MEXICO CITY – At least 129 Mexican inmates escaped through a tunnel at a prison across from Eagle Pass, Texas, prompting local officials to alert the U.S. border patrol and warn that the Zetas cartel organized the breakout.
The prison’s director and security chief were detained, Coahuila’s state government said in a statement Monday night. Alleged members of the Zetas gang tried to block authorities from reaching the jail after the escape, triggering a firefight that left four criminals dead, the state’s police chief, Jorge Luis Moran, said in a radio interview Tuesday with Radio Formula. Police lowered the number of fugitives to 129 from 132 out of a population of about 730 inmates.
“The state’s combined police forces are carrying out continued operations,” state prosecutor Hector Ramos said in an interview on Milenio TV. “We’ve alerted U.S. authorities, who deployed border patrol speed boats.”
The jail break took place in the city of Piedras Negras, just across the Rio Grande River from Texas.
“We are aware of the prison break in Mexico and state law enforcement remains in close contact with federal authorities along the border to monitor the situation,” said Josh Havens, deputy press secretary for Texas Gov. Rick Perry, in a telephone interview from Austin.
It is the largest breakout since more than 140 inmates escaped a jail in the northern border city of Nuevo Laredo in 2010, Milenio reported, prompting President Felipe Calderon to criticize state-run penitentiaries Tuesday on his Twitter account.
“In the past six years, more than 1,000 prisoners have escaped state jails. None have done so from federal prisons,” Calderon wrote. “State justice institutions’ vulnerability must be corrected,” he wrote in a separate tweet, calling yesterday’s jailbreak “deplorable.”
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Mexican Foreign Minister Patricia Espinosa were set to meet Tuesday in Washington at a security conference to discuss strategies for combating organized crime, strengthening the rule of law and securing the border.
The U.S. has provided Mexico with development aid and crime-fighting assistance through a $1.6 billion program known as the Merida Initiative.
“It’s emblematic of a challenge that Mexico needs to overcome,” Stephen Johnson, the director of the Americas program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said in an interview. “At some point Mexico needs to join the big leagues and be able to contain its prisoners, process people through the penal system and make it work.”
The country will open its first privately built prisons this year as the war against drug gangs fills cells past capacity. Federal facilities currently hold 22 percent more inmates than the 180,000 they were designed to accommodate, according to a May 2011 government report.
The state is offering 200,000 pesos ($15,627) for information allowing the recapture of each prisoner. The prisoners may have escaped through a tunnel dug in the carpentry workshop, the state government said in its statement.
The 22.9-foot long (7 meter) and 3.9-foot-wide tunnel allowed the “prisoners to break out one by one into an empty lot,” the government said in yesterday’s statement. Some or all of the prison authorities are suspected of involvement in the escape, Moran, the police chief, said.
More than 47,000 people have been killed since President Felipe Calderon deployed troops to fight drug cartels in December 2006. In February, 37 inmates escaped a penitentiary in Nuevo Leon state with the aid of prison guards and by sparking a riot that left 44 prisoners dead.
With assistance from Kathy Warbelow in Austin and Eric Martin in Mexico City.