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Was Mexican prison warden's kidnap retaliation for penal reforms?

August 23, 2012 |  4:48 pm

Cieneguillas

MEXICO CITY -- Three years ago, when the armed gang showed up at Cieneguillas prison, they managed to free 53 inmates -- including killers, kidnappers and drug cartel gunmen. Not a shot was fired, and the warden was arrested on suspicion that it was an inside job.

On Thursday, an armed gang came again.

But this time they came for the new warden.

Her name is Fabiola Quiroz Zarate, and officials in the central Mexican state of Zacatecas say she was forcibly taken from her home Thursday in the city of Fresnillo, along with a nephew who served as her bodyguard, and a visiting friend.

The state attorney general’s office has opened an investigation into the kidnapping, and has advanced two possible motives for the crime -- both of them tied to changes that have been put into effect recently with the purported goal of firming up Mexico’s notoriously weak prison system.

The first theory is that the kidnapping was in retaliation for the transfer of more than 60 prisoners from the state-run Cieneguillas prison to higher-security federal facilities in other parts of the country.

The second theory is that the kidnapping was a response to tighter security measures that have recently been established at Cieneguillas, which Quiroz has overseen since December 2011.

“The principal line of investigation is that this might have been a reaction or response from organized crime to the operations and actions that authorities have carried out to improve the function of our penal establishments,” said Arturo Nahle, the state attorney general, in a television interview.

That kind of explanation is a common one from Mexican officials after one of their prisons is targeted by organized criminals, though it is often difficult to tell whether such explanations are self-serving, given the rampant corruption in the Mexican penal system.

No one doubts that reform is necessary. In recent years, Mexico's prisons have proved to be disturbingly dangerous, porous and corrupt, plagued by deadly riots, escapes of drug cartel capos, and officials bought off by El Narco.

The 2009 prison break at Cieneguillas was one of many high-profile embarrassments in recent years, though notable for its brazenness. The liberating convoy came on a Saturday in May, riding in 17 vehicles, along with a helicopter, rounding up the inmates and hauling them away with no real resistance. Some of the prisoners sprung from the maximum security section had been classified as “highly dangerous” by authorities.

In July 2010, guards allowed inmates to leave their cells in a prison in the northern state of Durango, giving them the opportunity to carry out a revenge-fueled massacre of 17 people, using weapons the inmates had borrowed from the guards. Five months later, 140 inmates escaped from a prison in violence-plagued Tamaulipas state with the suspected help of prison personnel.

In February, 30 members of the Zetas drug cartel escaped from a prison in the city of Apodaca, Monterrey, during a deadly brawl, again with the apparent complicity of prison officials.

The government of outgoing Mexican President Felipe Calderon has been attempting to overhaul of the prison system as part of the $1.6-billion security cooperation agreement with the United States known as the Merida Initiative. The U.S. has provided new equipment, funds and training for Mexican prison officials, helping to establish a new prison guard academy and sending prison managers for training in New Mexico and Colorado.

Zacatecas, a storied, mineral-rich mountain region northwest of Mexico City, is one of numerous states that have suffered mightily in recent years from the violence connected to warring drug gangs and the security forces trying to tame them. This month alone, officials discovered eight decomposed bodies found in a van with evidence of torture; a shootout with Marines left four suspected gunmen dead; and there was reported afternoon shootout between rival cartels in the small city of Tepetongo.

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--Richard Fausset. Cecilia Sanchez in The Times’ Mexico City bureau contributed to this report.

Photo: Soldiers patrol outside Cieneguillas state prison in central Mexico on Saturday, May 16, 2009. That day, an armed gang freed more than 50 inmates from the prison, including two dozen with ties to a powerful drug cartel, in a raid that took just five minutes, according to state Gov. Amalia Garcia Medina. Credit: Oscar Baez / Associated Press

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