'Cartels vie with each other for control’ in Mexican prison

Images of Cadereyta Jiménez during the riots of October 9 and 10.
Images of Cadereyta Jiménez during the riots of October 9 and 10.

A violent prison uprising last week in Nuevo León state in northeast Mexico resulted in 18 deaths, after inmates accused the establishment’s director of being linked to a cartel. There’s no evidence for the allegations – but it’s a typical scenario in Mexican prisons, where rival cartels vie for power and control.

The uprising started in the evening of October 9 after several inmates at Cadereyta Jiménez prison started fighting. This quickly escalated, with authorities reporting explosions and three separate fires. Aldo Fasci Zuazua, a spokesperson for the state of Nuevo León, said that police had managed to get the situation under control by the early morning. However, by the afternoon, fighting had broken out again, and about 150 prisoners set fire to their mattresses and rubbish bins and attacked police officers.

This video, filmed inside the prison on October 10, circulated on social media.

This video, filmed inside the prison on October 10, circulated on social media.

Eighteen prisoners died during the riot. Some of them were killed by police gunfire, while others were killed by fellow prisoners. Around thirty others including prisoners, police and prison staff were wounded.

Security forces forcefully entered the prison on October 10.

During the riot, prisoners unfurled banners with the slogan, "We don’t want director Z" – a reference to the Los Zetas cartel. The prisoners believe that the prison's new director, Edgardo Aguilar Aranda, is linked to this cartel, which is particularly active in the area. Prisoners were clamouring for Aguilar Aranda to step down. Their other demands included a call for living conditions inside the prison to improve.

The banner displayed by the rioters on October 10: “We don’t want director Z”. Photo published by Rey Elizalde on Twitter.

A riot had already broken out in this prison in March, resulting in four deaths.

"In this prison, there are members of at least three different cartels”

Rey Elizalde is a journalist who works in Nuevo León, for Radio Fórmula Monterrey and Televisa. Elizalde was present just outside the prison while the riots were taking place.

Very little information about the casualties was available while the riot was happening. No one knew how many deaths there were, who had been killed, or how. The families of the prisoners, who had come to the prison to find out what was going on, became frustrated with the authorities.

Angry families confronted the state prosecutor when he arrived at the prison on October 10.

People even broke the windows of Red Cross ambulances that had come to transport the wounded to hospital, because they wanted to know who had been hurt.

Family members broke the windows of Red Cross ambulances that had arrived at the prison on October 10.

In this prison, there are people from at least three different criminal organisations: the Gulf cartel, the Los Zetas cartel and the Noreste cartel. It’s not surprising seeing as these are the same groups that are in conflict with each other in the region. Inside the prison, I don’t know if one cartel has more power than the others, but there’s always a struggle for power between cartel members inside prisons.

In any case, we can probably assume that the prisoners who had that banner are from a rival cartel to the Los Zetas cartel. As far as I’m aware, this is the first time that a riot has broken out to try and make a prison director leave.

"There are problems in this prison"

Maïssa Hubert works at "Documenta", a Mexican human rights NGO. Her work focuses primarily on prisons.

The director of the Cadereyta prison has been working for a long time in both the local and federal penitentiary system. He was also the director of Altiplano, a high-security federal prison where El Chapo was imprisoned. During his tenure there, the National Human Rights Commission received a number of different complaints from prisoners about bad treatment in the prison and even torture. He’s also worked in prisons in the states of Tabasco and Jalisco. But this is all we know about him.

However, we do know that there have been problems in the prison where he’s currently the director, which have been reported by the National Human Rights Commission: a lack of controls on management, corruption, a dearth of staff, etc.

For criminal groups, it’s indispensable to be able to control the prison staff through corruption.”

According to a study by Maïssa Hubert and Elena Azaola from the Centre of Research and Higher Studies in Social Anthropology, 65 percent of state prisons (not to be confused with federal prisons) like the Cadereyta Jiménez prison are controlled by criminal groups – a figure that also came up in a government report published in April. This control is only made possible thanks to the high levels of corruption endemic in the prison system.

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Recently, a prison director was accused of collaborating with organised crime syndicates. Valentín Cárdenas Lerma was the director of the Altiplano prison when renowned Mexican drug lord El Chapo escaped in July 2015. Cárdenas Lerma was later sent to prison for his role in the escape.