- Associated Press - Monday, February 20, 2012

MONTERREY, Mexico — The revelation that guards likely helped members of the violent Zetas drug cartel slaughter 44 rival inmates and break out of a northern Mexico prison throws new attention on the enormous corruption inside the country’s overcrowded, underfunded prisons.

The top officials and as many as 18 guards at the Apodaca prison may have helped 30 Zetas escape during the confusion of a riot early Sunday, in which other Zetas fatally bludgeoned and knifed 44 members of the rival Gulf cartel, Nuevo Leon Gov. Rodrigo Medina said Monday.

The massacre in this northern state was one of the worst prison killings in Mexico in at least a quarter-century and exposed another weak institution that President Felipe Calderon is relying on to fight his war on drugs.

Mexico has only six federal prisons, and so sends many of its dangerous cartel suspects and inmates to ill-prepared, overcrowded state penitentiaries. Drug trafficking, weapons possession and money laundering are all considered federal crimes in Mexico.

“The Mexican prison system has collapsed,” said Raul Benitez, a professor at Mexico’s National Autonomous University, who studies security issues. “The prisons in some states are controlled by organized crime.”

An increase in organized crime, extortion, drug trafficking and kidnapping has swelled Mexico’s prison population almost 50 percent since 2000. But the government has built no new federal prisons, though it has refurbished and taken over some state ones, since Mr. Calderon launched an offensive against drug cartels when he took office in late 2006.

Of the 47,000 federal inmates, about 29,000 are held in state prisons. That has drawn complaints from Mr. Medina and other state governors, who say their prisons aren’t equipped to hold members of powerful and disciplined drug cartels.

The federal government counters that none of the escapes or mass killings have occurred at federal lockups, and it cites corruption on the state level, not overcrowding, as the main cause of the deaths and escapes.

“The constant element has been corruption in the control processes” at the prisons, said Patricio Patino, assistant secretary for the penitentiary system.

Prison employees say guards are underpaid, making them more likely to take bribes. And even honest guards are vulnerable to coercion: Many live in neighborhoods where street gangs and drug cartels are active, making it easy to target their families with threats.

Nuevo Leon’s governor said guards and officials in the prison in Apodaca, outside the northern city of Monterrey, may have simply allowed Zetas inmates to walk out. No holes were found in the prison’s perimeter walls, and no armed gang burst in to spring them.

“Unfortunately, a group of traitors has set back the work of a lot of good police,” Mr. Medina said at a news conference. He offered a reward of 10 million pesos (almost $800,000) for information leading to the arrest of those involved in the mass escape.

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