Mexican Prison Reform Targets Convicted Kidnappers

Inmates stand inside a cell block inside the Chihuahua state prison.
Philip Connors
By Mónica Ortiz Uribe
March 10, 2014
Mónica Ortiz Uribe
A guard looks on from a tower into the state prison outside the city of Chihuahua.

CHIHUAHUA CITY, Mex. — Mexico is making an effort to combat high rates of kidnapping across the country. Part of that initiative is happening in state prisons, where convicted and accused kidnappers will be concentrated in a single cell block.

The first prison to implement the plan is the state prison outside Chihuahua City in northern Mexico. More than 500 inmates from across the state have been transferred to a single wing within the prison. Cell phone signals within the prison walls have been blocked.

Eduardo Gonzalez, a prison spokesman, said in the past inmates would use illegal phones to order kidnappings and extortions in the outside world.

"The inmates used to run the prison," he said.

Now a hard-won penitentiary reform has weakened the criminals' control. In the last four years, prison officials have implemented security upgrades, including stricter checks on visitors. This prison was recently accredited by the American Correctional Association.

Mónica Ortiz Uribe
Bullet holes from previous riots at the Chihuahua state prison harken back to a time when guards had little control over the inmates.

Jose Jimenez Zavala of Ciudad Juárez is serving a life sentence for murder at the prison.

"It used to be my world, my rules," he said. "But now everything has changed. They tell me when to eat, they tell me I need to shower, what time the rec yard."

Even with progress in the prisons, Mexico has more work ahead. Last year government statistics show kidnappings rose 20 percent. The crime often provides additional income for drug trafficking organizations.