The War on Drugs Enters Mexico’s Prisons

The War on Drugs Enters Mexico’s Prisons

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The clash of gang members in a Juárez prison last week shocked Mexico and the world. Seventeen prisoners died and four were wounded in a confrontation last Tuesday night when various members of the group Los Aztecas, an armed branch of the Juárez Cartel, were fired upon when they entered the prison by members of Los Mexicles, which is part of the Pacific Cartel. As is usually the case with this kind of incident, the given explanation for the fight was that gang members were fighting for control of the prison. The truth is more complex, and reveals a new chapter in the war on drugs.

What happened in Juárez is part of a consistent pattern of the last five years all over Mexico, where the Mexican penitentiary system has become an extension of the drug cartels’ battlefield. From behind bars, cartel members plot confrontations and even carry out killings. Another pattern has been the escape of prisoners, which has revealed how porous Mexican prisons are, a result of institutional corruption.

The grim spectacle of prison escapes and deaths has overshadowed any analysis or explanation of these patterns. It’s no coincidence that the most notorious prison incidents have occurred in disputed territories, like Chihuahua, the Comarca Lagunera metropolitan area [located between the northern states of Coahuila and Durango]. In the state of Nuevo León, prisons have reported more than 500 escapees in the last six years.

Drug cartels have two motives to be active in prisons. First, every cartel wants to free hired assassins to help them fight other drug cartels and Mexican government forces. Second, every cartel wants to prevent competing cartels from getting hitmen for themselves. Criminal activity within prisons is directly related to the decline in cartel membership, a result of a shift of incentives for their assassins.

In the past, ambitious young people without legal job options entered drug trafficking expecting to stay in the business only five years or so, make more money than they could make doing anything else, and even survive the experience.

The incentives changed when the Mexican Armed Forces increased its pro-active involvement in the war on drugs. In the first place, the army increased its weaponry and lethal capacity, including beginning to use weapons, such as Barrett semiautomatic rifles, which match the drug cartels’ firepower. As a result, the rate of arrests and deaths of hitmen increased.

That is, the costs of being a hitman for a drug cartel began to outweigh the benefits. As a result, the Mexican federal forces started to gain the upper hand in the race to eliminate or neutralize drug cartels faster than drug cartels could recruit new assassins from the army’s ranks.

Due to the reduction in life expectancy for cartel members and the resulting shift in recruitment dynamics—which could explain the increasingly young age of hired assassins—the immediate consequence is that hitmen are now less experienced and less willing to fight. When they end up in prison, when the fear of death or spending life behind bars makes them the most volatile and vulnerable part of the human crime chain, these assassins are likely to become voluntary informants for prison security and police.

An example of this point is the discovery of the body of Mario González, the brother of the former Attorney General of Chihuahua, who was kidnapped by the Pacific Cartel in May. The tip came from Luis Miguel Ibarra, 22, who federal police arrested in an operation against Chihuahua gangs unrelated to the kidnapping. Ibarra asked to be a protected witness in exchange for showing police where González was buried. His information allowed police to eliminate the Pacific Cartel cell in the state of Chihuahua.

Unexperienced hitmen who can’t handle weapons and have weak nerves aren’t much help to cartels that are fighting to survive and stay in business. The drug war, which is now harsher and more open than ever, requires members who are trustworthy and efficient.

As cartels are less and less able to find such people in the illegal labor market, they’re forced to look to prisons. The rescue of imprisoned killers, or their death in prison to prevent the reassembly of rival cartels’ armies, is the dilemma that Mexican prisons face today. Last week’s Juárez killings are just the latest example.