ALREADY overwhelmed by overcrowding and underfunding, the Mexican prison system faces a new challenge: incarcerated drug czars, whose amassed power and fortunes permit them to maintain control even when behind bars. Cellular telephones and fax machines help narcotics traffickers continue drug smuggling operations while jailed. Prison corruption has also permitted many drug lords and wealthy inmates to acquire air-conditioned private suites and equip them with the comforts of home. As the events in a Mexican prison proved recently, traffickers can even serve out their time guarded by trusted henchmen - armed with automatic weapons.
Authorities say Oliverio Chavez Araujo enjoyed all of the previously mentioned perks in the Matamoros prison, where he is serving an eight-year sentence for narcotics smuggling.
But the danger of such policies became clear May 17, when a riot at the prison between armed rival gangs left 18 inmates dead. A standoff between authorities and inmates continues.
Weeks earlier, on April 23, the Mexico attorney general's office had issued a statement charging that from within the prison, Mr. Chavez had masterminded "an international network of narcotics trafficking" linked with the Medellin cartel. His tools, the statement said, were cellular phones and fax machines.
An ensuing attempt to sweep the jail for weapons failed when prisoners rioted. Then came the prison battle between Chavez's followers and members of a rival gang. Prison officials say the fighting began after a Colombian inmate tried unsuccessfully to kill Chavez with an automatic weapon.
Overcrowding contributed to tension that had been rising in the prison for months. The 1,200 inmates - housed in facilities originally built to contain 400 men - had rioted twice in the last year.
Meanwhile, in the working-class neighborhood around the prison, drug-related killings were rising in what local authorities describe as a drug war between Chavez's organization and that of Juan Garcia Abrego, recently indicted in Dallas on drug charges. Eight people have been killed in the Matamoros-Brownsville, Texas, area in narcotics-related violence since April, according to police and press reports.
The Chavez case is not alone. Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo, indicted on drug charges and awaiting trial, was once described as the "chairman of the board" of the Mexican drug world. He, too, is believed by drug enforcement authorities to be running his drug network from his cell in the capital's Southern Penitentiary.
"In the prisons, the czars of drugs give the orders and they can only do this in complicity with authorities," wrote political analyst Miguel Angel Granados Chapa recently in La Jornada, a Mexico City newspaper.
What these crimes illustrate, he and other analysts say, is the rapid multiplication of law enforcement problems when lax prison policies permit prisoners to transfer outside criminal activities inside a prison.
"These killings are an incident exposing problems whose dimension and magnitude we really don't understand," says Sergio Aguayo Quezada, a specialist on national security issues.
"We are really unaware of the penetration of drug trafficking in the economic, political, and social life in different regions of the country."
Prison conditions have been the subject of frequent press reports. The United States human rights group Americas Watch issued its first report on Mexican prisons in March.
"Mexico's prison system is characterized by massive overcrowding, deteriorating physical facilities, poorly trained and vastly underpaid guards and other prison officials, a system-wide culture of corruption, and lack of adequate funding," the report says.
In the past year, there have been dozens of jail breaks, hunger strikes, and riots in Mexico's overburdened prison system.
Ironically, perhaps, it is the increasing number of arrests under the vigorous antidrug war waged by the administration of President Carlos Salinas de Gortari which has caused prisons to bulge with thousands of accused drug dealers. Americas Watch reports that Mexico's 460 federal and state prisons house more than 88,000 prisoners in facilities built to hold 55,000.
An aide to President Salinas says he is unaware of any plans for prison reform. But human rights activists say they hope the Matamoros situation will force authorities to take action.
On one hand, Mexican prisons are remarkably open and free of many of the grim tensions found in US facilities. They are often filled with families picnicking on visiting days and wives on conjugal visits.
But prisoners also tell of the extensive corruption, where everything from sleeping space to food must be bought. The shakedown begins upon entry. In the Eastern Penitentiary in Mexico City, relatives and friends say they must pay mordidas (small bribes) to receive a visitor's pass or the requisite inspection of food they are taking to inmates.
By many accounts, Chavez's strength has also been drawn from his apparent largess. He is even reported to purchase the food inmates eat in the Matamoros prison.
After police sealed off the prison in Matamoros last week, a group of inmates climbed on the jail roof with a banner that read: "Respect the family. There is no problem. Send us food. We are all right." Prisoners staged a successful strike last August to prevent Chavez from being transferred to a maximum-security institution.
A political cartoon in La Jornada, referring to the standoff in Matamoros, pictured police outside the jail.
"Are they going to take out the drug trafficker?" asks a caricature of a Mexican officer.
"No, they're going to name him prison warden," answers another.