A hunger strike could spring Chapo from Mexico's toughest prison

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In the Mexican maximum-security prison of Altiplano, the rats may be bigger than the cats. The country's most notorious inmate seems to be circumventing a system that remains uncracked.


Six months have passed since Sinaloa cartel boss Joaquín "Chapo" Guzmán Loera was apprehended by Mexican authorities and taken to Altiplano, also home to a presidential candidate assassin, a kidnapper known as el mochaorejas — the "ear cutter" — and several rival cartel capos.

MORE: Inside the Operation to Capture "El Chapo" Guzman

A July report published in Proceso magazine claimed the former Sinaloa kingpin and Edgar Valdez Villarreal, a Mexican-American cartel lieutenant from the Beltran-Leyva organization nicknamed la barbie for his blonde boyish looks, orchestrated a four-day hunger strike mobilizing more than a thousand inmates protesting the lack of appropriate medical care, spoiled meals and the inability to acquire basic personal hygiene products. The article concluded they "carried out their plan successfully, even though they did not communicate directly with one another or the other prisoners." The Mexican journalist who broke the story, Anabel Hernández, told Fusion that the biggest affirmation that the strike occurred is the government’s silence. Authorities have yet to issue an official statement confirming or denying the incident.


Hernández, whose sources include the presumed inmate strikers and their lawyers, says "the government doesn’t know who helped Chapo spread the rumor throughout the prison." She explains that “officially, Chapo is not allowed to interact with anyone, his cell is completely sealed, only having a small hatch for the delivery of meals and legal documents.” Chapo is located in the isolated Special Treatment Module block. According to Hernández, this entails an obvious complicity involving the prison guards. Otherwise, a secluded inmate would be unable to communicate with others, much less give directions.

There are two other versions circling in Mexico. The government’s initial off-the-record stance was that a strike never took place. A high-ranking Mexican official told Fusion that Chapo was far from being on a diet and enjoys plenty of Mamuts, chocolate covered marshmallow cookies. Another anonymous source told the Washington Post that the strike did take place, but lasted only a few hours, involved a hundred inmates and was carried out without Chapo’s participation or consent.

Contradictory accounts sprout from Altiplano's lack of transparency. In 2012, Elena Azaola, a researcher at the Center of Social Anthropology Investigations and Superior Studies, gained unprecedented access to Altiplano through an academic report. Azaola, who has been studying Mexican prisons for 30 years, emphasizes there is not as much corruption in the federal-run prison as one would find in a state facility where inmates establish the rule of law. "There is an excessive control regime, the prisoners are isolated, only walk outside for thirty minutes a day and have little or no interaction with others," Azaola reveals.


"At Altiplano we found inmates that were naked and endured a very cold climate, some had their hands and feet chained for months and had no choice but to eat their meals that way." She warns that these human rights violations derive in part from the American prison-industrial complex model Mexico is starting to adopt. So far eight private prisons have been built.

Altiplano has contracts with private companies that provide food and other services. Naturally, the incentive is to bring down costs. Isolation and poor treatment enables this, since there is no need for personnel that would supervise the usual rehabilitation activities. Mexican construction companies like Homex and ICA, Chinese enterprises and even the world’s richest man Carlos Slim have invested in the business of private prisons. Regarding Chapo, Azaola mentions she has been told by an authority that the strike did happen but without his participation.


Gustavo Fondevilla has been studying Mexican jails for ten years at CIDE, one of country's most important centers for researching and teaching social sciences. "If you go to a maximum security prison, you will find what many authors call institutionalized inmates, those who have lost their identity, they have adapted so much to the institution that they seem to be zombies," Fondevilla claims. He tells Fusion that in Altiplano "there are rules for everything, even for walking in the halls." He said the strike scenario seemed a bit odd considering conditions are not nearly as bad as in other facilities. "However, you do have a series of narcos that are used to very high standards of living."

Fondevilla believes there must be other reasons behind the strike, if there was one. "The main question is how they were able to communicate with one another." If this happened it is more about Chapo sending a message to the Mexican government and to his organization; he’s alive and well, and remains powerful. Moreover, it showcases institutional weakness.


Anabel Hernández theorizes that is ultimately Chapo’s intent; show he’s still in charge. Most importantly, "Chapo is rewriting his history." Back in 2000, some of the first tactics Chapo employed prior to his escape from the Puente Grande maximum security prison was to win the sympathy of his fellow inmates through favors such as paying for their legal representation or the medical care of outside relatives, as well as befriending other cartel leaders and bribing guards. The 2012 CIDE report shows that 41 percent of Altiplano’s inmates said the guards engaged in corruption. A strike could indicate that Chapo is rapidly building influence inside the walls. The maximum security prison appears to be suffering some of the initial symptoms that led to Chapo's escape from Puente Grande 14 years ago.

The presumed strike also illustrates the direction in which cartel leaders and their followers may be headed. These criminal enterprises were once solely driven by profits. Today, they are increasingly adding ideology to the mix. A hunger strike reflects more than a mere protest. Mexican criminal organizations seem to be mimicking the tactics of far more ideologically committed groups; IRA members inside UK prisons or Islamist terrorist detainees in Guantanamo. Latin American gangs in Brazil and Honduras are also known to have resorted to coordinated hunger strikes while in prison.


For the federal government to admit that a planned hunger strike went down at a maximum security prison would mean it is being upstaged by Chapo once again. Most importantly, it could demonstrate a potential ideological sophistication of cartels and the ability of the undisputable drug lord to corrupt even those institutions that seem impenetrable.

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