COVID May Be Killing Hundreds of Prisoners in Mexico

Reports from inmates' families, and several official data points, indicate the surge in deaths in the shrouded prison system could be from the coronavirus.
August 18, 2020, 8:35pm
Relatives protesting the mistreatment of prisoners by penitentiary officials demand a response from the Undersecretary of System Penitentiary, Antonio Hazel Ruiz. On May 13, 2020 in Mexico City, Mexico. Photo by Ricardo Castelan Cruz/Eyepix/Abaca/Sipa USA

Deaths in Mexico’s shrouded prisons have surged since the coronavirus pandemic hit in March, and advocates fear the inmates are dying of COVID-19. 

An astounding 464 prisoners died between January and July, compared to 191 during the same period in 2019, according to new information from the Rehabilitation and Prevention arm of the Security and Citizen Protection Secretary. 

The government provided no explanation about the cause of death of so many more inmates, but nonprofits and rights groups that monitor the country’s prisons — currently home to more than 210,000 people — told VICE News that the situation in Mexico’s prisons is “‘critical.”

“COVID-19 infections have risen, and the families of prisoners are telling us that people are dying inside,” said Sofia Talamantes, director of the prison monitoring program at the nonprofit Documenta, which works with inmates and their families. Research by the organization showed that nearly 60 percent of inmates suffered from a chronic illness of condition, suggesting the prison population is highly vulnerable to COVID-19. Since April, the organization has registered 185 confirmed COVID-19 deaths in Mexico’s prison system.

“The prison system has never been very transparent and those inside are invisible. We think — although we don’t know it for a fact —- that it’s COVID-19 that's causing so many deaths.” 

The National Human Rights Commission warned that COVID-19 infections were being detected in the country’s prisons as early as April, when there were five confirmed cases and 22 suspected instances of COVID-19. By the end of May, the Commission reported 136 new cases of COVID-19 in prisoners in one week alone.  

Other data points also suggest that COVID-19 could be behind the surging death rate among prisoners in Mexico. Deaths were fairly low in the first three months of the year but shot up to more than 150 a per month in both May and June, when coronavirus started to peak around the country. 

The worst hit of Mexico’s 300 prisons also happen to be in some parts of the country where COVID-19 has caused the most deaths, such as Mexico City, Puebla, Baja California, and Veracruz. In May, 26 prisoners died in prisons in Baja California and 56 in Mexico City’s penitentiaries. In June, 50 inmates died in prisons in Puebla and Veracruz combined. 

Mexico’s prison system is notoriously overcrowded, badly resourced, and lacking in transparency. Nearly half of prisons are officially overpopulated, which makes social distancing impossible, and medical attention is lacking, according to observers. 

Breaches of Mexico’s prisons have been well-publicized over the years – the most high-profile example being two jailbreaks by one of the world’s most famous drug lords, Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, who twice escaped from maximum security jails here. He is now serving a life sentence in the United States prison. Tales of inmates being released to carry out attacks for crime bosses are also frequent, and raise doubts as to how well guarded, and protected, those in the country’s prisons really are.

“The situation in each prison and each state is different, but in general attention to the problem [of Covid-19] has been lacking,” Fernanda González, director of a non-profit that works with prisoners called Childhood, Youth and Reinsertion Through Prison, told local media. 

“The world wasn’t prepared for an emergency like this, and clearly nor was [Mexico’s] penitentiary system.”

Cover: Relatives protesting the mistreatment of prisoners by penitentiary officials demand a response from the Undersecretary of System Penitentiary, Antonio Hazel Ruiz. On May 13, 2020 in Mexico City, Mexico. Photo by Ricardo Castelan Cruz/Eyepix/Abaca/Sipa USA(Sipa via AP Images)