Cieneguillas: a Mexican prison subdued by crime

For a decade, with the entry of inmates from different drug cartels, the Cieneguillas prison in Zacatecas has become a red flag that currently holds a negative grade in national assessments.

In recent days, alerts went on due to two riots between members of criminal groups fighting for power, a dispute that has left a total of 17 dead and 10 injured.

This prison, classified as medium security, is 30 years old and has an approximate surface of 10 hectares with a capacity for 1,284 inmates; it currently has 1,124 prisoners. It is located in the kilometer 1.5 of the Cieneguillas – Francisco Madero state highway, in the capital of Zacatecas. Nevertheless, security has been undermined by the presence of highly dangerous inmates.

According to the 2019 National Diagnosis of Penitentiary Supervision of the National Human Rights Commission (CNDH), from the three-state penitentiary centers assessed in Zacatecas, Cieneguillas failed with 5.51 out of 10; it also has red flags on matters of governance and social reintegration.

Regarding governance conditions, the evaluation shows there is a lack of personnel and custodians; the authority of inmates causes self-governance conditions and co-government; in addition, there are illicit activities like extortion and bribes.

Why are Mexico’s prisons vulnerable?

Historical escape
In 2009, the Cieneguillas prison was in the national news when an armed group entered with cloned federal patrols and uniforms of the extinct AFI and the Preventive Federal Police to free 53 inmates.

Back then, state and federal authorities said it was an operation planned by a leader of Los Zetas, which was the armed branch of the Gulf Cartel at the time. For that invasion, 51 persons were arrested, among them 44 custodians and the then-director of the prison.

In a 2019 interview with Ismael Cambero Hernández, state minister of Public Security, I told EL UNIVERSAL that security measures had been modified since that event both inside and outside the prison.

A complex environment
Currently, the Cieneguillas prison has inmates linked to Los Zetas, the Gulf Cartel, the Northeast Cartel, and the Sinaloa Cartel, as well as to crime groups known as Los Paisas and Los Talibanes.

This has made the inmates be separated in eight modules – four of them hold those with sentences and the other four hold the arrested – all of them divided by cartels, which also forces to put vulnerable inmates in another area with seniors and those who do not belong to any group.

During a tour made by EL UNIVERSAL in 2019, prison authorities explained the complexities implied by the separation. For instance, to prevent members from rival cartels from being together, they are not allowed to be at the same time in common areas.

In that tour, it could be seen that in one of the modules, the cells are on two floors where there is a telephone booth, as well as cooking utensils, dining rooms, sinks, and an altar to Our Lady of Guadalupe and Saint Judas Tadeo.

Some inmates were performing carpentry activities and only some of those who do not belong to criminal groups attended classes.

Back then, authorities mentioned the lack of infrastructure, more equipment, and personnel to achieve the desired operating conditions.

In 2018, state authorities reported the dismantling of a plan to carry out a riot during the New Year’s celebrations so that a group of inmates could escape.

In December 2019, there was an operation in the prison to look for illegal objects, but it failed since during the New Year’s Eve celebration and during visiting hours, the first riot took place between members of the Sinaloa and the Gulf cartels which left 16 inmates dead and five injured and in which firearms and knives were used. The second riot left one inmate dead and five injured.

Source: El Universal