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MEXICO UNDER SIEGE

At least 140 escape prison in Nuevo Laredo

Officials give no details of the mass breakout in the border city, the latest in a string of escapes sometimes aided by corrupt prison guards. The inmates appeared to have fled through service entrances.

December 17, 2010|By Ken Ellingwood, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Mexico City — At least 140 inmates escaped from a prison in the violence-plagued border state of Tamaulipas, authorities said Friday.

The prison's director reportedly disappeared after the escape, which occurred Thursday night in Nuevo Laredo, the latest in a series of escapes across Mexico.

Antonio Garza Garcia, public safety secretary in Tamaulipas, told a radio station that the escapees probably had help from prison personnel. He said most of the inmates were being held on state charges but that 58 had been charged with federal crimes, a category that includes drug trafficking and weapons offenses.

Garza said the inmates appeared to have escaped through service entrances. None had been reported captured by late Friday. An investigation was underway.

Mexico's Interior Ministry condemned the escape and what it called a failure by local authorities to prevent such incidents.

"The absence of effective measures of control and oversight by local authorities is deplorable, and has generated frequent escapes from prisons, putting the safety of communities at risk," the ministry said in a statement.

The breakout was another reminder of the troubled state of the nation's overcrowded and porous prisons, where graft is rampant and criminal gangs are essentially in command. Many times, escapes are aided by corrupt guards or prison officials.

In the northern state of Durango, a prison director was jailed in August on charges she had allowed inmates to leave the prison with weapons borrowed from guards to carry out attacks on rival drug gangs. The inmates then returned to the prison, in the city of Gomez Palacio, federal authorities said.

Tamaulipas, stronghold of the Gulf cartel, has seen several prison escapes. In September, 89 inmates clambered over the walls of a prison in Reynosa. In March, 40— most of them accused cartel members — were freed by gunmen in Matamoros.

Last year, gunmen helped 53 inmates flee a prison in the northern state of Zacatecas, as guards stood by.

The administration of President Felipe Calderon is seeking to improve the management of prisons through better vetting and training, aided by experts provided by the U.S. government. The efforts are part of a broader attempt to create a more reliable judicial system in Mexico at a time when the government is engaged in a controversial war against drug traffickers.

On Friday, as news broke of the most recent escape, top Mexican officials and American diplomats were attending a graduation ceremony of the federal prison-workers academy in the coastal state of Veracruz.

Genaro Garcia Luna, Mexico's public safety secretary, told graduates that the nation needs better prison guards and supervisors and that the expertise provided by U.S. trainers would help.

The number of inmates in the eight-prison federal system has exploded since Calderon launched a military-led offensive against drug traffickers four years ago. The federal prisons now hold 12,450 inmates, compared with 3,000 in 2006.

In other developments, a car apparently rigged with explosives blew up outside a police station in the border state of Nuevo Leon, injuring two people. There were no immediate arrests.

ken.ellingwood@latimes.com

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