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5 inmates shoot their way out of Baja prison

2 reportedly have drug-cartel links

By Anna Cearley

April 15, 2004

TIJUANA — Mexican authorities were searching yesterday for five men who escaped from a state prison in a shootout that seriously wounded a prison guard.

One escapee, Hector Flores Esquivias, was linked to the 1998 slaughter of 19 people in a drug trafficking feud in Baja California, authorities said.

Another escapee, Luis Alberto Salazar Vega, was connected to the January 2002 kidnapping of a U.S.-born man who managed to escape and alert authorities. Two city police officers were killed while pursuing the suspects in that incident. Flores and Salazar are suspected of working for groups that have ties with the region’s most powerful drug traffickers. The other escapees were identified as Luis Chavez Garcia, Jorge Ruvalcaba Verduzco, and Fausto Sanchez Gonzalez, all being held for crimes such as murder and kidnapping.

Details of the escape were sketchy. State authorities said two armed inmates working in the prison’s clinic forced their way out about 7:45 a.m. yesterday, fleeing with three others to a car outside the prison. A shootout ensued between prison guards and people in the car, which reportedly was stolen in Chula Vista.

Authorities said the wounded guard was in serious condition in a local hospital. The system is improving, but usually the prisoner escapes take place with complicity of others, said Victor Clark, a Tijuana-based human rights activist.

La Mesa prison has had a reputation for lawlessness and corruption. In 2002 authorities cracked down on the community of prisoners who had built a mini-city inside, and many of the more serious offenders were sent to the modern El Hongo facility east of Tecate. State officials said some of the men were in La Mesa prison instead of El Hongo because they were going to be making court appearances soon in Tijuana.

Three guards are facing charges in the escape of several prisoners last year from La Mesa prison. Alejandro Parra, sub-secretary for the state penitentiary system, said it was too early to say if that was the case in yesterday’s escape. The escape also raised questions about who was behind such a well-planned effort. While authorities wouldn’t talk publicly, one theory circulating was that the region’s weakened Arellano Felix drug cartel was trying to recoup some of its jailed gunmen. At the time of Salazar’s arrest in 2002, he was working with a group that had ties to the Arellanos, according to sources and local media.

Flores was among 11 suspects who Mexican authorities said also worked for a group that had ties to the Arellanos. The suspects apparently went to a ranch in El Sauzal intending to take possession of some drugs as payment for a debt, Mexican authorities said at the time. An argument escalated into a massacre of members of three families living at the ranch. The dead included an infant, a pregnant woman and her unborn baby.

5 inmates shoot their way out of Baja prison

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