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A series of fatal riots inside Mexican prisons last week and a deadly blaze at a penitentiary in Honduras are prompting calls for major penal reform in Central America.
Violence at three different penitentiaries in Mexico last week left 48 inmates dead, while the inferno in Honduras earlier this month killed 360 prisoners.
These deadly events underscore the problems of corruption, overcrowding, prison gangs and crumbling infrastructure that prisons face throughout the region.
The recent television images from Mexico and Honduras were strikingly similar, showing women clashing with police in riot gear outside prisons in both countries.
The women in front of the Apodaca prison, outside Monterrey in northern Mexico, hurled rocks at police, scaled a chain link fence, and chanted "We want justice." They demanded to know whether their loved ones inside were dead, alive or injured after a burst of violence inside the facility on Feb. 19.
According to state security officials, members of the Zetas gang massacred members of the Gulf cartel to create cover for a jailbreak. The two crime organizations are engaged in a bloody turf war in northern Mexico.
Overcrowded, Corrupt System
Last week, the state security spokesman for Nuevo Leon state, Jorge Domene Zambrano, announced the arrest of the warden and 28 guards from Apodaca for alleged involvement in the plot. Domene says it appears some guards gave keys to the Zetas so they could enter other cellblocks and attack their rivals.
The drug war has also placed new strains on what were already corrupt, crumbling prisons. Apodaca was built to hold 1,500 inmates but it currently holds 2,700.
The prison in Honduras that caught fire on Feb. 14 was packed to more than twice its original capacity.
"For at least two decades, governments in the region have virtually abandoned the prison system," says Jose Miguel Vivanco, director of Human Rights Watch's Americas division.
He says prisons throughout Latin America are underfunded, overcrowded and often controlled by the criminals inside their walls.
Twenty years ago, most human-rights abuses in Latin American jails were committed by guards, but not anymore, Vivanco says.
"Today, most of the abuses are from prisoners against other prisoners," he says.
Prisons have become lucrative postings for civil servants, Vivanco says. They collect bribes from the inmates they're supposed to control. A recent raid on a prison in Acapulco uncovered not only some inmates enjoying cells with flat-screen TVs but contraband ranging from firearms, drugs and in-house prostitutes to fighting roosters and even a flock of peacocks.
Human-rights activists say prison guards — underpaid and facing dangerous work conditions — are susceptible to bribery as well. Even those who aren't corrupt may still be coerced into acquiescing to inmates' demands, given the cartels' power to threaten, kidnap or kill guards and their family members. Already, several prison officials have been murdered, it's believed, on cartel orders.
Vivanco say throughout much of Latin America, governments have given up trying to rehabilitate or even control inmates. The main goal now is simply to contain the violence inside an institution's walls.
But after two violent riots at Apodaca and deadly incidents at two other Mexican state penitentiaries in January and February, authorities are clearly worried that the entire prison system could be about to explode.
President Felipe Calderon's interior minister pledged to make the full force of the federal government available to states as they attempt to deal with the surging prison violence. Calderon himself said the problem is a direct result of his administration's fight against organized crime.
Calderon said that to address the current crisis, his administration is building nine new federal prisons. Overcapacity at existing federal prisons has led to the incarceration of cartel members at state facilities such as Apodaca, which weren't necessarily intended for this kind of inmate.
In addition, federal authorities have started transferring what they say are some of the most violent members of the Zetas out of Apodaca to a maximum security facility in southern Mexico. They also plan to subject the remaining staff at the institution to "confidence" tests to try to weed out corrupt guards.