The scene outside Mexico's main maximum security prison, Las Palmas, on the outskirts of Mexico City, was slightly surreal this week. A dozen and a half Mexican Army tanks surrounded the complex for six days -- leaving Wednesday afternoon -- and they were joined by hundreds of Federal Preventive Police (PFP) and soldiers both searching the prison and guarding it from assault by the hundreds of prisoner family members who gathered outside the walls to protest the heavily-armed incursion.
The highly unusual event -- like the US Army, the Mexican Army is tightly restricted in what law enforcement activities it can undertake -- came as a festering crisis within the Mexican government over its lack of control of the prison came to a head after the assassination of a leading drug trafficker's brother inside the prison late last month. La Palma is home to some of Mexico's most powerful drug traffickers, most prominently Osiel Guillen, head of the so-called Gulf Cartel, one of two strong drug trafficking groups engaged a bloody war for control of the lucrative trade in cocaine, methamphetamine, heroin, and marijuana to the United States.
With opposition politicians calling for the head of Mexico's Secretary of Public Safety in the wake of the assassination and reports that narcos had virtual control of the prison, the government of President Vicente Fox moved to regain control with a display of overwhelming force. La Palma was shut down to visitors for six days as soldiers and police swept through its interior searching for weapons, cell phones, and other contraband and transferring some leading narcos to other maximum security prisons across the country. (The Mexico City newspaper La Jornada reported Thursday that similar operations to regain control had gotten underway this week at two other maximum security prisons, Puente Grande in the state of Jalisco and Matamoros in the border state of Tamaulipas.)
Early in his now five-year-old administration, President Fox and some of his high advisors talked out loud about the need to rethink drug prohibition, in large part because of the corrosive, corrupting impact of the powerful Mexican drug organizations on the state, from the lowest policeman to the highest functionary. (A La Jornada editorial cartoon this week showed soldiers in tanks surrounding the prisons, with one saying, "But we have to stay strong. Otherwise they will attack us with cannonballs made of $50,000 bills.) But such talk was fleeting, as Fox and his government, eager to please his gringo amigo, US President George Bush, settled down into the drug war status quo. The Mexican government has claimed some successes in its drug war, disrupting, for example, the Arrellano Felix brothers' organization, but such successes have only bred new rounds of violence as surviving trafficking groups fight to control the lucrative "plazas," or franchises previously controlled by those who fell to the government.
Indeed, a new round of fighting among drug traffickers has left hundreds dead last year and dozens more so far this year, including three alleged narcos and a policeman all executed Wednesday. La Palma prisoner Cardenas Guillen, who is alleged by government figures to run his organization from his cell, has allied himself with remnants of the Arrellano Felix group, whose leaders, the brothers Benjamin and Francisco, are also prisoners at La Palma. In a process of consolidation that has seen major Mexican drug trafficking organizations sink from seven to two, Cardenas Guillen and the Arrellano Felix brothers are up against the group led by Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, himself a former prisoner who escaped in 2001 and has managed to stay free ever since, despite repeated reports that he frequently crosses into the US. It was the Guzman's brother whose murder inside La Palma, purportedly at the hands of a Gulf Cartel hit man (with the assistance of prison officials) precipitated the government's effort to regain control of La Palma.
As part of that effort, the Mexican government has transferred dozens of prisoners to other prisons, including the notorious Rafael Caro Quintero, who is doing 90 years for the 1986 murder of US DEA agent Enrique Camarena. But because of quick action by high-powered lawyers, who sought court orders to block such moves against their clients, Cardenas Guillen, the Arrellano Felix brothers, and Gilberto "El June" Garcia Mena, remain in their home away from home at La Palma.
And for powerful, well-connected figures like the cartel leaders, prison could have all the comforts of home -- especially when they could easily buy-off prison guards and officials. According to the undersecretary for Public Safety, Miguel Angel Yunes, privileged prisoners like Cardenas Guillen and the Arrellano Felix brothers had access to cell phones and other communications equipment, with which they continued to operate their business enterprises from inside the walls. Prostitutes, both male and female, were also available, as were fine meals and luxurious consumer goods, such as plasma TVs, not to mention drugs of all sorts.
The Mexican National Commission on Human Rights has, in a series of reports over the last four years, documented the special privileges available to wealthy narcos and the attendant corruption necessary to make it happen. Interestingly, commission head Bernal Guerrero, in a Thursday interview with La Jornada, suggested that such privileges helped keep a lid on potential problems inside the prison. "We believe that there are no riots inside because the prisoners with power can gain special privileges, and they, being satisfied with the facilities that allow them to keep operating, do not create circles of tension in the prisons." Still, said Guerrero, such privileges have their downside. "Nevertheless, this could result in the escape of important prisoners, who have these means of communication and could use them to arrange their escapes."
Three narcos in the Islas Marias prison off the Pacific Coast did just that, even as police and soldiers swept into Las Palmas over the weekend. Mexican officials have arrested the prison director and one guard in that incident, and are investigating others.
One of the most striking elements of this week's confrontation over control of the prisons was the arrival of an estimated 800-1000 family members and supporters of the narcos at the prison gates, which they blockaded for 11 hours Tuesday in a standoff with ranks of PFP police and soldiers. While violence threatened to flair on a couple of occasions as demonstrators demanded access to their relatives, tempers cooled and the protest remained peaceful.
They may not all have been family members and supporters. According to La Jornada, the crowd arrived in five buses from the border state of Tamaulipas, home of the Gulf Cartel, and was lodged in downtown Mexico City hotels. Who was paying for all this was not clear, but the obvious suspect is Osiel Cardenas Guillen. One member of the crowd told La Jornada people were being paid $100 to come along, whether they were family members or not.
While Mexican authorities have apparently succeeded in retaking control of La Palma for now, the problem of corrupt prison officials is endemic, and it is likely that after the heat dies down, matters will soon return to usual inside.
Things have settled down late this week. The Mexican government claims it is back in control of the prison and is sorting out which prison employees will be fired or arrests for complicity with the narcos. But as long as drug prohibition remains in place, there will be new opportunities for the narcos to enrich themselves and new functionaries to corrupt.