MEXICO CITY — On a sunny afternoon in the western Mexican state of Jalisco, José Luis Gutiérrez Valencia, aka Don Chelo, threw a party. Men and women danced and ate while a popular corrido band played loudly. The band members made toasts to Don Chelo as he and his friends poured shots of booze into each other’s mouths.
But when a video of the bash leaked in May 2017, there was a problem. Don Chelo was a high-ranking leader of the Jalisco New Generation Cartel (known by its Spanish acronym CJNG) and the party was held in broad daylight in the yard of one of Mexico's highest-security prisons: the Federal Center for Social Rehabilitation Number Two, better known as Puente Grande.
While the video made news, it didn't surprise many, considering that some Mexican prisons are well-known to be under the control of criminals. Don Chelo even said on the recording: "I do what I want here. The government respects that.”
But in September, the Mexican government announced the shuttering of Puente Grande and the relocation of its inmates to other facilities, ending the tenure of a prison best known for the escape of the notorious drug lord Joaquín "El Chapo” Guzmán in 2001, wild narco-parties, and generally, just being a hell hole.
The country's Public Safety Secretary Alfonso Durazo didn't mince words when addressing the closure of the facility on a Zoom press conference. He called the notion of Puente Grande being a high-security prison a "myth", and claimed that some of its highest-profile inmates lived in cells without locks.
He specifically took aim at members of the CJNG, and said that for them, "being at the Puente Grande prison meant having all the conditions to continue ruling themselves.” Part of the goal of closing the prison is to split the criminals up and weaken their ability to take control inside penitentiaries.
Self-rule by inmates in Mexico is not a new problem and has been at the center of some of the country's worst atrocities. For years, the Zetas cartel used a prison just miles from the U.S. border in Piedras Negras in the state of Coahuila essentially as a barracks. They regularly took people there to be executed, and disposed of their bodies within the prison walls. Prison riots have also become semi-regular occurrences throughout the country with roughly a hundred inmates killed in such events in the past five years.
"The reality here is that the penitentiary system has been forgotten for many years, and that lapse has given the prisoners the opportunity to develop self-rule," said Saskia Niño de Rivera, named in 2020 as one of Mexico's 100 most powerful women by Forbes magazine primarily due to her work as the co-founder of the non-government organization Reinserta that works with youths and women caught in the prison system.
She claimed to have non-official information that the government is also planning to close other federal prisons in the near future, specifically mentioning the notorious Altiplano prison in Mexico State as being another under criminal control that will most likely be closed soon.
The Puente Grande and Altiplano prisons are best known as the two facilities from which Sinaloa Cartel co-founder Guzmán escaped in 2001 and 2015 respectively. It's alleged that while an inmate in Puente Grande in the late 1990s up until his escape, Guzmán regularly threw parties and had female inmates brought to his cell. How exactly he escaped is still disputed -- some allege that he hid in a laundry cart while others claim he walked out the front door dressed as a police officer.
Someone who played an important role in both versions was Damaso López, the former Puente Grande vice prison director who later became a high-ranking Sinaloa Cartel operative.
Guzmán would remain on the lam for 13 years until his recapture in 2014. He subsequently escaped from Altiplano through a tunnel on a motorcycle attached to a track and spent six months on the run before again being captured and eventually extradited to the United States. López would later be one of the U.S. government's star witnesses in their 2019 trial against Guzmán.
In a recent press conference, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador jokingly referred to Puente Grande as "puerta grande", or “big door”, as a pun referencing how many well-connected inmates have escaped or received suspicious early releases from the facility. However, the president claimed that the principal reason for the prison's closure was actually the poor private contracts signed by his predecessors.
“It was all a business,” said López Obrador, explaining how contracts were signed with private entities to provide services for certain federal prisons, but the contracts require the government to pay complete services for each and every bed whether or not they are filled by an actual person. Therefore, the government should aim to fill the prisons that already have these burdensome private contracts.
“We are paying for federal prisons that we do not occupy. We have 9,000 spaces in federal prisons and we have to pay as if they were full because they were the contracts that we inherited.”
“They want to close the prisons that are not privatized to fill the beds of the privatized ones,” said Niño de Rivera. As an example, she mentioned a privatized women's prison in Morelos state that has 2500 beds, but less than 1000 inmates. Still, the government is required to pay for 2500 inmates services’ at the facility regardless.
The privatized prison contracts are "a massive corruption scandal,” according to Paola Zavala, a former government prison official and the cofounder of a social justice NGO called OCUPA.
Nonetheless, she acknowledged that there is also a downside to closing prisons like Puente Grande and sending inmates around the country, especially considering the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
“There’s a lot of risk. Also, the prisoners have the right to be close to their families,” she said. “Although I’m not sure that it’s correct, I also understand the need of the federal government to fill the prisons that have these contracts.”
Zavala emphasized that these measures don’t address the real root of the problem with the prison system in Mexico — the lack of rehabilitation programs to help prisoners after release to reintegrate into society without resorting to crime.
Don Chelo, for one, was gunned down in a shootout at a CJNG ranch in Jalisco with Mexican security forces only ten days after being released from Puente Grande.
Cover: The cell where, according to authorities, Mexican drug trafficker Joaquin 'El Chapo' Guzman got into a tunnel to escape from the maximum security prison 'Altiplano' on July 15, 2015 in Mexico City, Mexico. He escaped through a tunnel made between the prison and a nearby house. Photo by Manuel Velasquez/LatinContent via Getty Images.