3 inmates facing US extradition driven out of Mexican jail

MEXICO CITY (AP) — An important financial operator for the Sinaloa Cartel and two other inmates facing extradition to the United States who escaped from a Mexico City prison were driven out of the penitentiary in a jail transport van, city officials said Thursday.

The escape is feeding a debate over a judicial system that critics say is being manipulated to criminals’ advantage. Video of Wednesday’s escape show it occurred at 5:50 a.m. and yet supervisors were not alerted until 8 a.m.

Officials in Mexico’s capital say city jails are not the appropriate facilities for high-value prisoners and that judges are allowing inmates to manipulate the system to be transferred to or remain in lower-security lockups.

Mexico City Interior Secretary Rosa Icela Rodríguez said that at the end of the jail’s second shift, when a headcount is supposed to be taken at 7:45 a.m., the report was that nothing was amiss. The alarm was not raised until the next shift came on at 8 a.m.

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Ulises Lara, spokesman for the capital’s prosecutor’s office, said the preliminary investigation suggested eight jail workers did not follow procedures and thus allowed the escape.

Icela Rodríguez said the jail’s director and head of security had been dismissed.

The biggest name among the escapees was Victor Manuel Félix Beltrán, who was designated by the U.S. Treasury in 2015 under the Kingpin Act. The designation described him as a “high-ranking Sinaloa Cartel trafficker, who operates from Culiacan and Guadalajara.” It noted that he was the son of drug trafficker Victor Felix Felix, who moved cocaine and laundered money for Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman.

The Mexico City prosecutor’s office said in a statement that Luis Fernando Meza González and Yael Osuna Navarro were the other two escapees.

Icela Rodríguez said the men’s cells were unlocked and they cut through a bar to drop down to a common area. They used wire cutters to cut through fencing at the top of a wall and drop into an outdoor jail yard. Then they used a ladder to scale a wall, cut through the wire at the top and get into a vehicle on the other side. The vehicle was still within the prison’s security perimeter and when it went through a guarded exit it was not opened as required by procedures.

The guards driving the van had orders to transport another prisoner to a hospital and city surveillance cameras show the van driving to the hospital. However, they did not capture the moment in which the prisoners got out of the van, she said.

The escape brought renewed attention to the issue of legal maneuvers that prisoners have employed to be in the penitentiary they desire.

Félix Beltrán entered the jail on Mexico City’s south side on Oct. 28, 2017, and was transferred to the maximum security Altiplano prison in Mexico state six days later — two years after Sinaloa Cartel leader Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman escaped it through a tunnel.

But on Nov. 9, 2018, a federal judge ordered that Félix Beltrán be returned to Mexico City jail, said Icela Rodriguez.

On Thursday, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador recognized that the issue of prisoners blocking transfers was a problem.

“They need to look at the issue of the appeals,” López Obrador said. “There are hundreds of appeals like this, they don’t want to be moved to other prisons because they dominate inside or have communication with the outside.” He said the judiciary was looking into it.

Mexico is engaged in a heated debate over whether changes are needed in legal reforms that gave more protections to suspects.

Mexican prosecutors have complained the system is too lenient, and leaked copies of proposed reforms included less stringent limits on questionable evidence.

But the judicial reforms also allowed inmates to file appeals against being transferred to other prisons, and in recent years authorities have blamed those appeals — and judges who grant them — for prison escapes, and deadly prison riots. Dangerous gang leaders have won court orders for transfers back to medium-security prisons that can’t safely hold them.

That was the case in a 2016 riot at a prison in northern Mexico state of Nuevo Leon in which 49 prisoners died.

Nuevo Leon Gov. Jaime Rodriguez said judicial reforms have given inmates greater ability to appeal transfer orders that could send them farther from their hometowns. The 2016 riot was alleged sparked by a member of the infamous Zetas drug cartel, Juan Pedro Zaldivar Farias, who had successfully fought to be moved to Topo Chico, and a rival gang leader at the prison had also won a similar appeal against transferring him elsewhere.

“Basically this is creating the conflicts in the prisons,” Rodriguez said.

López Obrador and other officials have also criticized corruption in the judiciary branch that, along with lenient laws and ill-equipped prosecutors, have contributed to freeing suspects or allowing them to be transferred to less-secure prisons.

On Wednesday, the federal judiciary council, an oversight body, announced the 6-month suspension of a federal judge who is being investigated an almost surreal allegations of malfeasance.

The council said the judge is accused of employing family members in his court, sexually harassing workers, threatening to kill one who refused to resign, and using court employees to launder money and perform personal services like cooking, cleaning and driving him around.

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