Terror in Coahuila: ‘Everything became hell’ after Zetas entered prisons

State authorities have since regained control, but inmates say torture and murder continue

Mexican soldiers stand guard in front of Piedras Negras federal prison after more than 100 prisoners escaped in September 2012.
AFP / Getty Images

Editor’s note: This is the last in a three-part series, “Terror in Coahuila.” In light of the 43 Mexican students who went missing in the southern state of Guerrero last year, Al Jazeera is investigating earlier atrocities that occurred in the northern state of Coahuila but escaped the world’s attention. Part one of this series explores the Massacre of Allende, in which as many as 300 people disappeared, and part two explores links between the region’s vast energy reserves and its so-called drug war.

SALTILLO, Mexico — Even among Mexico’s corrupt and violent prisons, Coahuila was exceptional. Until recently, accounts of what happened in this underworld were terrible. The criminals governed themselves. They murdered and tortured with impunity and entered and exited the prison as they pleased. From 2010 to 2013, 46 staffers of the seven prisons in the state were killed, according to the Coahuila Decentralized Unit for Sentencing and Social Reintegration.

The most unusual thing, however, is that in just a few months, that tyranny was overthrown. Today the system is fully under control, according to the governor’s office and the attorney general, with the most urgent matter being the need to exterminate pests, repair a light or repaint the walls of a cell.

Apolonio Armenta Parga coordinates the management of the seven prisons in Coahuila. With no more than his personal assistant and a pair of armed guards at the door, he explained how he recovered control of the prisons. The first step was to weaken Los Zetas in towns and cities, then combat the institutional corruption that allowed them to operate with impunity.

"There cannot be self-government in prison without complacency of authority,” he said. “Corruption can only be understood as corruption. And that’s what no longer exists.”

Armenta made sure not to specify the corruption, but the media has noted plenty of examples.

Former Coahuila Gov. Humberto Moreira, whom Forbes named one of the 10 most corrupt Mexicans in 2013. Today his brother Rubén Moreira governs the state.
Pablo Salazar / / LatinContent / Getty Images

Perhaps the most famous case is the acquisition of a public debt of $3 billion during the administration of Coahuila Gov. Humberto Moreira. The scandal forced Moreira to resign as leader of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) in 2011 and triggered a U.S. federal investigation into his top aides, including Jorge Torres, the governor who he left as a substitute, and his treasurer, Javier Villarreal. In September, Villarreal pleaded guilty to money laundering and conspiracy to transport stolen money in a federal court in San Antonio.

In addition to them, the heads of public safety and a brother of former state prosecutor Jesús Torres Charles were identified by Zetas leaders as officials who allowed them to operate in the state.

“Corruption is heavy. In this case [the prison system], in the month of October 2014 we fired 50 prison guards, the majority from the prison at Piedras Negras, who did not pass the exams of confidence, precisely because at some point, by negligence, by carelessness or fear, they lent themselves to commit an illegal act,” Armenta said.

In September 2012, Piedras Negras had one of the biggest prison escapes of recent times, with 129 federal prisoners escaping without confrontation.

In that prison, some former inmates who spoke with Al Jazeera described how individuals from other criminal groups were tortured or beaten to death. Their bodies were either removed or cremated in the prison. The murders, they said, were committed by inmates belonging to Los Zetas and in some cases by state police. Piedras Negras Prison Director José Antonio Castillo was shot two weeks after taking office in April 2013. He was the last of the 46 officers killed in three years.

The reduction in violence in Coahuila, however, was not only the result of the work done in the streets against Zetas cells. Armenta’s version — like the government’s — is a simplification that overlooks other forms of corruption and institutional brutality that have been denounced by victims’ relatives, human rights activists and the inmates.

‘At first, everything was more or less discreet. It happened at certain times and in the cells. But then they did not care and tortured at all hours, day and night, even when there were visitors.’

anonymous former prisoner

Screams heard day and night

Before 2009, the year when Los Zetas entered the Social Rehabilitation Center of Saltillo, the second-largest prison in Coahuila, life there remained subject to customary violations of law. There was corruption but also relative peace and freedom for inmates and visitors.

Now authorities do not allow prisoners to speak with human rights advocates or journalists unless the prison director or another senior officer is present. Whoever breaks this rule can be punished with a month in a damp, windowless solitary confinement cell or be tortured.

Al Jazeera interviewed three recently released inmates of the Social Rehabilitation Center who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

"Things were quiet before the arrival of Los Zetas," said one former prisoner, who was released in November after 20 years behind bars. “Of course, drugs and alcohol were sold — that has always happened — but everything was quiet. No one messed with anyone. But when these guys [Zetas] arrived, everything became hell. Suddenly they began to extort money from the other inmates — first those who had their small business or providing services to the rest of the population and then with everyone. They charged for allowing conjugal visits, or if a family member brought us items, we also had to pay a commission. Whoever rebelled was beaten very badly.

“At first everything was more or less discreet. It happened at certain times and in the cells. But then they did not care and tortured at all hours, day and night, even when there were visitors. You can hear the screams of pain, and nobody did anything, because reporting abuse was worse. They would come for you."

During that period, the most powerful criminal in Saltillo was Luis Jesús “Pepito” Sarabia Ramón. He was the Zetas’ top boss in the region.

Sarabia was in and out of prison an average of twice a week from summer 2009 to January 2012, when he was captured, another former inmate remembered. The underboss Sarabia had in prison was known as “El Teniente,” and he in turn controlled about 300 inmates — almost a third of them. That was the troop that used to welcome him.

“Everyone noticed when Pepito arrived. All his people would scream, ‘The boss is here! Pepito has arrived!’” said another former prisoner. “And you’d see him come through the customs door in his truck with his bodyguards. Sometimes he used to arrive with a bulletproof vest with grenades hanging off it. And every time he arrived or left, he would hand out money, cocaine or marijuana among his people and fire his gun. I remember a Wednesday morning when he was leaving at the time when the visiting line was forming at the entrance of the prison. He was leaving when he ran into Serafín Peña [Santos], who at that time was prison director. They greeted each other with hugs, and then Pepito gave him a wad of dollars. I was not the only one who saw them. The 150 people who were in line saw them too.”

Peña Santos was assassinated in December 2011 in the middle of the day while driving his car in Saltillo.

Dubious official version

Mexican soldiers escort Luis Jesús Sarabia Ramón, aka “El Pepito” and “Z-44,” an alleged leader of Los Zetas drug cartel at a press conference in Mexico City. Accounts differ on how he was captured.
Yuri Cortez / AFP / Getty Images

After his recapture, Sarabia, also known as Z-44, was presented on Jan. 13, 2012, on a perfectly manicured stage. Behind him stood a huge panel with the initials of the Secretariat of National Defense, the attorney general’s office and the assistant attorney general’s office for special investigations of organized crime. Four soldiers in fatigues, with assault rifles, masks and sunglasses, guarded Sarabia and a second subject, identified as an accomplice. They announced that both men were caught in a restaurant in San Pedro, Nuevo León, by army special forces.

But there is another version of how he was detained, from a man who says he captured Sarabia.

Jaime Rodríguez Calderón was the mayor of García, Nuevo León, a border town with Coahuila, from 2009 to 2012. He famously survived three attacks by a Zetas cell, which he exterminated with the help of an elite force he created with the military. Part of that elite force makes up his current escort, and he is now running for governor of Nuevo León.

According to him, members of this elite force captured Sarabia along with three of his thugs. Rodríguez pointed out a neighboring ranch in the hills of the municipality of Ramos Arizpe, Coahuila, where he and his bodyguards detained the men. Sarabia and his men were roasting meat and drinking beer when they were surrounded by the soldiers, Rodríguez said. Four days later, the federal government announced its own version of the story.

Something similar happens with the official accounts from the prison world.

"Nothing officials say is true," said the former prisoner who allegedly witnessed Sarabia bribing the prison director he then had murdered. “For example, I had to see seven dead comrades. They were strangled or beaten to death, but when you read the news the next day, authorities said they had committed suicide, that they had hung themselves in their cells.”

Juan José Yáñez is the assistant attorney general responsible for the case of the disappeared in the state of Coahuila. During a short interview, he ordered his personal assistant to record the conversation while his five armed guards remained present.

When asked if he found any evidence to suggest the murder and disappearance of civilians in prisons, he said, “We are doing investigations that have not been finalized, which could rule out or could give us some information, that for the moment we keep sealed.” 

‘The authorities would never accept the atrocities that happened there.’

Jackie Campbell

human rights activist

Order restored?

Sitting behind the desk in his office, Armenta said with absolute confidence that prisoners lie. “So they say they are innocent,” he said sardonically. “We now have an order, a control. Everything the inmates say about there being drugs and alcohol and women does not make any sense.”

The most recent reports of the National Commission on Human Rights and the Coahuila Human Rights Commission say that self-government in the prison system has disappeared, pointing out only that in some cases the prison must fumigate because vermin and rodents were found in the cells.

But in December, human rights activist Jackie Campbell, and adviser to Saltillo Bishop Raúl Vera, received a call on her cellphone from a relative of a Saltillo inmate who said members of the elite Special Weapons Tactical Group (GATE) police force and the military were torturing several prisoners. Their screams, the caller told her, could be heard outside.

Campbell, who monitors conditions in the Coahuila prison system, said she immediately contacted Armenta, who denied the agents or military had entered.

In January 2014, inmates reported a similar case of torture to Campbell. She again contacted Armenta, who had recently taken over the prison. He heard the testimonies of prisoners: 32 of 100 tortured had the courage to support reported version of events. Nothing happened.

“The authorities would never accept the atrocities that happened there,” Campbell said.

“No one can say that’s better than when Los Zetas were here,” said the first of the former inmates, who spoke to Al Jazeera in early December. “I think we are worse now, because you know that inside or outside they can hurt you,” he said, referring to state forces. “They are in charge.”

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