MONTERREY, Mexico — A brutal fight between rival factions killed 52 inmates and injured 12 at a prison in northern Mexico on Thursday, the state governor said.
Nuevo Leon Gov. Jaime Rodriguez said there were no reported escapes and the battle, which sent flames billowing into the pre-dawn sky, didn’t involve guns.
The country’s deadliest prison riot in many years broke out just six days before Pope Francis is scheduled to visit another Mexican prison, in the border city of Ciudad Juarez in Chihuahua state.
Rodriguez said at a news conference that the clash involved a faction led by a member of the infamous Zetas drug cartel, Juan Pedro Zaldivar Farias, also known as Z-27.
The Zetas once nearly controlled the area around Monterrey, and Zaldivar Farias was a suspect in the 2010 shooting death of American David Hartley on Falcon Lake, which makes up part of the border between Mexico and Texas. Hartley was reportedly shot while touring the reservoir with his wife on jet skis.
The governor said the fight broke out between supporters of Zaldivar Farias and Jorge Ivan Hernandez Cantu, who has been identified by local news media as a member of the rival Gulf cartel.
A war between the two cartels bloodied Nuevo Leon state and neighbouring Tamaulipas between 2010 and 2012.
Images broadcast by Milenio Television showed flames leaping from the prison as a crowd of people bundled against the cold gathered outside. Some shook and kicked at the gates, demanding to be allowed in. Rescue workers could be seen bringing injured inmates from the facility, at least some with burns.
“They haven’t told us anything,” said Ernestina, who added that she was the mother of an inmate. She declined to give her full name for fear of reprisals. “They said that until there is order they won’t let us in. Everything is in disorder, and nobody is telling us anything.”
Rodriguez said the fight broke out around midnight and inmates set fire to a storage area, causing a thick cloud of smoke.
The deadliest earlier prison riot in recent memory also occurred in Nuevo Leon, in February 2012, when members of the Zetas murdered 44 members of the Gulf cartel at the overcrowded Apodaca federal lockup. One month earlier, 31 inmates died in a brawl in Tamaulipas state. That riot involved fighting with makeshift knives, clubs and stones.
According to a 2014 report by the National Human Rights Commission, Topo Chico was designed to house 3,635 prisoners but actually held about 4,585 that year. Inmates there used violence as a way of exerting control over the lockup, it added.
In 2013, another Commission report highlighted cases of violence and inmate control in many of the country’s prisons, symptoms of corruption and lack of resources.
The report, based on visits and interviews at 101 of Mexico’s most populated prisons, found that 65 of the facilities were run by inmates, not authorities.