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NEWS ANALYSIS : Mexico Has Become Prisoner of Its Own Prison System : Law and order: Overcrowding and the ready availability of weapons have led to a growing number of violent uprisings.


MEXICO CITY — Lax security and a violent, affluent drug culture have combined to create a crisis in Mexico's already troubled prison system.

Although the surrender Thursday of a drug baron-inmate who had controlled Matamoros prison ended a two-week siege of that border institution, the incident contributed to what has become a pattern of jail uprisings across Mexico.

Inmates in Leon, a city in central Mexico, rioted the week after the Matamoros uprising. Violence was threatened last weekend in another jail protest in the farming community of Zitacuaro.

Although prison riots are hardly a new phenomenon in Mexico, overcrowding and the ready availability of arms have contributed to the number and violence of such incidents. Americas Watch, a respected human rights group, called Mexico's prisons "a powder keg" in a report it issued two months ago.

Sweeping arrests of drug dealers have worsened prison overcrowding. They have put powerful, wealthy inmates behind bars but not necessarily under authorities' control. At the same time, they have done little to stop the flow of drugs through Mexico to the United States.

Senior Mexican government officials privately predict that Ignacio Morales Lechuga, the newly appointed attorney general, will lead a major prison reform, including dismissals that could reach as high as governor's mansions in some states.

"There will be no impunity for anyone," Morales Lechuga said Thursday in his first news conference. His office's first priority will be investigating charges of corruption surrounding the Matamoros prison riot that left 18 dead, he said, adding that he also plans more frequent inspections of prisons where federal prisoners, including drug dealers, are held.

Meanwhile, opposition politicians and other observers say the system itself--not the prisoners--is to blame for problems.

The riot at the Leon prison, for example, highlighted the lack of security at prisons in the state of Guanajuato, said Salvador Echeveste, a state deputy and member of the rightist National Action Party, known here by its Spanish initials as PAN.

In Leon, convicts took four visitors hostage and briefly controlled the penitentiary after guards fired into a prison dormitory, wounding one man. The guards admitted that they had fired into the dorm during target practice.

"What happened in the prison at Leon is a faithful reflection of what goes on in all jails, where drug- and liquor-smuggling, abuses and fighting are the order of the day," said Luis Alfonso Mendez Lara, columnist for the local edition of El Sol, a major Mexican newspaper chain. "The government has been incapable of designing a strategy to rehabilitate prisoners because all it does with them is pile them up in unhealthy, puny, unsafe and corrupt jails."

The Democratic Lawyers National Front, an association of private attorneys, also recently went on record calling the whole prison system corrupt.

The problem of prison corruption has been worsened by Mexico's war against drugs. It has increased the number of inmates and the money floating around jails, cash often funneled from the lucrative narcotics trade. Americas Watch has reported that overworked, poorly trained, underpaid guards find bribes difficult to resist.

It noted that the prison in the western state of Nayarit--the site of a 1988 riot--holds nearly double its capacity of 650 prisoners; half of its inmates were convicted of drug-related offenses.

Major drug dealers have learned to take advantage of the prison system in all manner of ways. For example, most of the 91 poor Huichol Indians who shared a single cellblock in the Nayarit prison had been convicted of growing marijuana for non-Indian bosses. "As soon as their crops were harvested, they were turned over . . . by their corrupt bosses and sentenced to grueling seven-year terms," Americas Watch reported.

When drug lords are imprisoned, the problems for their jailers and fellow inmates grow even greater, as occurred in Matamoros, where Oliverio Chavez--reported to be a major contact for the Medellin cocaine cartel--and his bodyguards seized control of the prison, which was built for 250 inmates but houses 1,242.

They took over after another inmate tried to kill the 33-year-old Chavez, starting a riot in which 18 prisoners were killed. Despite his wounds, Chavez reportedly celebrated in style Tuesday, the date dedicated to his patron saint; as riot police stationed outside the gates watched, trucks of food, drink and musicians entered the prison. Two days later, he surrendered to Asst. Atty. Gen. Federico Ponce and was brought to Mexico City in a government plane under heavy guard.

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