On March 17, suspected Mexican drug trafficker Juan Jose Esparragoza Monzon busted out of a prison in northwest Mexico, accompanied by four other men.
Monzon is the son of Juan Jose Esparragoza Moreno, the most reclusive member of the Sinaloa cartel’s triumvirate of chieftains, alongside the jailed “El Chapo” Guzman and Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada, who remains at large.
Monzon and the four men who accompanied him – several of them cartel enforcers – are all believed to be tied to the Sinaloa cartel.
Their escape is not the most recent embarrassing incident for the Mexican prison system, however.
Late on Wednesday night, 29 inmates tunneled their way out of a jail on the other side of the country in Ciudad Victoria, the capital of Tamaulipas, the country’s northeastern-most state.
The men, nine of them federal prisoners and four of them directly tied to drug trafficking, burrowed out through a passage 5 meters deep and 40 meters long. Luis Alberto Rodriguez, the state security spokesman, said the tunnel had been hidden under a hut built illegally in a part of the facility that the prisoners basically controlled.
Once they had emerged, one of them shot and killed a passing motorist in what appeared to be an attempted carjacking.
A manhunt was quickly activated, with federal, state, and military personnel securing the prison’s perimeter. Twelve of the escapees have been recaptured, and, according to Rodriguez, at least 30 guards at the facility face investigations over the escape.
- © AFP/File Ronaldo Schemidt
The prison in question, the Center for Execution of Sanctions (Cedes) of Ciudad Victoria, is more than 40 years old, and the local government admitted that it had been “neglected in recent years” and did not have “adequate security measures,” according to El País.
In recent months, authorities have struggled to keep a grip on goings-on at the prison. According to Proceso, there have been riots and fights between inmates. The prison is over capacity by 160 inmates, and authorities have been looking to transfer prisoners elsewhere.
Two months ago, a leader in the Zetas cartel was killed inside the prison two days after being detained there. The Zetas have long been present in Tamaulipas and the surrounding area, and the group’s fight with other cartels for control of trafficking and other criminal activities in the region is responsible for some of Mexico’s most horrific drug-war violence.
The Tamaulipas escape is similar to, though not as sophisticated as, that of “El Chapo” Guzman, who slipped out out of a maximum-security prison in central Mexico through a ventilated, mile-long tunnel using a motorcycle on rails in July 2015.
Guzman was recaptured in January 2016 and initially put back in the same jail.
The complexity of Guzman’s escape, and the jailbreaks Mexico has seen since, underscore the deeply rooted weaknesses inside Mexico’s legal and prison systems.
“It should be remembered,” Mexican security analyst Alejandro Hope said after Guzman’s recapture, “some of the structural weaknesses of the Mexican prison system are still there … one of the persons that is being prosecuted for his escape was the head of the federal-prison system.”
“This was not just El Altiplano,” Hope added, referring to the jail Guzman broke out of. “This was systemic. And I think some of those weaknesses are still there.”
- Mexico’s Attorney General’s Office/Handout
In the case of Monzon, the Sinaloa cartel figure who escaped earlier this month, he and one of his fellow escapees were being held in a lower-security facility despite their high profiles because of stays issued by the same judge in Culiacan, a city in the heart of the Sinaloa cartel’s home turf.
“Mexico’s prisons are probably some of the most corrupt in the world,” Mike Vigil, former chief of international operations for the US Drug Enforcement Administration, told Business Insider earlier this year.
“I mean the prison administration is absolutely horrible, and if you have money it’s very easy to bribe the people that work at the penitentiaries,” added Vigil, author of “Metal Coffins: The Blood Alliance Cartel.”
“They give you access to communication, they give you access to members of your organization … and give you whatever you want.”