Busted: The Micropower of Prisons in Narco-States
Paul Rexton Kan
The 2015 prison escape of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman demonstrated the degree to which Mexican drug cartels have penetrated a key institution of state control. A mile long tunnel was constructed beneath Mexico’s maximum-security prison compound; included in the tunnel was a motorcycle on a rail to hasten El Chapo’s escape. Prison officials and corrections staff were complicit in his escape; they ignored the construction noise underneath El Chapo’s cell and refrained from watching his movements. At the time of his escape, the prison guards responsible for monitoring El Chapo were playing computer solitaire while their other computer screens linked to the closed-circuit cameras were turned off. In his empty cell, investigators also found a dead sparrow; it was apparently used to test the air quality of the tunnel before El Chapo descended through its opening beneath his shower.
In another case from Mexico, members of Los Zetas drug cartel used Piedras Negras Prison in Coahuila as an execution center and mass grave for rivals. From 2010-2012, the drug cartel dispatched approximately 150 victims on prison grounds by burning their bodies and dumping the remains in a nearby a river. Astonishingly, the victims were not fellow prisoners who were incarcerated with Los Zetas. Rather, they were either snatched from cities and towns, then brought to the prison to be killed or were killed outside the prison walls, and their bodies brought to the prison to be disposed of.
El Chapo’s daring escape and Los Zetas’ extraordinary use of Piedras Negras Prison serve as reminders of what Michel Foucault argued in his seminal work, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison—prisons must be studied “as social phenomena that cannot be accounted for by the juridical structure of society alone, nor by its fundamental ethical choices; we must situate them in their field of operation, in which the punishment of crime is not the sole element.” The importance of prisons as social phenomena beyond their role as institutions of punishment is especially relevant when attempting to understand their place in narco-states. Instead of the prison being emblematic of state control (restricting a citizen’s autonomy through application of the law), it has become a powerful institution that undermines governmental authority in countries where drug trafficking is pervasive. In a narco-state, incarceration often translates into empowerment; governance comes as much from the “big house” as a statehouse.
To better understand the social phenomena of prisons in narco-states, Moises Naim’s concept of “micropower” provides additional clarity. According to Naim, micropower emanates from smaller, largely overlooked actors that were once negligible; micropower thwarts large bureaucratic organizations that previously controlled their fields. Micropower is “unburdened by size, scale, asset and resource portfolio, centralization and hierarchy” and outflank larger, more established actors. The micopower emanating from prisons has transformed them into significant sites of both order and disorder in narco-states, affecting their stability and durability. The far-reaching implications for narco-states requires new ways to tackle the role of prisons in these fragile countries.
“Hangin’ and Bangin’,” Predation and Welfare
The micropower of prisons emanates from the activities and interests of incarcerated members of criminal organizations like gangs. In narco-states, drug trafficking activities have increased corruption and impunity, weakening state institutions and leading to prisons that are often “self-governed” and autonomous. For example, a 2012 study from the Mexican Human Rights Commission found that gangs and drug cartels controlled approximately sixty percent of the nation’s correctional facilities.
Prison gangs like those in Mexico and elsewhere are notoriously difficult to combat. Prison gangs comprising incarcerated members of established street gangs like El Salvador’s Mara Salvatrucha-13 and Barrio 18 and Brazil’s Primeiro Comando da Capital (PCC) and Comando Vermerlho (CV) are distinct from other types of armed groups because they can thwart and disrupt traditional state actions to repress them. A Brookings Institution study on the power of prison gangs described the state’s conundrum:
Unlike traditional armed groups though, prison gangs cannot be directly neutralized through repressive force, since most of their leadership is already incarcerated. Indeed, common hardline state responses like aggressive policing, anti-gang sweeps, and enhanced sentencing can inadvertently swell prison gangs’ ranks and strengthen their ability to coordinate activity on the street. Breaking up prison-gang leadership has proved particularly counterproductive, often facilitating prison gangs’ propagation throughout state-and national-level prison systems. Alternative approaches like gang truces that exploit prison gangs’ capacity to organize and pacify criminal markets…are politically dicey (and hence unstable), and ultimately leave the state partially dependent on prison gangs for the provision of order, both within and beyond the prison walls.
The micropower of prisons is also generated by the degree of insulation and protection that prisons give to incarcerated gang members. First, imprisoned gang members are already subjected to harsh penalties meted out by the state. Short of torture and death, there are only a few additional levers—such as revocation of specific privileges, transfer to a higher security facility or placement in solitary confinement—that the state can use against an inmate to gain compliance. However, the degree of corruption and lack of adequate resources in narco-states limits the employment and effectiveness of these tools. Second, not only are there limits on how the state can further control incarcerated gang members, there are also limits on how their associates on the outside can affect them. Prison walls and guards protect incarcerated gang members from the possibility that any disaffected non-incarcerated associates might organize and attack them en masse.
The micropower emanating from prisons is more than the ability of gangs to disrupt and thwart state authority; micropower is also the ability of prison gangs to develop interests and conduct activities that meet those interests inside and outside jailhouse walls. Mike Davis views the interests of gangs as combining “elements of both predation and welfare,” where gangs act as “vampire-like parasites on their neighbors” to earn money and respect while in other instances they “play Robin Hood” by bolstering needy communities through the provision of certain services in the areas where they operate. To meet these interests, gang activities center on extortion, protection rackets and acts of violence as well as socializing with each other, managing internal gang relationships and generating support in the larger communities where they operate. In other words, gang members’ activities are as much about “hangin’” as they are “bangin’.”
The interests and activities of prison gangs can be depicted along two different axes as a way to provide a fuller spectrum of how prison micropower is manifested (see Graph 1). The horizontal axis of interests ranges from predation (the illegal exploitation of people and resources) to welfare (the provision of goods and services to the community inside and outside prison). The vertical axis of activities ranges from hangin’ (internal cohesion) to bangin’ (the use and threat of violence).
This schema can be used to group the actions of various prison gangs and how they affect narco-states. In the northwest quadrant of the graph (hangin’ and predation), prison gangs focus on defining certain areas of the prison to place under their control, such as commissaries, kitchens and specific common areas. They will also engage in “taxation” of inmates and collude with guards and staff for favors and access. By establishing such control, a prison gang also earns taxes from non-incarcerated members by promising to protect them and provide for their needs if they enter a correctional facility under the gang’s authority. To demonstrate their loyalty to the gang, members who still run the streets will make deposits in the commissary accounts of their imprisoned associates and/or take care of their families on the outside.
In the southwest quadrant (hangin’ and welfare), prison gangs organize methods of prison governance, including the composition of “constitutions” that delineate the roles, rights and responsibilities of membership. Some prison officials will encourage such informal governance structures to ease the pressure on guards and staff. Gangs also construct informal prison economies that distribute contraband to loyal members and followers as well as to those who pay them for access. Prison gangs can do more than offer protection and provide for the needs of the members. They can also convey upon an individual a type of status in the gang. A tenure in prison can produce certain bona fides for a gang member that will allow him to rise in the ranks of the gang and grant him greater credibility in the streets when he is released.
Just as prison gangs can use the possibility (or even the anticipation) of their non-incarcerated members entering a penal institution to provide incentives for compliance, they can also use the same possibility to coerce their members. Without the protection and accommodation of a prison gang, a new inmate has very few resources to defend himself in a confined and hostile environment. A prison gang can withhold its services, leaving a new inmate defenseless and deprived of resources that may make his sentence more bearable. A gang may also actively seek to harm a disobedient new inmate. This knowledge among non-incarcerated gang members creates an important way for prison gangs to “discipline the workforce” beyond the prison walls. As one gang leader in Rio de Janeiro put it, “Whatever you do on the outside, on the inside you’ll have to answer for it.” Disciplining the workforce stands roughly in the center of the axes as it is key to developing interests and coordinating the activities of prison gangs.
The ability of prison gang to determine how comfortably and safely a new inmate from the gang spends his time behind bars functions as an important source of the micropower of prisons in narco-states. Because narco-states are institutionally fragile, a prison gang’s ability to control their non-incarcerated members allows them to extend their authority beyond prison walls. They can issue orders to coerce and attack rival gangs, state agents and citizens on the outside as well as to direct the provision of goods and services to communities where the gang operates. This capability in tandem with the prison gang’s ability to control the prison environment through intimidation of guards and officials is a potent combination. In fact, the micropower of prisons in narco-states is more apparent in the shaded area of the northeast quadrant (bangin’ and predation) and the southeast quadrant (bangin’ and welfare) of Graph 1. In the northeast quadrant, for example, coordinated prison riots occurred in Brazil to force the government to provide better living conditions for gang members. In another example that demonstrated the ability of prison gangs to coerce prison personnel to assist them in their external criminal enterprises, gang members forced guards at Gomez Palacio Prison in Mexico into releasing them at night and provided them with prison vehicles and weapons to kill rivals in a different city. In more extreme cases, the PCC and CV prison gangs in Brazil directed campaigns of violence aimed at the state and society to force politicians and police to end their more heavy-handed approaches against their members. In May 2006, the PCC coordinated a multiday attack against nearly 300 sites across Sao Paulo as a way to force police to end their repression in neighborhoods where they operated and to prevent the transfer of over 700 gang members to maximum security prisons. Police stations, transit centers and governmental institutions were targeted, killing 261 people.
Prison gangs are also able to direct their violence in ways that provide goods and services for communities where their membership continues to operate. In the southeast quadrant, prison gangs continue to view themselves as community protectors and providers. Because law enforcement and the courts are viewed as corrupt in many narco-states, citizens will turn to local gangs to seek justice. The PCC, CV and MS-13 have their own “courts” to settle domestic disputes, enforce property rights and even adjudicate small claims cases. Prisons have also been important sites for gang truce negotiations in Honduras and El Salvador. The most notable was the 2012 MS-13 and Barrio 18 gang truce in El Salvador that was negotiated in Zacatecoluca Prison. In return for better prison conditions and jobs programs, the imprisoned gang leadership directed their members on the street to limit their use of violence and restrict their recruitment in schools. As a result, the homicide rate in the nation plummeted, demonstrating the ability of prison gangs to control the levels of violence in a nation.
The Implications of the Micropower of Prisons
Hangin’ and bangin’, predation and welfare demonstrate how prison gangs are able to construct, exercise and extend a type of “carceral sovereignty” by virtue of their control of prisons. The governments of narco-states treat prisons as “human dumping grounds” and are merely content to have some gang members and leaders removed from the streets. The imprisonment of violent gang members, even in dysfunctional correctional facilities, is one mechanism to ameliorate public perceptions of governmental ineffectiveness. However, once behind bars in prisons that are under-resourced and permeated by corruption, gang members adjust the dimensions of their incarceration to produce authority over the institution and society, rather than the state being able to use the institutional authority of the prison to adjust the dimensions of gang activities.
As a result of the adaptability of prison gangs, prisons in narco-states have emerged as important sites of order and disorder. On the one hand, prisons enable gangs to create order in specific communities by providing useful services. In addition, gang truces negotiated in Salvadoran and Honduran prisons stand as testaments to the centrality of these institutions to reduce homicides in their societies. On the other hand, prisons are a source of disorder by permitting gangs to increase the levels of violence on the street as a way to coerce the state. The CV and PCC attacks coordinated from prisons demonstrate their role as command headquarters for directing high levels of lethal violence in cities. So intimate is the order and disorder nexus, the micropower of prisons may be best described as the ability to generate “dis/order” in a narco-state.
The implications for narco-states are far-reaching. Governments compete with the shadow sovereignty emanating from prisons. Politicians in narco-states must calculate how prison gangs might react to policy choices that might negatively affect their interests. Some gang leaders have public profiles, giving them an additional degree of political power. These implications leave citizens uncertain about whether their interests or those of criminal groups guide the formation and implementation of public policy that affects their daily lives.
Because of the micropower of prisons, the following recommendations should be explored to reduce its implications for narco-states:
- Prisons should be considered as more than peripheral institutions, but as part of the sinews of narco-states. Prisons have become strategic spaces for gangs in narco-states. Prisons do not serve to disrupt gang violence, but act as a way for gangs to export their authority. All states struggle with the interests and activities of prison gangs, but narco-states are especially susceptible to their capacity to harm the legitimacy of governance.
- Each prison should be viewed through the lenses of the culture and history of the narco-state where they exist. Mexican prison gangs are linked to powerful drug cartels while El Salvadoran gangs find some of their roots in the nation’s civil war. Brazil’s CV is rife with leftist political rhetoric and the PCC traces its origins back to the 1992 prison massacre at the Carandiru prison complex.
- Gangs are not monolithic; the connection between prison gangs and their comrades on the street is not always solid. Many gangs are federated entities or even franchised. Exploiting these gaps in the continuum of gang governance requires a deeper investment in intelligence capabilities that focus on the dynamics of criminal gangs.
- A system of “mentor prisons” should be established. Keeping in mind the unique history and culture of each country, a mentor prison system would resemble the “sister city” program, but with added emphases on how successful prisons around the world can work with struggling prisons in narco-states to transmit their best practices in reducing the power of prison gangs.
Understanding the micropower of prisons in narco-states must be an essential first step in building policies and strategies that curtail the capacity of gangs to affect democratic governance.
The views expressed do not represent those of the US government, the US Department of Defense or the US Army.
 Joshua Partlow, “Chapo Guzman’s Prison Guards Reportedly Played Solitaire While He Escaped,” Washington Post, October 6, 2015, www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2015/10/06/chapo-guzmans-prison-guards-reportedly-played-solitaire-while-he-escaped (accessed December 3, 2015).
 Arron Daugherty, “Zetas Turn Mexico Prison into Mass Grave,” insightcrime.org, January 27, 2016 URL: http://www.insightcrime.org/news-briefs/zetas-turned-mexico-prison-mass-grave.
 Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (New York: Vintage Books, 1979), 24.
 Moises Naim, The End of Power (New York: Basic Books, 2013), 51.
 Ibid, 52.
 “Mexican Report Describes Out of Control, Self-Governed Prisons,” Christian Science Monitor, September 24, 2012 http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Latest-News-Wires/2012/0924/Mexican-report-describes-out-of-control-self-governed-prisons.
 Benjamin Lessing, “Inside Out: The Challenge of Prison-Based Criminal Organizations”, Brookings Institution, September 2016, 1.
 David Skarbeck, “Governance and Prison Gangs,” American Political Science Review 105, no.4, (2011): 715. However, while storming the prison to attack their incarcerated brethren is difficult, there have been “coups” where members on the street have colluded with the government to place their own incarcerated gang leaders in solitary confinement or move them to more distant prisons. The state agreed to these actions in exchange for limiting gang activity in certain areas and reducing street violence. Doug Farah, “Gangs as Transnational Criminal Organizations,” Gangs and Drug Trafficking in Central America Conference, University of Pittsburgh, October 22, 2015.
 Mike Davis, “Foreword,” John Hagedorn, World of Gangs (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 2008), xi.
 Malcolm Klein and Cheryl Maxson, Street Gang Patterns and Policies (New York; Oxford University Press, 2006), 69.
 Lirio Gutierrez Rivera, “Gangs and Cities in Honduras, “ Gangs and Drug Trafficking in Central America Conference, University of Pittsburgh, October 22, 2015.
 Skarbeck, “Governance and Prison Gangs,” 705.
 Lessing, 6.
 “Mexican Officials: Prison Inmates Released to Commit Killings,” cnn.com, July 25, 2010. URL: http://www.cnn.com/2010/CRIME/07/25/mexico.killings.prison/.
 John Bailey and Matthew Taylor, “Evade, Corrupt or Confront? Organized Crime and the State in Brazil and Mexico,” Journal of Politics in Latin America 1, no.2 (2009), 15.
 Lessing, 12-13.
 Jonathan D. Rosen, Marten W. Brienen, Astrid Arrarás, Prisons in the Americas in the Twenty-First Century: a Human Dumping Ground (New York: Lexington Books, 2015).