Washington, DC, September 2, 2020
Governor of Nuevo León
Monterrey, N.L. – MEXICO
Dear Governor Rodríguez,
We are writing on behalf of Human Rights Watch and Citizens in Support of Human Rights (CADHAC) to express our profound concern regarding allegations of abusive conditions in Nuevo León’s state prisons. In the past two months, three people have died under suspicious circumstances in state prisons Apodaca 1 and 2. We have also received concerning allegations of prisoners being beaten and forced to pay bribes by criminal gangs who control the prisons and of people with symptoms of Covid-19 isolated in unhygienic, degrading conditions who have not been provided medical treatment.
Under Mexican and international law, state authorities have an obligation to protect the lives and personal safety of people in detention. Prison authorities are legally required to provide adequate food, water, bedding, clothing, and medical treatment free of charge. They are not permitted to withhold any of these services or to engage in any type of cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment or punishment.
To protect the fundamental rights of the detained people of Nuevo León, we urge you to call for a thorough, impartial, transparent investigation into these allegations and into the three deaths that have occurred in recent weeks to determine the extent of these abuses and identify and punish those responsible. To that end, it is necessary that you share all relevant information from the investigation with the state prosecutor’s office. We also urge the state prosecutor’s office and the state human rights commission to open investigations into these serious allegations.
Additionally, given the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, it is critical that you take immediate action to reduce overcrowding and ensure that detainees and staff at Nuevo León prisons can follow health and social distancing recommendations. You should also ensure that all potential cases of Covid-19 in prisons are identified and treated and that any people isolated for potential exposure to the virus are placed in hygienic conditions with adequate access to water, food, and medical care.
Deaths of Inmates
The fact that three people have died under suspicious circumstances within weeks of each other in Nuevo León state prisons 1 and 2 in Apodaca is deeply concerning and calls into question whether state prison authorities are meeting their obligations to protect the lives of detainees.
On July 13, Estanislao Aguilera Escamilla was detained and sent to state prison Apodaca 1. Less than 24 hours later, on July 14, prison authorities reported that Aguilera Escamilla had died of electrocution while in detention. The official report is that Aguilera Escamilla was accidentally electrocuted trying to change a lightbulb while wet from showering.
On July 24, Modesto Martínez de la Cruz was reported dead at Nuevo León state prison Apodaca 2, just three days after entering the prison. Authorities later reported, following an autopsy, that he had died of pneumonia.
On August 8, Óscar Hugo de León Martínez was found hanged in the shower in state prison Apodaca 1.
It is reported that the state human rights commission and the state prosecutor’s office are investigating the death of Aguilera Escamilla.
Extortion and Abuses
On May 23, nine mantas—a banner left in public place to send an anonymous message—were placed throughout the Monterrey metropolitan area with messages allegedly from the families of inmates in Nuevo León state prisons. The mantas said that criminal gangs operating in state prisons were forcing detainees and their families to pay bribes and protection charges and abusing and mistreating inmates who are unable to pay. Prison authorities responded saying they had begun an investigation into the claims.
In August 2020, Human Rights Watch spoke with family members of detainees and one former detainee from Nuevo León state prisons Apodaca 1 and 2, who said that criminal gangs operating inside the prisons forced them to pay protection charges, bribes, and illegal payments. They also said that those who fail to pay are punished by being isolated, forced to clean the cells of other detainees, denied food, and sometimes beaten. The interviewees claimed that many prisoners do not report these conditions to human rights groups, authorities, or their families out of fear that they will be punished.
Outbreaks of Covid-19
A representative of a group of organizations that work with prisoners in Nuevo León told Human Rights Watch that, since May 2020, the organizations have received calls from several people detained in state prisons Apodaca 1 and 2 as well as from multiple family members, who said that detainees in those prisons were being isolated for Covid-19 symptoms in unsanitary conditions without access to running water, hygiene products, or medical treatment.
Similarly, on July 7 and July 15, the Monterrey-based human rights organization Citizens in Support of Human Rights (CADHAC) received two complaints from family members of people detained in Cadereyta state prison who said that their relatives were being isolated for symptoms of Covid-19 in unhygienic conditions and without sufficient medical care.
On July 8, Eduardo Guerrero, head of the state prison system, announced 44 confirmed cases of Covid-19 among staff in Nuevo León state prisons and said that 90 prisoners had been placed in isolation in Cadereyta state prison after potentially being exposed to the virus. Guerrero said that prison authorities had tested 206 prison staff and seven detainees for Covid-19.
As of August 11, the National Human Rights Commission (CNDH) reported 13 confirmed cases and one death from Covid-19 in Nuevo León’s prisons. The CNDH has reported a severe lack of testing in prisons across the country.
We are deeply concerned about the growing outbreak of Covid-19 in Nuevo León’s prisons, especially given the crowded and unhygienic conditions in which most detainees in Mexican prisons are forced to live.
The allegations regarding the conditions in Nuevo León’s state prisons and the recent series of deaths at the state prisons in Apodaca are truly worrying. As governor, you have a legal obligation to protect the safety and wellbeing of everyone in Nuevo León, including the staff and detainees at state prisons. We respectfully urge you to take all necessary measures to ensure that the situation does not deteriorate irreparably.
José Miguel Vivanco
Human Rights Watch
Hermana Consuelo Morales