Update, 5:15 p.m.
Webb County Sheriff Martin Cuellar says the number of inmates that escaped today is confirmed at 60. He says a member of Los Zetas orchestrated the jailbreak and that the seven killed were members of its rival, the Gulf Cartel.
The federal government also released a statement condemning the escape, calling the latest breach “unacceptable.” The Secretaría de Gobernación says that from January 2010 to March 2011, more than 400 inmates have escaped from the five facilities operating under the state’s authority.
At least 59 inmates escaped from a state prison in the Mexican border city of Nuevo Laredo, the office of Tamaulipas Gov. Egidio Torre Cantu confirmed today.
Nuevo Laredo sits directly across the Rio Grande from Laredo, which is the county seat of Webb County.
Seven prisoners were also killed during the escape, which the government said was preceded by a large-scale fight between inmates. Five employees of the prison, the Centro de Ejecución de Sanciones (CEDES), also deserted their posts. Thirty-five of the inmates were being jailed on federal charges.
The Mexican town’s local police force was replaced by the Mexican military last month, when President Felipe Calderón dispatched thousands of army and marine units to the state. The deployment was in response to escalating violence at the hands of the Gulf Cartel and Los Zetas. The former allies are now battling each other for control of the drug plaza that extends from the town northward to lucrative distribution points along the I-35 corridor.
The governor’s statement says the Mexican military and federal police have taken over the investigation. Laredo Police Investigator Jose E. Baeza, a department spokesman, and Webb County Sheriff Martin Cuellar said they do not believe the escapees will try to cross into Texas.
The escape marks the second time in eight months the city has seen a mass exodus of criminals from the prison. In December about 140 inmates escaped, which Cuellar attributed to a plan orchestrated by the Zetas to swell its ranks after suffering heavy losses throughout its ongoing battles against rival gangs and law enforcement. The sheriff could not confirm that today’s escape was part of a similar plan.
The prison break also comes less than two weeks after the Webb County Sheriff’s Department and the Texas Department of Public Safety warned U.S. citizens to avoid crossing into Nuevo Laredo. The agencies said they had evidence to suggest Americans would be specifically targeted for attacks and robberies during the Fourth of July holiday.
Baeza said today’s incident is another sign of increasing violence in the area, with criminal gangs becoming more brazen in their attempts to control the city. Baeza said a narcomanta (narco banner) recently hung in the public view openly mocked the Mexican marines and army in their efforts to quell the violence on the city. The Laredo Morning Times reported today that there have been surges in burglaries of schools and robbing of motorists in Nuevo Laredo since the municipal police force was replaced. The publication also reported that several tons of narcotics and caches of weapons, ammunition and vehicles were seized this week in four Mexican states, including Tamaulipas.