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In a struggling Mexican prison, inmates ran their cell blocks

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MEXICO — A violent prison break in which 30 inmates escaped and 17 people – mostly guards – were killed revealed a shocking level of prisoner autonomy inside the jail in the border town of Ciudad Juarez, northern Mexico.

Not only were the criminals able to smuggle guns, drugs and luxury goods into Prison Number 3, but they actually held the keys to certain sections of the facility, located across the border with El Paso, Texas.

“It was obvious that the inmates themselves were practically responsible for security and that in some cell blocks they had the keys to common areas, such as classrooms or cafeterias,” said Néstor Manuel Armendáriz, president of the Human Rights Commission in the north of the country. State of Chihuahua.

Searches after Sunday’s uprising and prison break revealed 10 “VIP” cells equipped with televisions and other amenities. One of them even had a safe full of cash. Authorities also found cocaine, methamphetamine, heroin, fentanyl and marijuana inside the prison, and they found 14 firearms just outside.

But Armendáriz said supposed searches in 2021 found none of that.

Ten of the dead were prison guards who were attacked by gunmen who arrived early Sunday in armored vehicles and fired at the entrance and inside the dormitories. The other seven dead included two police officers and five suspected attackers.

The prison warden was fired on Tuesday and 191 detainees deemed to be at high risk were moved out of the overcrowded prison.

The inmates who escaped were identified as members of the Mexicles gang; the leader of the Mexicles, who was serving time for murder and other crimes, was among the fugitives. The Mexicles were one of the main gangs in Juarez for decades and for many years were known to work with the Sinaloa Cartel.

At the time of the escape, Prison Number 3 held 4,000 inmates, 23% more than it was supposed to hold. As is common in Mexican prisons, those awaiting trial – 90% of inmates at the Ciudad Juarez facility – are mixed with convicted felons.

Despite the prison’s long history of problems, authorities prefer to turn a blind eye, said Saskia Niño de Rivera, who leads the incarceration reform group Reinserta.

“Security is totally politicized, because prisons don’t earn you political points”, Niño de Rivera.

The problem is particularly sensitive in Ciudad Juarez, where local gangs work for drug cartels and any violence inside prisons can quickly spill out onto city streets.

This happened in August when a riot inside the same state prison spilled into the streets of Juarez in violence and left 11 people dead.

She said Sunday’s riot “is a clear example of what is happening in a large number of Mexican prisons, which are completely forgotten by the authorities and completely out of control.”

In 2016, 49 inmates were killed in a riot at the infamous Topo Chico prison in the northern border state of Nuevo Leon. Investigators discovered that the prison was full of contraband and weapons. The state government finally shut it down in 2019.

Mexico has a prison population of approximately 226,000 people, many of whom are held in overcrowded conditions in prisons without sufficient guards. The problem is fueled by policies that allow, and in some cases require, suspects to be detained for a wide variety of crimes for long periods before trial.

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