By Alexandra Alper, Joanna Zuckerman Bernstein and Lizbeth Diaz
MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - Working for a modest wage among powerful criminals, Mexican prison guards are caught between a rock and a hard place, often helpless against the muscle and financial might of drug gangs like Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman's Sinaloa Cartel.
Guzman's escape from a maximum security prison on Saturday, his second in 1
5 years, has brutally exposed the limitations of a system both incapable of containing its most infamous inmate and often controlled by those behind bars.
Prisoners, officials and workers say that money rules inside prison walls, changing hands for everything from access to telephones and visits by prostitutes to protection from fierce beatings.
Guards earn less than $1,000 a month. Many take advantage of the prison market to pull in extra cash but they are also under pressure to cooperate with gangsters whose foot soldiers can easily threaten them and their families outside.
Even that path is fraught with danger.
If guards are known to have helped one gang, they can become targets of rival cartels, said Eduardo Olmos, mayor of the northern city Torreon 2010-2013, when it was riven by a bloody conflict between the Zetas gang and Guzman's Sinaloa Cartel.
"You lose if you don't help, you lose if you help," he said.
During the first few years of his term, Torreon's prison was controlled by the Zetas while the Sinaloa cartel was dominant in the prison in the adjacent city of Gomez Palacio.
The Altiplano facility housing Guzman in central Mexico was deemed impossible to escape from and no one ever had, said Sara Elena Izazola, a former top prisons official.
But 17 months after his capture, Guzman slipped out into the night through a mile-long tunnel dug right into his cell, humiliating President Enrique Pena Nieto.
Security camera footage released by the government on Tuesday showed Guzman pacing his cell and making checks behind a partition wall by the shower unit in the corner. At length, he crouches down behind the wall and disappears into the tunnel.
The government has fired the prison's director and 34 prison employees have been questioned over the breakout. Lawmakers said it could only have happened with detailed knowledge of the facility, and by buying off senior officials and guards.
As a former luminary of the Forbes billionaires' list and boss of a gang that has been blamed for thousands of deaths, Guzman has long used bribery and intimidation to buy the support of security forces and government officials.
Prison guards earn as little as 6,000 pesos ($380) a month in state facilities and between 12,000 and 15,000 pesos ($760-$950) in federal ones like Altiplano, said Elena Azaola, an expert on penal conditions from Mexican research center CIESAS.
That sort of pay means taking bribes is hard to resist, said a prison guard in the central state of Morelos
"It becomes a habit because nobody protects you. I'm not justifying it, but the pay is worse than on the outside," the guard said, identifying himself only as Carlos. He said he earns less than 12,000 pesos a month.
'WORLD'S MOST EXPENSIVE HOTEL'
Mexico has 387 prisons across the country. More than half are overcrowded, including Altiplano, which was running at more than 33 percent overcapacity in February, interior ministry figures show.
Poor conditions have encouraged jailbreaks, and there were 31 between 2010 and May 2013, according to think tank Mexico Evalua. One saw more than 130 inmates break out of prison in the city of Piedras Negras right on the U.S. border.
In the United States, a typical prison is characterized by control, said Azaola at CIESAS. Mexico's tend to be underfunded and unable to provide proper food and medical care, she added.
"Most of them are in subhuman conditions," she said.
Miguel Morales, 23, who was briefly interned at a prison near Altiplano, said he soon realized the facility was rife with rackets, with charges imposed on everything from the right to watch television to avoiding being beaten up.
"Ending up there is like ending up in the most expensive hotel in the world," he said.
Living conditions at Altiplano are higher, residents say. Yet it was certainly not free of crime, according to Jose Luis Lara, 49, who spent nearly three years there rubbing shoulders with drug traffickers from 2001 to 2003.
Cartels would smuggle in narcotics to their henchmen through the guards, while wealthy prisoners could arrange prostitutes through their lawyers, he said. At the time, inmates had to pay guards up to 100,000 pesos ($6,350) for a cell phone, he added.
Only the likes of Guzman could afford that, said Lara.
During his stretch in the Puente Grande facility in western Mexico, Guzman paid medical bills for staff, a former prison director said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
"There were people who had sick and terminally-ill children, and El Chapo paid for them, or for operations in Houston," he said. "There were people whose houses he paid for."
Guzman escaped that prison in 2001 and was not recaptured until last year.
Flavio Sosa, who between 2006 and 2007 was interned a few doors from where Guzman was held in Altiplano, said the kingpin must have spent freely to escape the incessant scrutiny inmates faced from 5.45 a.m. to 10 p.m. every day.
"He bought off all the prison guards and they deactivated all the security systems, he said. "There's no other way."
(Additional reporting by Max de Haldevang, Ana Isabel Martinez and Gabriel Stargardter; Writing by Dave Graham; Editing by Kieran Murray)