Hammers and shivs used in Mexico prison riot that killed 49
Inmates stand on the rooftop of the Topo Chico prison after a riot broke out around midnight, in Monterrey, Mexico, Thursday, Feb. 11, 2016. (AP / Emilio Vazquez)
Mark Stevenson and Porfirio Ibarra, The Associated Press
Published Friday, February 12, 2016 8:04AM EST
Last Updated Friday, February 12, 2016 1:05PM EST
MONTERREY, Mexico -- Mexico's deadliest prison brawl in many years was a bloodbath in which inmates attacked each other with cudgels and makeshift blades, authorities said Friday, underlining yet again the power that drug cartels wield inside many of the country's lockups.
Jaime Rodriguez, governor of the northern state of Nuevo Leon, said 60 hammers, 86 knives and 120 shivs were used in the previous day's fighting at the Topo Chico prison in Monterrey, where 49 inmates were hacked, beaten or burned to death, and a dozen more injured.
At least 40 of the victims "died from wounds from stabbing and cutting weapons, blows from hammers and clubs," Rodriguez said at a news conference.
Authorities also seized various kinds of contraband items from marijuana and cocaine to televisions and USB memory sticks.
A dispute between rival factions of the Zetas cartel was believed to be behind the violence at Topo Chico, where inmates sentenced for minor offences as well as people who were still awaiting trial were housed in overcrowded conditions alongside many of the country's most hardened killers.
"What we have to see as a reality in the entire penitentiary system is that there is self-rule" by the inmates, Rodriguez said. "All this corruption inside the prison creates the conditions we have today."
That reality was not abstract for Victoria Casas Gutierrez, a cleaning lady who waited for hours for news of her 21-year-old son, Santiago Garza Casas, who was facing trial for allegedly acting as a lookout for a criminal gang.
Santiago was sent to Topo Chico in September for missing a parole appointment and immediately thrown in with a prison population that included murderers.
With their gang ties and access to drugs and guns, many say the Zetas and Gulf cartels run the prison.
"They charge taxes, and if the relatives don't bring a certain amount ... they beat them," Casas Gutierrez said, adding that the payments can run into the thousands of pesos. "Sometimes we have to sell our homes."
"There is vice inside and everything that is in there is their fault, the authorities," she said.
Casas Gutierrez's son was not on the list of the dead, but some bodies were so badly burned it may take days to identify them.
Authorities allowed hundreds of relatives to enter the prison Thursday afternoon. But even those who were able to confirm that their loved ones had survived feared for their safety.
One woman, who declined to give her name, visited her brother briefly and said she saw genuine fear on his face. He was only 10 days from his release date after serving nine months for drug possession. "They have threatened them so that they don't talk about what happened," she said. "Only they know, but they don't tell us anything."
"Who is going to assure me that they aren't going do anything else inside," she asked.
No escapes were reported in the clash, which took place on the eve of Pope Francis' arrival in Mexico, a visit that is scheduled to include a trip next week to another prison in the border city of Ciudad Juarez.
The fighting began around midnight with prisoners setting fire to a storage area, sending flames and smoke billowing into the sky.
The clash was initially said to be between two gangs led by a member of the infamous Zetas drug cartel, Juan Pedro Zaldivar Farias, also known as "Z-27," and Jorge Ivan Hernandez Cantu, who has been identified by Mexican media as a Gulf cartel figure.
But National Security Commissioner Renato Sales Heredia said later that authorities believe the fight was between two factions of the Zetas for control of the prison.
Gov. Rodriguez blamed the violence on "the old, outdated, obsolete system" under which Mexican prisons are run and suggested after having visited the United States that his country may have to move to U.S.-style, privately operated prisons.
"We have to think about efforts with private initiative," he said. "We have not been doing rehabilitation work."
He also criticized judicial reforms that have given inmates greater ability to appeal transfer orders that could send them farther from their hometowns. Zaldivar had successfully fought to be moved to Topo Chico, while Hernandez had won a similar appeal against transferring him elsewhere.
"Basically this is creating the conflicts in the prisons," Rodriguez said.