Prison chief allegedly sent inmates to conduct Mexico birthday party massacre

A prison director is suspected of arming inmates and sending them on the July 18 Mexico birthday party massacre that killed 17. To some, Mexico's drug war seems 'the script of a science fiction movie.'

Ramon Sotomayor/AP
Police officers patrol a street in Torreon, in the Mexican northern state of Coahuila, July 19. Gunmen burst into a private birthday party on July 18 and opened fired on guests, killing 17.

When gunmen burst into a private birthday party on July 18 and fired on guests, killing 17, the attackers were initially suspected to be members of one of Mexico's drug gangs, which have killed thousands of people in escalating violence over the past several years.

Nobody guessed they were jail inmates on assignment from their prison director.

It turns out that the gunmen behind the July 18 Mexico birthday party massacre had already been incarcerated for crimes in Mexico's drug wars. Prison guards reportedly lent vehicles and weapons to the inmates to carry out a 'revenge attack' in the northern city of Torreon. Afterward, the inmates drove back to their cells in the nearby city of Gomez Palacio.

IN PICTURES: Mexico's drug war

"According to witnesses, the inmates were allowed to leave with authorization of the prison director ... to carry out instructions for revenge attacks using official vehicles and using guards' weapons for executions," Ricardo Najera, a spokesman from the attorney general's office, revealed Sunday.

The attack may have been motivated by rival drug trafficking gangs, Mr. Najera said, though innocent people were among the victims. The prison director and security guard, among others, have been put under house arrest.

Corrupt police force

The incident highlights a weak point in Mexican President Felipe Calderón's strategy against drug traffickers, with corruption rife in police forces and prison systems, says Jorge Chabat, who researches the drug war at the Center for Research and Teaching in Economics, a university in Mexico City.

“Security is a chain of all these processes, of police, judiciary, and prison system. If one of these links fail, then everything fails,” says Professor Chabat.

President Calderón has presented reforms to Mexico's police and judiciary, but Chabat says that little attention has been paid to prisons, even though drug traffickers often carry out extortion and business behind their cells.

Even Calderón's own newly installed Interior Secretary Jose Francisco Blake Mora agreed that the incident calls for a potential policy change.

The incident "can only be seen as a wake-up call for authorities to address, once again, the state of deterioration in many local law enforcement institutions ... we cannot allow this kind of thing to happen again," Mr. Blake said Sunday.

Wearier by the day

While Ciudad Juarez, across the border from El Paso, Texas, has captured most of the attention in the drug wars that have taken nearly 25,000 lives since Calderón launched a military-backed offensive in late 2006, other cities are becoming new flashpoints.

The revelations in the Torreon investigation come as 51 bodies were uncovered in mass graves in the state of Nuevo Leon over the weekend, outside of the industrial city of Monterrey.

Mexicans seem wearier by the day. In a column Monday morning in the daily El Universal, Denise Maerker writes: “It seems the script of a science fiction movie, but no, it is the plot resulting from the first investigations that the attorney general has carried out after the executions of innocent young people in Torreon, Coahuila.”

IN PICTURES: Mexico's drug war


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