the legal right to family visits, and accompanied them to a meeting with the national human rights commission. Privileges were restored the next day.
Even as President Vicente Fox vows to wage the "mother of all battles"
against drug traffickers, many criminal justice analysts say his efforts are being undermined by outdated laws, lenient penal policies and corruption inside the jails. As a result, one of Fox's proudest accomplishments in four years in office, putting an unprecedented number of drug cartel leaders behind bars, is turning into a crisis.
Drug-related violence, much of it directed by powerful inmates in La Palma, killed more than 100 people in January, according to federal officials. The war started when Benjamin Arellano Felix and Osiel Cardenas Guillen, two of the biggest traffickers in Mexico and leaders of competing drug cartels at the two ends of the U.S.-Mexico border, joined forces behind bars. Once archrivals, they became partners in La Palma, working out of adjoining cells.
Mexico's top organized-crime prosecutor, Jose Luis Santiago Vasconcelos, said the two inmates plotted against a third trafficker, Joaquin "El Chapo"
Guzman, who had escaped from another maximum- security prison in 2001 by hiding in a laundry truck. The resulting turf war has led to scores of executions, prompting U.S. officials to warn Americans of the "deteriorating security situation" along the Mexico border.
Miguel Angel Yunes, a top federal public security official, said sweeping changes were taking place at La Palma, just west of Mexico City. New employees were brought in after 105 of 148 guards flunked lie detector and drug tests. Federal officials also found cocaine and 27 cell phones inside the prison, an ultramodern center that had been the pride of Mexico's penal system, Yunes said.
Such disclosures have fueled a growing debate about the overall approach to criminal punishment. Mexico's justice system stresses rehabilitation; the death penalty and life sentences are outlawed on the theory that even the most violent offenders can be redeemed.
Almost 200,000 inmates are in 454 federal, state and local prisons, and at some, inmates' wives and children are allowed to stay overnight. Some prison yards resemble villages, with children riding bicycles and prisoners earning money by selling tacos or renting out videos.
Escaping from prison is not a crime in Mexico. There is no penalty as long as another crime, such as assaulting a guard, is not committed during an escape. As one Supreme Court justice has explained, "The person who tries to escape is seeking liberty, and that is deeply respected in the law."
A growing number of critics, however, question whether current laws and prison regulations, many dating back 70 to 80 years, can deal with the extreme violence caused by sophisticated modern-day drug cartels that ship billions of dollars worth of marijuana, cocaine and heroin into the United States.
Fox has proposed an overhaul of the prison and criminal justice system that would give police broader authority to investigate crime, rein in the excessive power of federal prosecutors, and reduce the system's notorious reliance on confessions obtained by torture. It would also give judges more flexibility to order restitution or community service for minor offenders.
The plan is now before Congress.