49 prisoners have been killed and 12 injured in a pre-dawn Mexican prison brawl between rival drug gangs as prisoners fought themselves with blades, bats, sticks and stones then set fire to a storage area.
Drug-trafficking has prospered in broad daylight with the country’s drug war stretched with few signs that Mexico’s drug cartels are waning in power.
The brawl took place a day before Pope Francis’ arrival in Mexico City, a visit that is scheduled to include a trip next week to another prison in the border city of Ciudad Juarez.
Regional governor Jaime Heliodoro Rodríguez Calderón confirmed the number of deaths at the Topo Chico prison yesterday and attributed the bloodshed to a clash between two gangs, the Gulf Cartel and Los Zetas. The criminal groups, which were once partners, have fought for control of crime and smuggling territories in Mexico’s troubled northeastern states.
During a press conference governor Calderón listed 40 names of confirmed victims of the brawl, saying five of the remaining bodies had been scorched by fire and some four others remained unidentified. One of the injured was in a critical condition.
Higher officials in Mexico say the Ciudad Juarez prison has improved in recent years, with gangs no longer ordering crimes in the city from behind bars, though priests working in the diocesan prison ministry and with the families of inmates say problems persist such as inmates having to pay for protection and privileges.
Different families surrounded the prison gates where the names of the dead prisoners were posted to learn the fate of their loved ones.
One 63-year-old Maria Guadalupe Ramirez cried: “Ayyy, my son is on the list!” when she saw that the name of her son, Jose Guadalupe Ramirez Quintero, 26, was on the list.
“He had already gotten out. They picked him up again just for drinking. … There is injustice in this prison,” she said, wailing and shaking her fists.
Fr Oscar Enriquez, director of the Paso del Norte Human Rights Center in Ciudad Juarez, who works with families of the prisoners, said: “There’s a certain control by groups inside the prison. This has not completely been eradicated.”
Few Latin American prisons fulfill their basic functions of punishing and rehabilitating criminals. Not only are prisoners frequently subjected to brutal treatment in conditions of mass overcrowding and extraordinary squalor, but many jails are also themselves run by criminal gangs.
In Mexico prison deaths have risen in tandem with the expansion of organized crime, from 15 in 2007 to 71 in 2011 and more than 80 in the first three months of this year, according to Eduardo Guerrero, a security expert.
Fr Robert Coogan, an American prison chaplain in Saltillo, 30 miles west of Monterrey, said the Topo Chico prison suffered from self-rule.
“They know how to calm the authorities down by doing things that are pleasing to the authorities,” Fr Coogan said, referring to the way inmate leaders keep prisons with self-rule clean, maintained and orderly as a way to keep wardens on their side.
“The reason for [inmates] controlling the prison is that you cannot have an escape every time someone comes in. But sometimes they will use their manipulation … to get the people they want to release all in one place. Once they get them in one place, then they’ll set them free,” he said.