Just before midnight on February 10th riots broke out between two groups of inmates at Topo Chico prison, on the outskirts of Mexico’s industrial powerhouse Monterrey, in the state of Nuevo León. The violent clashes left 49 dead, and 12 injured. On February 11th family members of inmates protested outside the prison, denouncing the lack of official communication on the welfare of those inside the prison, and the authorities’ slow and uncoordinated response to the deadliest prison riots in recent years.
The clashes were reportedly started by inmates identified as rival factions of Los Zetas. Los Zetas has been engaged in a bloody turf war with the Gulf Cartel since 2010, as well as internecine conflicts within its own factions since the capture of Miguel Angel Treviño Morales (Z-40) in July 2013. The group, that was born out of ex-special forces who deserted the Mexican army and joined the Gulf Cartel in the 1990s, has contributed significantly to high levels of violent crime across the North-East of Mexico since 2010, when it split from the Gulf Cartel.
While the Governor of Nuevo Leon – Jaime Rodriguez “El Bronco” the maverick independent candidate who won the governorship in June 2015 – was quick to confirm that no inmates had escaped during the clashes, he is now facing challenging questions on the state’s failing prison and the authorities’ inability to maintain control against violent groups operating within state facilities.
A report by the National Human Rights Commission in 2014 found Topo Chico to be severely overcrowded, housing more than 4,600 inmates in an area with a maximum capacity of 3,635. Over-crowding and a severe lack of trained prison guards have seen conditions deteriorate in prisons across Nuevo León in recent years, with inmates imposing their own self-rule through violence. Such conditions have facilitated the rise of organised crime groups to continue their turf wars inside state prisons, with the authorities woefully ill-equipped to maintain control.
Mexico’s troubled penitentiary systems have come under the global spotlight in the last year following the sensational escape of the leader of the Sinaloa Cartel, “El Chapo”, from a high-security prison by way of a complex set of underground tunnels in July 2015. These latest riots are another embarrassment to the government as the world media focuses on Mexico ahead of Pope Francis’ five-day visit to the country (Feb 12-17). The Pope has raised uncomfortable issues for many authorities in Mexico as he plans to address the need to fight against systemic violence and corruption that plagues large swathes of the country.
The Pope’s visit includes stops in some of the areas that have been most affected by organised crime related violence, including the once embattled border city of Ciudad Juárez. Authorities in Chihuahua state are hoping to outline the marked improvements in the city’s security environment since its damning label of “world’s most dangerous city” in 2010. The Pope will visit the Cesero 3 prison in Juárez – once a hotbed of inter-cartel violence – and now a supposed “symbol” of a reformed and improved prison. However, the deadly riots at Topo Chico in the neighbouring state, are likely to put a dampener on attempts to showcase improvements in the state prison services amid the ongoing fight against organised crime groups.