Beheadings, Torture, and Bodies Stacked Like Cordwood in Mexico’s Gruesome Jail Wars

Inmates in an overcrowded Acapulco facility were beaten to death and decapitated in a turf struggle between rival gangs earlier this month. And that’s not the worst we’ve seen.

Once in the Mexican state of Guerrero I met a sicario, or hitman, who went by the name of Chimino. At the end of a long interview Chimino told me how he had come to enjoy the work of killing and torturing people for the cartel called Los Rojos.

“The first time you do it... maybe you feel bad,” he said. “After the first time you start to like it.”

Chimino was a hard case. Worshipped the Santa Muerta (Death Saint), and knew his life would likely be cut short. And yet he did not worry about dying nearly as much as he feared being arrested, and a return to life in a Mexican penitentiary.

“Mejor que me maten, encontra la cárcel,” he said. Better that they kill me, than to go back to prison.

Such a sentiment—annihilation before incarceration—might sound strange to northern ears. But the intra-prison gang battle that went down earlier this month at the Las Cruces prison, in Guerrero’s port city of Acapulco, demonstrates why even professional assassins like Chimino are terrified of being locked up in Mexico.

The fighting began at about 4 a.m. on Thursday July 6, in Las Cruces’ maximum security wing, and soon spread to other units. For whatever reason—be it cowardice, malfeasance, incompetence, or a combination of all three—prison guards failed to intervene. When the struggle ended several hours later there were 28 inmates dead and three wounded. At least 20 more had escaped during the melee.

Corpses were found in the prison kitchen, in the area reserved for conjugal visits, and stacked like cordwood near the gates. Several of the bodies had been decapitated. Others showed signs of torture.

Although witnesses reported gunfire coming from the prison, and many of the dead bore stab wounds—to say nothing of having their heads cut off—officials told reporters that no weapons had been used in the brawl.

Authorities tried to downplay the incident, at first maintaining that only a handful of prisoners had been killed. The urge to whitewash the massacre was surely due in part to a scheduled visit that same day from high-ranking U.S. officials. Department of Homeland Security chief John Kelly, and CIA director Mike Pompeo had a planned stopover in Acapulco to meet with Mexican military commanders dress up in cammies, and observe poppy eradication efforts in the nearby mountains.

David Shirk, a security analyst who heads up the Justice in Mexico project at the University of San Diego, says the timing of the attack might well have been deliberate.

“It is entirely possible that the prison riot in Acapulco was a planned effort to gain attention,” Shirk tells The Daily Beast in an email. The motive being to “embarrass the U.S. and Mexican governments, which have continued to work closely together on security cooperation... for nearly a decade.”

As punishment for this public shaming in front of important gringo allies—and for taking the shine off the soldier-suit playdate—the prison director was promptly sacked. At least four of his staff members are under investigation. None of the convicts who made it to freedom have turned up yet.

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Prison Schism

Blacking the government’s eye might have been part of the plan, but the real goal of internecine struggles in statesville is always more direct: power in the cell blocks, control over the yard.

Like many of the country’s prisons, Las Cruces is home to jailed leaders of cartels as well as gangs. In fact, this particular pen reportedly serves as the center of operations for the Independent Acapulco Cartel. That syndicate controls much of the poppy, opium, and heroin trade in Guerrero—now the most violent, murder-ridden region of the country.

But competition for control over local trade routes—especially the infamous State Route 41, also known as the Heroin Highway—is heating up. Mexico’s fastest growing crime group, the Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG) has been making incursions into Guerrero, often using smaller bands as proxies.

According to InsightCrime, two other prison-based gangs, Los Juanitos and Los Arnolds provoked the Las Cruces slaughter as a “territorial dispute.”

In an interview with The Daily Beast, Mexican criminologist Gustavo Fundavila calls the Las Cruces attack “a coup d'état to achieve internal dominance of the prison.”

Fundavila also says the coup was enabled by staffers as “it is simply impossible that this happened without the guards knowing in advance what was going to happen.”

Being the top dogs in a Mexican hoosegow means “controlling the internal market for drugs, sex, goods, medicines, food, and so on.” But there is even more at stake than that, Fundavila says. The alpha gang also wins control over external crimes that are “organized from the inside of the prison, [and that means] a lot of money.”

Justice in Mexico’s Shirk agrees with Fundavila, and adds that he sees a cold method behind the head-chopping madness of the Las Cruces attack.

“This all seems to be part of a larger, well orchestrated readjustment in the wake of Joaquín ‘El Chapo’ Guzmán’s 2016 re-arrest and early 2017 extradition,” Shirk says. “Chapo’s old enemies... are working with support from the CJNG to reconsolidate themselves and defeat rivals like the Acapulco Cartel.”

“A Horror That Has Been Growing for Years.”

A recent op-ed in El Universal, one of Mexico’s largest papers, calls the Las Cruces debacle “overwhelming, but not surprising” and goes on to liken the Guerrero prison system to “hell” and “a horror that has been growing for years.”

The editorial concludes with a warning for the future:

“It was only a matter of time before a massacre... happened. And if no urgent action is taken, it is only a matter of time before another happens.”

That alarm ought to be heeded, as the Las Cruces affair is not an isolated incident. Prisons across Mexico are notorious for overcrowding, poor sanitation, and corruption—conditions that make them ripe for deadly uprisings.

A clash at Topo Choco penitentiary last year in Monterrey was even worse than the Las Cruces affair, leaving about 50 dead. Periodic cartel-sponsored prison riots have become chronic as Mexico’s Drug War has ramped up since 2006.

At least 185,000 people have died overall in the conflict, with more than 11,000 murders coming within the first five months of 2017—thus putting it on pace to be the worst year yet.

Mexico’s inmate population has also soared by almost 50,000 over the last decade, in part due to pressure from the U.S. to lock up more “bad hombres.” The national prison system is now well over capacity, which strains resources such as rehabilitation and education programs, and leads to systemic breakdowns in security.

Las Cruces, for example, was designed to hold about 1,600 inmates, according to criminologist Fundavila, who specializes in prison studies at Mexico’s Center for Economic Research and Teaching. Instead the facility housed almost a thousand extra prisoners when heads (literally) began to roll.

Not only does jamming prisoners into too-small quarters lead to shortages of food, health care, and even drinking water, but it also hampers the guards’ ability to maintain control.

“Despite being maximum security, the cells are most likely to be open during the day” because of overpopulation, and that “saturation reduces the security of the prison,” Fundavila says.

Even by national standards, Las Cruces was a nightmare. It had been red-flagged as one of the worst in Guerrero by the National Human Rights Commission’s penitentiary supervision branch, and previous cell-block inspections had turned up narcotics, prostitutes, pet dogs, and firearms, as well as rampant infectious diseases like tuberculosis.

“The Greatest Terror of the Drug Traffickers”

For a mid-ranking sicarios like Chimino of Los Rojos, death might be preferable to imprisonment. Hired hatchet men are relatively low on the cartel totem pole, and often used as cannon fodder during prison-yard battle royales. But for the cartel capos at the top of the heap, with powerful connections and plenty of pesos, prison life need not be so bad. Many top bosses go right on running their crime syndicates from behind bars.

“Leaders manage their operations directly with cell phones,” Fundavila says. Although there are systems put in place intended to prevent transmission, “the guards just turn them off at certain times of day” under orders from the mobsters.

This kind of bottom-up control goes far beyond merely bribing under-educated, low-wage prison workers. The jefes “are members of criminal organizations that have many members in freedom, which means that they can ‘buy’ [favors] by threatening the families of the guards,” Fundavila explains. “The model is much more complex than mere corruption.”

Once a single crime group establishes hegemony over “the marketplace” in a given prison, threats to life and limb often decline.

“Riots and prison violence tend to be less prevalent when there is a dominant group of inmates controlling the prison leviathan,” Shirk says. “When there is no dominant group and no balance of power to create equilibrium, there is chaos.”

A checkmate play for control of the clink can have broad-reaching, even international implications.

When convicts from the Zetas cartel took over Topo Choco in 2016, they synchronized the assault to coincide with the Pope Francis’s visit to another penal institution in Mexico—no doubt hoping to irritate and humiliate their captors while a famous figure was in the neighborhood.

As professor Shirk points out, the CJNG-backed gangs of Las Cruces could have had similar ideas in mind when they decided to stage their butchery in tandem with the DHS and CIA honchos’ big day of Drug-War tourism.

Prison researcher Fundavila goes a step further, saying there might be a very specific rationale for the well-timed revolt, beyond just a general protest of U.S.-Mexico relations, and directly “pointing to deportations.”

Cartel leaders can maintain their grip on power in their organizations, including during long sentences in the Mexican slammer. But all that changes if they get shipped Stateside. Even once-mighty Chapo Guzmán has seen his vast Sinaloa Cartel empire begin to collapse since his extradition to the U.S.

“It is the greatest terror of imprisoned drug traffickers, because in Mexico they can continue operating but in the U.S. definitely not,” Fundavila says.

“The vast majority know that if they are deported, that means they’re going to a ‘real’ jail.”