The dusk of Mexico’s infamous Topo Chico prison

On its 76 years of dark history, Topo Chico prison witnessed tens of vicious riots, escapes, overcrowding, and confrontations

The dusk of Mexico’s infamous Topo Chico prison
Topo Chico, one of Mexico’s bloodiest prisons, was opened on October 3, 1943 – Photo: Emilio Vázquez/AP
English 11/09/2019 15:26 Mexico City David Carrizales Actualizada 12:15
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A couple of days before its 76th anniversary, the historical Topo Chico prison will be permanently closed leaving behind tens of vicious and unprecedented events that happened inside, such as riots, escapes, overcrowding, and violent confrontations.

According to Nuevo León’s government, the prison, opened on October 3rd, 1943, will be demolished and a recreational park will be built on its place, as well as a theater and the State’s General Archive.

Nuevo León’s governor, Jaime Rodríguez Calderón, recently informed that the closure process must be concluded between September 30th and the first week of October. Previously, the over 2,000 inmates were relocated to the Apodaca and Cadereyta prisons, as well as to other state and federal prisons. He considered that with this measure the prisoners' self-government is over and there is total control of the prison system of the state.

Pros and Cons
Carlos Martín Sánchez Bocanegra, who is the director of the group “Reborn” (Renace) since 2004 – that supports legally poor prisoners and works on initiatives for the improvement of the prison and judicial system – asserts that the closure of this prison had to happen sooner or later, for it no longer complied with any national standard to keep operating.

The activist foresees no risk of violence with the relocation of inmates. “We believe that the strategy is correct; we’re supervising them and until now the correctional center is calm, there have not been problems as before.”

Nevertheless, there is a sector that considers that peace in prisons is still far. Lawyer Aurelio Galindo Briones alerts that there is risk that the relocation of Topo Chico inmates reactivates violence due to the breaking of “internal balance” among crime groups. Besides, some leaders do not want to leave so as not to lose the extortion they exert over other prisoners.

“Some don’t want to go because they are leaders in Topo Chico and, if they go to Apodaca, there are other leaders there. Extortion fees are still charged. Here [to his office] clients come crying because they pay up to MXN $1,500 a week so that their inmates are not beaten; that will never be over,” considers the lawyer.

Based on testimonies from relatives of interns, the lawyer comments that there are people who lead in each place; “for example, in “The Kennel” are people from Sinaloa cartel and another group leads in “The Canines,” another in “The Reflection Unit,” and another in “Nursing,” and a different one in the patio, where there are several tours. The government has never controlled Topo Chico.”

Galindo Briones points out that in Nuevo León there is presence of the Northeast, Gulf, Los Zetas, Los Beltrán Leyva, and Sinaloa cartels, but also of Jalisco New Generation, and those movements are reflected in prisons.

For their parts, relatives of prisoners have expressed that with the relocation they will spend more time and money to visit their relatives in Cadereyta and Apodaca, or even worse if it is in another state of the country. They are also worried about the treatment prisoners will receive, for, they assert, “they don’t like those from Topo Chico.”

As an antecedent, in March 2017, a video was spread on social networks, recorded in Apocadaca prison, in which inmates allegedly from Northeast cartel, wearing female clothes, were forced to clean the floor with a rag while being kicked and mocked by other prisoners.

Apodaca and Cadereyta prisons also have dark backgrounds. To name some, in Apodaca, on May 20th, 2011, a fire caused by inmates in an area of a rival group caused the death of 14 prisoners. At least five of them would have been beaten to death before being calcined; on February 19th, 2012, 44 members of the Gulf cartel were massacred by members of Los Zetas, while other 37 members of that group escaped.

Meanwhile, in Cadereyta prison, two riots took place in 2017: one in March, which left two deaths and at least 10 injured, and another on October 10th with 13 killed and 8 injured.

Additionally, another problem faced by the prison system of Nuevo León is the deficit of guardians.

Last August 21, Luis Ávila, director of the platform “How We Go” (Cómo Vamos), asserted that there is a déficit of 1,556 custodians in prisons of Nuevo León; in theory, there should be a guardian per every three inmates, but there is only 1 per every 5.91.

Dark past
Topo Chico prison had a capacity for up to 3,600 inmates, although it held almost 6,000. Until now, it has the tragic record of the biggest massacre in a Mexican prison, with 49 deaths and 34 injured on February 11, 2016, due to an alleged dispute between two groups of Los Zetas cartel.

After that massacre, 233 prisoners of Topo Chico were relocated to other prisons of the state and the country. Back then, authorities said they had ended with inmates' self-government, but quarrels, riots, relocation of dangerous inmates and organized crime leaders and extortions continued.

In August 2016, allegedly under orders of the Northeast cartel, Javier Orlando Galindo “El Maruchan” and other two inmates from the same group were murdered. The reason was that they had stopped paying a fee demanded by the cartel, according to secretary Manuel González Flores.

The last time there were riots was on March 27, 2019, due to the relocation of 501 inmates – classified as dangerous – to the federal prisons of Gómez Palacio, Durango and Ramos Arizpe, Coahuila, as well as to the women’s prison in Morelos.

The action deployed by more than a thousand state and federal police officers, as well as military, caused disturbances from prisoners and protests from their families, resulting in the death of one inmate by a heart attack, 17 injured prisoners, and 12 injured police officers.

Outstanding residents
On its 76 years of dark history, Topo Chico prison has had some controversial and renowned figures. Banker Jorge Lankenau Rocha – the owner of insurance company ABA – was imprisoned for 8 years for fraud and tax evasion.

In this prison, former director of the Federal Security Board (DFS), Miguel Nazar Haro, was imprisoned charged with the disappearance in the 70s of the leaders of the Communist League September 23, Ignacio Salas Obregón and Jesús Piedra Ibarra, through the white brigades.

Also, for 19 hours, former governor Rodrigo Medina de la Cruz was imprisoned for damage to the public purse for over MXN $3 billion and other offenses.

In 1959, doctor Alfredo Ballí Treviño was imprisoned in Topo Chico. He was charged with butchering a young man alive with his medical equipment. His case inspired Thomas Harris to create the character of Hannibal Lecter, played by Anthony Hopkins in “The Silence of the Lambs.”

Another famous inmate was the so-called “Ghost Captain,” Santiago Reyes Quesada, who is credited for 12 successful escapes from Mexican prisons, one of them on August 28th, 1962 in Topo Chico, from where he escaped hidden in a double depth desk made by himself.

Among public figures that also were locked in this prison are former soccer player Jesús “El Cabrito” Arellano, charged with alleged sexual abuse, and Andrés Puentes, former husband of singer Tatiana, who was accused of family abandonment.


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