MONTERREY — At least 52 inmates were killed in a prison brawl in Mexico on Thursday. Prisoners fought with bats, sticks and blades and ignited a fire in the overcrowded penitentiary.
Twelve others were injured during the “pitched battle” that lasted 30 to 40 minutes at the Topo Chico prison in the northern industrial city of Monterrey, said Nuevo León state Governor Jaime Rodríguez.
The fight erupted following a dispute between leaders of two rival groups, including one led by a member of the Zetas drug cartel, Rodríguez said.
“They used sharp weapons, bats, sticks,” the governor told radio Imagen, adding that the 60-year-old penitentiary houses 3,800 inmates, twice its capacity.
During the brawl, inmates set a fire in a supply room. TV images showed flames coming out of the prison in the middle of the night.
The riot erupted on the eve of Pope Francis’ trip to Mexico, during which he is due to visit another notorious prison, in the northern border city of Ciudad Juárez.
Angry relatives flocked to the prison and tried to force their way in, desperate for information about loved ones caught in one of the deadliest Mexican prison riots in recent years.
Rodríguez told a news conference that the clash erupted before midnight on Wednesday and that authorities brought it under control at 1:30 am on Thursday.
“We are experiencing a tragedy stemming from the difficult situation that they are living through at penitentiary facilities,” Rodríguez said.
“We can confirm the deaths of 52 people. … The process of identifying victims continues,” he said, adding that all the victims were male inmates.
Five of the injured inmates were in serious condition.
Rodríguez rejected speculation that women or children may have been inside at the time of the riot.
Troops and federal police were deployed inside the prison to keep it under control. Rodríguez said no inmates escaped and no firearms were used.
Ambulances were sent to the prison while scores of relatives crowded at the entrance, throwing rocks and pulling the gate open as riot police blocked their way with a parked vehicle.
Other relatives shouted through a fence, hoping to hear information from the inmates.
Some relatives of prisoners formed a line by holding hands to block a boulevard.
“We will stay here blocking this avenue until they give us an answer. We want to know how our relatives are doing because they are telling us that there are more than 50 dead and no authority is giving us answers,” Ernestina Grimaldo, whose son is a prisoner, told AFP.
Nuevo León has been the scene of violent turf wars between the Zetas and Gulf cartels for years.
Some 20 prisoners were moved out of the prison following the tragedy, a state official told AFP.
“It’s one of the most complicated [prisons] and it is in a very complicated area, too. Obviously, we have to look at the future of this prison,” Rodríguez said.
Mexican penitentiaries are notoriously overcrowded and massive prison breaks have taken place in recent years.
In February 2012, 44 inmates were killed and another 30 escaped from another Monterrey prison, known as Apodaca.
Even at the country’s top maximum-security prison, the Altiplano near Mexico City, weaknesses were exposed when drug kingpin Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán escaped through a tunnel in July. He was recaptured in January.
Ruth Villanueva, an expert at the governmental National Human Rights Commission, told local media last year that there was a serious crisis at the country’s prisons, with 72 of them overcrowded by more than 20 percent.
President Enrique Peña Nieto’s administration vowed to reform the penitentiary system following Guzmán’s escape last year.