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Mexico prison riot a cover for Zetas escape

Mexican prison guards may have helped 30 Zeta drug cartel members escape during a prison riot. Some 44 inmates were killed at the Apodaca prison in northern Mexico early Sunday.

By Mark Stevenson and Porfirio Ibarra RamirezAssociated Press / February 20, 2012

People wait to visit family members at the Apodaca prison, on the outskirts of Monterrey, February 20, 2012.

REUTERS/Daniel Becerril

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Monterrey, Mexico

The revelation that guards likely helped members of the violent Zetas drug cartel slaughter 44 rival inmates and break out of a northern Mexico jail throws new attention on the enormous corruption inside the country's overcrowded, underfunded prisons.

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The top officials and as many as 18 guards at the Apodaca prison may have helped 30 Zetas escape during the confusion of a riot early Sunday in which other Zetas fatally bludgeoned and knifed 44 members of the rival Gulf cartel, Nuevo Leon Gov. Rodrigo Medina said Monday.

The massacre in this northern state was one of the worst prison killings in Mexico in at least a quarter-century and exposed another weak institution that President Felipe Calderon is relying on to fight his drug war.

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Mexico has only six federal prisons, and so sends many of its dangerous cartel suspects and inmates to ill-prepared, overcrowded state penitentiaries. Drug trafficking, weapons possession and money laundering are all considered federal crimes in Mexico.

"The Mexican prison system has collapsed," said Raul Benitez, a professor at Mexico's National Autonomous University who studies security issues. "The prisons in some states are controlled by organized crime."

An increase in organized crime, extortion, drug trafficking and kidnapping has swelled Mexico's prison population almost 50 percent since 2000. But the government has built no new federal prisons since Calderon launched an offensive against drug cartels when he took office in late 2006, leaving existing jails overcrowded.

Calderon's administration has renovated three existing state prisons to use as federal lockups.

Built to hold about 185,000 inmates, the prison system nationwide now holds more than 45,000 above that capacity, according to figures from the National Public Safety System.

Of the 47,000 federal inmates in the country, about 29,000 are held in state prisons. That has drawn complaints from Medina and other state governors, who say their jails aren't equipped to hold members of powerful and highly organized drug cartels.

The federal government counters that none of the escapes or mass killings have occurred at federal lockups, and it cites corruption on the state level, not overcrowding, as the main cause of the deaths and escapes.

"The constant element has been corruption in the control processes" at the prisons, said Patricio Patino, assitant secretary for the peniteniary system.

Prison employees say guards are underpaid, making them more likely to take bribes. And even honest guards are vulnerable to coercion: Many live in neighborhoods where street gangs and drug cartels are active, making it easy to target their families with threats.

The same can be said for Mexico's municipal police forces, another weak flank in Calderon's attack on organized crime. Thousands of local officers — often, entire forces at a time — have been fired, detained or placed under investigation for aiding drug gangs.

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