Jason Beaubien

The Central American nation of Panama is booming. Fueled by a multibillion-dollar expansion of the Panama Canal, a thriving banking industry and capital flight from Venezuela, the tiny nation has the highest economic growth rate in the hemisphere.

But even as the government builds a subway system and markets the country as a tropical paradise for multinational corporations, not everyone is sharing in the prosperity.

Two giant ships move through the Panama Canal's two parallel channels at the Miraflores locks, heading toward the Pacific Ocean.

The orange and white Bow Summer is a tanker. The deck of the Ever Dynamic is stacked high with burgundy and blue shipping containers. More boats like these are backed up in both the Pacific and the Atlantic waiting to enter the narrow waterway.

Global trade has grown dramatically, but the Panama Canal — one of the most vital transit routes — hasn't changed its basic structure since it opened in 1914.

But that is about to change.

A series of fatal riots inside Mexican prisons last week and a deadly blaze at a penitentiary in Honduras are prompting calls for major penal reform in Central America.

Violence at three different penitentiaries in Mexico last week left 48 inmates dead, while the inferno in Honduras earlier this month killed 360 prisoners.

These deadly events underscore the problems of corruption, overcrowding, prison gangs and crumbling infrastructure that prisons face throughout the region.

Officials in Mexico are offering a reward of nearly $1 million for the capture of 30 inmates who broke out of a prison in the northern state of Nuevo Leon on Sunday.

The governor says the inmates staged a riot, during which 44 people died, to create a diversion for their escape.

It was a jail break that epitomized the Mexican drug war: Rival gang members brutally killed each other, corrupt public officials looked the other way, and dangerous criminals went free.

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