Mexico to build eight new prisons after Zetas escape

But by focusing on the role overcrowding played in the Zetas riot and escape, is the Mexican government missing the bigger picture in terms of prison reform?

Daniel Becerril/REUTERS
Smoke is seen coming from inside the prison of Apodaca as police guard the area on the outskirts of Monterrey, Mexico, February 21. Family members started a fire outside the fence and gunshots were heard from inside the prison, according to local media, three days after members of the Zetas drug cartel plotted with prison guards to orchestrate an elaborate escape and kill 44 of their rivals.

• A version of this post ran on the author's blog, The views expressed are the author's own.

The Mexican government announced they will build eight new federal prisons this year as a response to the recent massacre and prison break by the Zetas in Nuevo Leon. This may be a necessary step in the short term, but more deep-seated issues remain:

 1) The expansion does little to fundamentally rethink the prison problem. The prison population in Mexico is increasing dramatically and it doesn't seem likely to slow down any time soon. Building eight or even 20 new prisons may ease the burden for now, but those institutions will eventually be overcrowded too.
 2) Building more prisons does nothing to deal with problems related to pretrial detention. If 70 percent of people in some Mexican state prisons are awaiting court dates, it seems that Mexico may need to focus on additional courts and judges more so than new prisons.
 3) How will they safely and effectively staff the new prisons? The recent massacre showed that Zetas bribed several dozen prison guards at a single prison, and given this how does Mexico expect to staff more prisons and avoid that sort of corruption in the future? It doesn't do any good to build eight new prisons if the prison system as a whole is broken and serves as an organizational base for the criminal groups.

James Bosworth is a freelance writer and consultant based in Managua, Nicaragua, who runs Bloggings by Boz.

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