Latin American Prison Deaths: No Mere Coincidence

by Robert Valencia

Latin America’s prison system is once again the harsh glare of the international spotlight. A horrific prison fire killed nearly 360 inmates in the Honduran city of Comayagua on February 14th. Only five days later, in Mexico, 30 alleged members of the Zetas drug cartel escaped from the Monterrey-based Apodaca prison and killed 44 prisoners who apparently belonged to the rival Gulf Cartel. Though these two incidents are separate, they are both a reflection of the socioeconomic realities in Mexico and Central America. The region lacks an adequate security infrastructure, is awash with corruption, plagued by ineffective fund distribution, and racked by drug violence. Governments like Mexico’s have responded by exerting real pressure on drug cartels by seizing tons of cocaine and funneling tens of thousands of servicemen. Nevertheless, according to a report by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime released in late February, these efforts are counterproductive since they are stretching the resources of many countries, leading to over-crowded and poorly run prisons that still allow organized crime to operate behind bars. Such strained conditions have angered prisoners, making them resent the state even more.

There are still unresolved puzzles in both the Apodaca and Comayagua cases. According to official sources, the Comayagua jail conflagration was accidental, purportedly caused by a prisoner who fell asleep while smoking—a theory supported by the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives. What still remains unclear, however, is the prison officers’ decision to block the entrance of firefighters into the prison for 30 minutes after their arrival. The guards claim that they feared a massive escape whereas others say that the officials who actually had the keys to the jail cells were not present. In the case of the Mexican riot, where 30 inmates succeeded in escaping the Apodaca penitentiary, four senior officials and 18 prison officers have been dismissed for possible complicity in the escape and are now being investigated.

Certainly, too often we hear about cases of jail riots in other Latin American countries like Brazil, Chile, or Venezuela, but the security predicament in Central America and Mexico is fueled by the “War on Drugs.” As Honduran President Porfirio Lobo carries on a “full and transparent” investigation, he seems unaware of a staggering figure: The Comayagua prison held 900 inmates—twice its capacity—while Honduras has around 13,000 inmates in a system that officially has a capacity of only 8,000. Yet, life on the streets doesn’t seem to be safe either: The United Nations ranked Honduras as the world's most violent country with 82 homicides for every 100,000 people.

The misuse of budget allocation in rural areas and smaller conurbations in Latin America does also not allow for infrastructure remodeling. Many of the prisons in the region still rely on facilities that were designed in the early 20th century, when the crime rates were relatively low and the transnational cocaine trade from South America was nonexistent. To make matters worse, corrupt and heavy-handed police equally contribute to an already unstable situation.

Besides the alleged bribery of Apodaca jail guards, in 2011 Human Rights Watch documented 234 cases of “killings, torture, forced disappearance, and other acts of violence” allegedly committed by Mexican security forces in several states. Tegucigalpa, for example, has reported similar cases of police abuse and corruption, and there have even been incidents of jail guards allowing inmates to use cell phones and weapons. The overstrained and dysfunctional condition of prisons in other Central American countries can trigger the same outcomes as the ones evidenced in Comayagua and Apodaca. As of early 2012, El Salvador reported about 25,400 convicts in 19 penal centers that only have a capacity for a total of 8,100 inmates. Guatemala, which attempted to change its Prison System Law in 2006 by banning wealthy inmates from being able to acquire alcohol, satellite TV, drugs, and prostitutes, still copes with cases of corruption and prison riots. 

In light of this security quagmire, Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina proposed to his Central American counterparts to legalize drugs and decriminalize cocaine transportation throughout the region in order to tackle the issue with reduce prison overpopulation Some presidents like El Salvador’s Mauricio Funes are in fact already contemplating such an idea.The proposal comes on the heels of a report that was published by the Latin America Initiative on Drugs and Democracy last year, which outlined the failure of the “War of Drugs,” a term coined by President Richard Nixon 40 years ago. Even more pressing, however, is the fact that the U.S. government is considering reducing the drug control funds it currently provides to Mexico and Guatemala.

While the idea of decriminalizing drugs is gaining some clout among the public eye and governments alike, Central American states should take several other concrete actions. They need to invest in effective campaigns for prevention and rehabilitation programs in and outside of prison cells, bolster anti-corruption initiatives to train prison guards to be able to control the influence of drug cartels within jail confines, and improve their salaries since low wages make them prone to bribery. Considering the need of funding to achieve these goals, now could be the time for the region to consider a multi-billion dollar assistance program dedicated to Central America’s human development like the Puebla-Panamá Plan, which was initiated in 2001 between southern Mexican states, Central America, and Colombia.

It is also worth evaluating the effectiveness of the U.S.-funded Merida Initiative which allocated money for law enforcement purposes in Mexico and Central America, as well as to monitor the implementation of the 2012 U.S. Department of State’s $361 million Central American Regional Security Initiative. Known as CARSI, this program seeks to enhance levels of cooperation and coordination between countries, as well as to foster community policing, gang prevention, and economic and social programming for at-risk youth and other communities affected by violence. If local governments don’t implement these programs wisely under a strong, transparent judicial and penal system, Central America and Mexico will see their prison cells and streets become ticking bombs that are easily detonated by drug cartels and gang members.

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Robert Valencia is a Research Fellow at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs and is a contributing writer for Global Voices. He also has a personal blog called My Humble Opinion.

(Photo courtesy of rodrigodizzlecciko)

Originally posted on our partner site, the World Policy Journal Blog.

Honduras, Latin America, Mexico, Prison, Security, El Salvador, Guatemala, Torture, Drugs