Thursday, July 25, 2013

VOXXI: Act II in Mexico: Keeping former Zetas leader, Miguel Trevino, in prison

Act II in Mexico: Keeping former Zetas leader, Miguel Trevino, in prison
W. Alejandro Sanchez
July 24, 2013
Originally published:
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 subordinates?
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 prisoners.
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 restored order.

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 prison’s wings.

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.

The future
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 behind bars.

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 Jalisco.

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 in 2001.

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.

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