Vehicles transporting drugs, kidnapping victims, bodies destined for an incinerator and even live cows all freely entered the Piedras Negras penitentiary in Coahuila while it was under the complete control of Los Zetas drug cartel, according to a new report released yesterday.
Completed by two university professors who specialize in human rights, the report entitled “El Yugo Zeta,” or “The Zeta Stranglehold,” sheds further light on the extent to which the notorious criminal organization held sway over the jail and the activities it conducted within the prison walls.
It comes just two weeks after another report detailed how Los Zetas exercised near complete control over the entire northern border state in a six-year-period from 2007 to 2013.
Based on witness statements, official documents and public data, this latest report paints a gruesome — and surreal — picture of life inside the prison during 2010 and 2011 when Los Zetas ran the state-funded prison like a personal fiefdom.
Once inside, the cows were slaughtered and roasted to feed inmates and guests at cartel-hosted parties, the report said. It also detailed the violent murder of people who had been abducted by the cartel.
Kidnapping victims were killed, often immediately after their arrival at the prison, located just six kilometers from the United States border. A gunshot or hammer blow to the head were favored execution methods for many but other victims were dismembered before being cremated directly below a guard tower, the report said.
“The Zetas had total control in Coahuila; the state government was negligent and some officials were accomplices,” said Jacobo Dayan, a professor at the Ibero-American University and the report’s co-author.
“The prison was an extermination camp for the Zetas, subsidized by the state. By granting a budget to the prison, what the state was doing was subsidizing the criminal activities of the Zetas,” he added.
The state government provided 135 million pesos (US $7.2 million at today’s exchange rate) in 2011 alone for the operation of the facility, the report said.
All told, about 150 bodies were disposed of at the prison, according to Zeta members who testified in Texas courts, although others say the real number is much higher.
Some remains were dumped nearby but others were disposed of in barrels of fuel within the prison. Whoever was charged with that task had the most lucrative job, the report said, as it came with US $300 a night in pay.
The Zetas also used the prison as a kind of business center, generating their own income of up to US $75,000 annually. Vehicles transporting drugs entered and left unhindered and the prison was used as a hideout and base to carry out extortion activities. Inmates also manufactured uniforms and modified vehicles to conceal drugs and weapons.
In addition, the cartel used the prison to recruit sicarios (hired assassins or hitmen) and punish rivals.
The Zetas prison boss, a former municipal police officer, often left the prison in the company of guards to have coffee, shoot at people “just for fun” or have sex with the wives of other inmates, the report said.
The power imbalance in favor of the cartel is emphasized by the fact that most prisoners who worked for Los Zetas had guns while the official guards were mostly unarmed.
All the illicit goings-on occurred with the knowledge of then-governor Humberto Moreira Valdés, the report’s authors claim, as did a revenge massacre that left 300 people dead in the town of Allende.
“We have documentation that allows us to be certain that the government of Humberto Moreira and the interim government of Jorge Torres did know what was happening in both cases, in the prison and during the revenge,” said Sergio Aguayo, a professor at the College of Mexico and the report’s other co-author.
A memorandum written by Moreira in which he claimed that the federal rather than state government was responsible for the prison was also included, Aguayo said, as the report doesn’t make any conclusions about who was ultimately responsible for allowing Los Zetas to exercise complete control with such impunity.
“Truth and justice are still missing,” Dayan said at the report’s presentation at the College of Mexico yesterday, while Aguayo added that “there was strong pressure to keep this from coming out.”
A Coahuila government official who also attended the report presentation rejected the suggestion that the atrocities had occurred.
“We emphatically deny that there were crimes against humanity,” Federico Garza said, adding that investigations into alleged crimes at the prison were ongoing.
However, given the evidence that has emerged, his assertion is questionable. In addition, the crimes occurred when the Coahuila government — right up to the state’s governor — were allegedly complicit with the cartel or at the very least turned a blind eye to it. Current Governor Rubén Moreira Valdés has also been accused of being complicit with the cartel.
In presenting the report, the two authors issued a plea to authorities to determine who was responsible for the rampant violence that occurred within the prison.