Members of Mexico’s Zetas drug gang killed 44 rivals from the Gulf cartel in a prison riot before staging a mass escape, possibly with help from authorities, Mexican officials said Monday.
Prisoners bludgeoned and stabbed other inmates to death in one of Mexico’s deadliest prison riots Sunday in the Apodaca prison, an overcrowded facility 30 kilometers (18 miles) north of Monterrey, the state capital.
“In the midst of the riot and disorder inside the prison, a group of 30 inmates succeeded in escaping the penitentiary,” Rodrigo Medina, governor of the northern state of Nuevo Leon, told a news conference.
Medina said the escaped prisoners were all Zetas and those who died were their rivals from the Gulf cartel — gangs which have spread violence across the region and beyond since breaking an alliance in 2010.
He said four senior prison officials and 18 guards had been dismissed and were under investigation for possible complicity in the mass escape.
Authorities said Sunday that the riot may have begun as a diversion to cover a breakout.
Medina released names and pictures of the fugitives, and posted rewards of up to 10 million pesos ($775,000) for information leading to their capture.
The riot came just days after a fire in a jail in Honduras left 359 dead, again highlighting terrible overcrowding in Latin American prisons.
Rampant drug trafficking, score-settling between gang members and official corruption have turned prisons into human tinder boxes.
The prison population in Mexico and Central America has swollen in line with the region’s increasingly important role in the cocaine trafficking trade, meaning outdated facilities are straining at the seams.
Distraught families gathered outside the Apodaca prison awaiting news of loved ones in a desperate scene, with some women fainting.
State security spokesman Jorge Domene told reporters Sunday most of the deaths were from stab wounds and traumas from blunt weapons.
It was only the latest in a string of deadly riots in Mexican prisons.
In early January, 31 inmates were killed and 13 wounded in a brawl in the Altamira prison in the northern state of Tamaulipas. On October 15, 20 people were killed in another Tamaulipas prison.
Two days earlier, seven inmates were killed and 12 wounded in a fight at Nuevo Leon’s Cadereyta prison.
Those northern border regions have seen an upsurge in violence in recent years blamed on fighting between the two gangs.
In Honduras, the toll of Tuesday’s blaze at the overcrowded Comayagua prison, thought to be the world’s worst-ever prison fire, rose by one to 359 dead, after an inmate succumbed to severe burn injuries.
Only 38 bodies have so far been identified in the morgue in the Honduran capital Tegucigalpa, and just 21 have been returned to their families for burial.
Expert teams from the United States, Chile, El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico and Peru are helping the Honduran authorities with their investigations into the fire, the cause of which remains unclear.