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Violence Exposes Crisis In Latin American Prisons
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Violence Exposes Crisis In Latin American Prisons

Latin America

Violence Exposes Crisis In Latin American Prisons
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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

There are calls for reform after a string of deaths at prisons in Mexico and Honduras. Last week, riots inside three Mexican prisons left 48 inmates dead. And earlier this month, a fire in a Honduran prison killed 360 people.

As NPR's Jason Beaubien reports from Mexico City, the incidents underscore problems of overcrowding, corruption and crumbling infrastructure.

(SOUNDBITE OF A CROWD)

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: The television images were from two different countries, but the pictures were strikingly similar: outside prisons in Honduras and Mexico, women clashed with police in riot gear. The women in front of the Apodaca prison in northern Mexico hurled rocks at police, scaled a chain-link fence, chanted we want justice and demanded to know whether their loved ones inside were dead, alive or injured. According to state security officials, members of the Zetas gang massacred members of the Gulf Cartel to create cover for a jailbreak. Last week, the state security spokesman for Nuevo Leon, Jorge Domene Zambrano, announced that the warden from Apodaca, along with 26 guards, are under arrest for alleged involvement in the plot.

JORGE DOMENE ZAMBRANO: (Foreign language spoken)

BEAUBIEN: Domene says it appears some guards gave keys to the Zetas so they could enter other cellblocks and kill their rivals. The drug war has also placed new strains on what were already corrupt, crumbling prisons. Apodaca was built to hold 1,500 inmates, but it currently holds 2,700. The prison in Honduras that caught fire on February 14th was packed to more than twice its original capacity.

JOSE MIGUEL VIVANCO: For at least two decades, governments in the region has virtually abandoned the prison system.

BEAUBIEN: Jose Miguel Vivanco, the director of Human Rights Watch's Americas Division, says prisons throughout Latin America are underfunded, overcrowded and often controlled by the criminals inside their walls. Vivanco says, 20 years ago, most human rights abuses in Latin American jails were committed by guards but not anymore.

VIVANCO: Today, most of the abuses are from prisoners against other prisoners.

BEAUBIEN: He says prisons have become lucrative postings for civil servants who collect bribes from the inmates they're supposed to control. A recent raid on a prison in Acapulco uncovered not only some inmates enjoying cells with flat-screen TVs but also firearms, drugs, in-house prostitutes, fighting roosters and even a peacocks. Vivanco says throughout much of Latin America, governments have given up trying to rehabilitate or even control inmates. The main goal now is simply to contain the violence inside the institution's walls.

But after two violent riots at Apodaca and deadly incidents at two other Mexican penitentiaries, authorities here are clearly worried that the entire prison system could be about to explode. President Felipe Calderon's interior minister pledged to make the full force of the federal government available to states as they attempt to deal with the surging prison violence. President Calderon himself said the problem is a direct result of his administration's fight against organized crime.

PRESIDENT FELIPE CALDERON: (Foreign language spoken)

BEAUBIEN: Calderon said that in order to address the current crisis, his administration is building nine new prisons. In addition, federal authorities have started transferring what they say are some of the most violent members of the Zetas out of Apodaca to a maximum security facility in southern Mexico. They also plan to subject the remaining staff at the institution to confidence tests to try to weed out corrupt guards. Jason Beaubien, NPR News, Mexico City.

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