On August 20, 2012, I wrote a commentary for VOXXI debating
whether or not the U.S. or Mexico should eliminate Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman,
leader of the dreaded Sinaloa Cartel , if given the chance. In that piece, I
argued that some high-profile criminals are too dangerous to be kept behind
bars, particularly in countries with problematic prison systems.
Fast forward to July 15 of this year: the Mexican government
announced the capture of Miguel Angel Trevino Morales, alias Z-40, leader of
the Zetas Cartel, another one of Mexico’s major cartels.
Understandably, Latin Americanist scholars are busy
discussing what the capture of the Z-40 means for this illegal organization,
particularly whether it will remain united or break apart into smaller groups.
But not much attention has been given to the fate of Z-40
himself. Where will Trevino Morales be sent to prison? And will he actually
remain imprisoned, without managing to escape or communicate with his cartel
Unfortunately, in spite of some important initiatives, the
recent history of Mexico’s penal system has a plethora of problems, including
prison breakouts and the lavish lifestyle that prisoners enjoy.
Therefore, Trevino Morales’s imprisonment should serve as an
impetus for policymakers to address Mexico’s failing prison system and to
consider creating a legal means for dealing with especially high-profile
The problem Mexican prisons
The Mexican penal system has been in a terminal state for
several years. Ever since former President Felipe Calderón’s decision to deploy
the Mexican military to actively and aggressively pursue Mexican cartels (circa
2007), the overpopulation of Mexican prisons has become even more evident.
Sadly, examples of the troubling state of these prisons are abundant.
First, it is important to recognize that Mexican prisoners
have been alarmingly successful at escaping from their detention centers. In
September 2012, a major breakout occurred when as many as 131 prisoners escaped
from the Piedras Negras detention center in the state of Coahuila, situated
close to the U.S. border.
The inmates, men and women, managed to dig a tunnel that was
30 meters wide and three meters deep to regain their freedom. Not long after,
in December 2012, inmates in the city of Gomez Palacio, in the state of
Durango, tried to orchestrate a massive escape. At least 11 inmates and six guards
were killed in the attempt before the Mexican army reached the center and
Given the numerous (successful) escape attempts, it is no
surprise that the Mexican Commission of Human Rights has stated that inmates
control up to 60 percent of Mexican prisons.
However, this data does not provide a complete image of the
luxurious conditions in which some inmates live, especially former high-level
members of criminal syndicates. For example, inmates in a prison in Acapulco
are able to organize cockfights and easily smuggle prostitutes into the
Meanwhile, one prisoner in a state prison in Sonora
reportedly occupied a comfortable cell that included an air conditioner, a
television (with cable), and a microwave.
In spite of the aforementioned examples, it would be unfair
to argue that neither former President Calderon nor current President Enrique
Peña Nieto (EPN) have taken initiatives (namely building more prisons) with
regards to improve Mexico’s penal system. The problem is that neither president
has done enough.
For example, in 2012, Calderon’s last year in office and the
beginning of EPN’s six-year presidency, Mexico’s government constructed several
new prison facilities. One facility was a detention center inaugurated in early
2012 in Rincon, in the western state of Nayarit. Later, in October of the same
year, a new prison, called Centro Federal de Readaptacion Social Numero 11,
opened up in Hermosillo, in the state of Sonora.
The prison is known for having state-of-the-art technology,
including scanners, X-ray machines and over 1,000 security cameras. During a
tour of the facilities, then-President Calderon memorably declared that “this
may be the biggest prison in the world, we may look into it going into the
Guinness book of records.”
Trevino Morales behind bars
In my August 2012 article, I discussed whether it would be
better for Mexican (or U.S.) security forces to eliminate Chapo rather than
attempt to capture and imprison him. Leaving the morality of killing a human
being aside, such high-profile arrests beg the question of whether the Mexican
penal system can manage to keep these individuals safely incarcerated escaping
or being able to communicate with their cartel henchmen.
The current state of Mexico’s prisons, provides a grim
picture of whether the recently captured Trevino Morales will be able to remain
This is not to say that Mexican security authorities have
not been able to successfully imprison high-profile individuals in the past.
Mario Aburto Martinez, who murdered a PRI presidential candidate in 1994, has
spent his jail sentence behind bars in maximum security prisons in Juarez and
In addition, the famous cartel hitman, Edgar Valdez
Villareal (alias La Barbie), has been imprisoned since 2010. However, while
some major criminals are still behind bars, others have managed to escape. For
instance, Sinaloa’s Chapo Guzman himself escaped from the Puente Grande prison
Hopefully, Trevino Morales will not only remain behind bars,
but also stay incommunicado from the outside world. While his capture is a
major victory for the EPN presidency, a potential escape of the Zetas would
likewise prove to be a major embarrassment. Finding and capturing the Trevino
Morales was challenging enough for Mexican authorities, but making sure that he
remains in prison may prove just as difficult.