Prisons in chaos: Another warden gunned down in Mexico

McClatchy NewspapersJune 1, 2011 

MEXICO CITY — The job of prison warden carries peril in Mexico, a point made anew Wednesday when gunmen killed the deputy warden of a state prison where prosecutors recently shut down a well-stocked cantina that served beer, tequila and vodka.

The slaying of Fernando Oropeza, a retired 46-year-old army captain, outside his home in Chihuahua City, the capital of the northern state of Chihuahua, brought new attention to the free-for-all conditions in some of Mexico's prisons.

Oropeza was fired from his post last week after prosecutors discovered a working cantina in the state prison that he helped supervise.

The bar contained two large pool tables, 200 cans of beer, 20 bottles of vodka and 12 bottles of tequila. Following a lockdown of the prison, authorities said they also found quantities of marijuana, heroin, 20 cellular telephones and two firearms.

Photos of the cantina released to the media showed the pool tables to be in good condition with large wooden frames and felt tops. Authorities said the tables were rented out to inmates.

After he was fired last week, Oropeza went to the state human rights ombudsman to complain that he'd been set up by a top state penal authority who he claimed was at the top of a pyramid of corruption overseeing the state's jails.

Chihuahua, which borders Texas and New Mexico, is Mexico's most violent state and the scene of turf wars between the Sinaloa and Juarez drug gangs.

The state's prisons are so dangerous that some wardens prefer to live inside their walls, fearful that they may be gunned down on the way to or from work. McClatchy last year told the tale of one such warden in Ciudad Juarez, Gerardo Ortiz, who said he had one goal for the future: "Leave here alive."

Ortiz was transferred to a prison job in Chihuahua City later in the year, and in November a commando team intercepted his pickup and riddled it with fire from AK-47 assault weapons, killing him and his 28-year-old son.

Just a month earlier, assailants executed six prison guards from the Morelos district prison in Aquiles Serdan, near Chihuahua City, as they picked up a companion and were to head to work.

Marcos Munoz Rodriguez, the 41-year-old chief guard at the San Guillermo prison in the state, was also going to work one morning in January when a hit squad fired at his pickup, causing it to flip over. Munoz died in the attack.

Last year, Daniel Romero of the National Human Rights Commission, an official body, said that about 100 of Mexico's 429 prisons are under the control of inmates — not wardens or prison guards. The inmates set up their own rules in the prisons, he said, and often are armed, hindering any attempt to seize control.

In those prisons, Romero said, criminal groups charge fellow inmates for the right to run stores, enjoy conjugal visits or even clean up the facilities.

About 150 inmates among Mexico's 222,200 prisoners died in the facilities last year, the commission said. Corruption among wardens is widespread. In December, 41 prison officials in Tamaulipas state, which borders Texas, were fired for allowing the escape of 152 inmates from a Nuevo Laredo prison.

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Check out this McClatchy blog: Mexico Unmasked

McClatchy Newspapers 2011

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