The recent escape of Sinaloa cartel leader Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán from a Mexican maximum-security facility through a 1.5 km tunnel showed that there are gaping holes in the Mexican prison system. In actuality, lacking prison systems are a trend among Latin American countries in general, especially Peru.
The overarching problem that Latin American prison systems face is overcrowding. Oftentimes, prison guards are seen patrolling the exterior of a facility, while ruthless inmates (many of whom are accused drug offenders) run the goings-on inside. Ten prisons in Latin America are operating at 200% capacity, with most inmates still waiting for trial. For example, 65% of inmates in Venezuela had not yet been convicted in 2014. The majority will spend years behind bars before seeing a judge, and a lot of the time, their sentence is far less than the time they already served. The overcrowding also promotes violence among rivals who are in close proximity to one another. There are also a number of safety and sanitation concerns. In 2012, a fire at a Honduran prison killed more than 350 prisoners.
One step being taken to remedy the problem is the construction of new jails, demonstrated by Peru. Lurigancho jail in Lima has been plagued by overcrowding, safety and health issues. In an effort to improve, Peru has new jails, such as Ancón 2. Built in 2010, this facility houses first time offenders and nonviolent offenders, like foreign drug mules, and has not experienced overcrowding issues. Here, there are also educational and work opportunities for inmates, making for a better situation. Peru also appointed a prisons specialist to oversee the operation of the facilities in the country.
However, evidenced by El Chapo’s escape and the overwhelming power and influence of drug cartels in Latin American nations, “corruption, incompetence, or some combination of the two, will undermine any investment in security or facilities,” writes SBS. SBS added:
For example, there is a severe problem with violent crime and extortion in the large district of San Juan de Lurigancho, where two of Lima’s main prisons are located. A significant amount of extortion activity that targets the district has been organised from within Lurigancho prison. Mobile phones are smuggled in, and people living near the jail sell their internet connections to inmates.
Peruvian authorities have installed mobile phone signal blockers in a number of jails, and plan to do so at Lurigancho and others in the near future. But these have frequently failed to work in the past, either for technical reasons or because inmates bribe authorities to switch them off. This raises the question of whether the latest investment in signal blockers will be any more successful.
Even Ancón 2 is not immune from corruption, evidenced by the smuggling of drugs inside by jail staff. At Lurigancho, it was swimming pools were discovered, as well as a booze-serving nightclub run by inmates. While Peru and other Latin American countries have taken measures to improve their prison systems, it is evident that they have a long way to go.