By Daniela Pastrana
Edgar Torres Castillo, 21, has spent two years in the prison of Gómez Palacio, in the Lagunera district between the northern Mexican states of Durango and Coahuila – an arid zone known as one of the most dangerous parts of the country.
Amparo Castillo, the mother of Edgar, who was sentenced to eight years in prison for stealing a cell-phone, last saw him during a Dec. 18 visit to the prison. “I thought he was acting strange, he seemed really sad and as if he had been hurt,” she told IPS by phone. “We spent just an hour together before they started to shoo us out – things were really tense,” she said with anguish in her voice.
In the wee hours of the morning on Dec. 17, the police transferred 137 prisoners from the Gómez Palacio prison to federal penitentiaries.
The next day, at the end of the visiting hours, people living in nearby homes heard loud bursts of gunfire and cries inside the prison. The authorities reported that 25 prisoners and six unarmed guards had been killed during an escape attempt.
In a communique, the Durango police said the prisoners had opened fire on the guards when they were thwarted in their attempt to escape.
Later, the federal government emptied out the prison, where 78 people have been killed in the past three years and several major prison escapes have been staged. At the time it was emptied, there were 500 inmates left in the prison.
Like other family members, Castillo went to the prison after the reports of gunfire, to find out what happened. When little information was offered, the prisoners’ relatives held protests and set up roadblocks. “We didn’t even know if they were alive or not,” she said.
The bloody clash between prisoners and guards was one more illustration of the crisis plaguing Mexico’s prison system, which experts say is on the verge of total collapse.
There are 429 prisons in Mexico, according to the latest report by the ministry of federal public security. Of that total, 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.
Studies indicate that the prison population is 22 percent (around 40,000 prisoners) over capacity. In addition, four out of 10 inmates are still pending sentencing. But prisoners awaiting trial are held in the same cells as convicted inmates.
Those charged with or convicted of federal crimes, generally for involvement in organised crime like drug trafficking, make up just one-fifth of the prison population.
After a visit to 24 prisons around the country in 2009, a report by the United Nations Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture warned about structural flaws in Mexico’s penal system, which encourage abuses of all kinds committed with the aim of obtaining confessions or self-incriminating statements.
The already heavy use of preventive detention became even more excessive during the crusade against the drug cartels waged by President Felipe Calderón (2006-2012) in his six years in office.
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 warns of prison hotspots in 10 of Mexico’s 31 states. Between 2010 and 2012 alone, a total of 521 prisoners escaped in 14 prison escapes, and 350 people were killed in two riots and 75 fights.
The prison of Gómez Palacio, which went through six different directors in less than three years, has been the site of high-profile escapes and acts of corruption.
In March 2009, a group of armed men wearing federal police uniforms walked into the prison in broad daylight and took five prisoners away with them. In July 2010, the then director of the prison, 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.
According to the federal government, the guards 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.
But that was not the only case. Jorge Carvallo, president of the bar association of the state of Mexico, next to the capital, reported in November 2010 that prisoners, with the complicity of the state police, were allowed to leave the Barrientos prison at night to commit armed robberies.
The government of Durango announced on Dec. 21 the definitive closure of the Gómez Palacio prison, which will be converted into a police station.
Meanwhile, the 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 ondes,” activist Verónica Villarreal of the Popular Workers Coordinating Council told IPS. Her group provided shelter to a group of women who came to the capital of the state, four hours from Gómez Palacio, in search of information.
Since Dec. 19, Amparo Castillo has been on a vigil outside the Durango prison, hoping to see her son. “They haven’t told us anything, we don’t know how they are. We only know that they took some to prisons in other states and that others are here, but they told us we’ll only be able to see them in four weeks.
“There’s no law here, people have been tried and convicted without evidence. And now it’s easy for them just to shut down the place; they don’t think of the expenses that represents for us. My son didn’t steal the cell-phone, but in any case, I have already paid it off. What do they want? It wasn’t something that deserved eight years in prison, or to have to go through all of this,” she said.