Forty four people are reported to have died in a prison fight in the Mexican state of Nuevo Leon, highlighting the bitter turf-war between Mexico's gangs and once again revealing the challenges facing the country's overcrowded penitentiaries.
The fight is believed to have involved members of the Zetas and their progenitors, the Gulf Cartel, and allegedly began when inmates from "Coca" block attacked those in "Delta." No firearms were used, with inmates instead being stoned, beaten or stabbed to death.
Security spokesman for Nuevo Leon state government, Jorge Domene, told media that the fight may have been used as a distraction in order for some to escape, though officials remain uncertain as to whether any managed to flee. When counting the number killed against the names of those unaccounted for, some were still missing, Domene said. Should any have escaped, they could be highly dangerous, he added.
The government has not ruled out that collusion between prison officials and prisoners enabled the possible escape.
"Surely there was some complicity, so we have retained all staff, including the director, in order to clarify the reason behind the fight and if there was an escape," said Domene.
InSight Crime Analysis
The Zetas and Gulf Cartel have been involved in a battle for territory since the two split in 2010. This has been carried out primarily in the northeast of the country, with the Zetas emerging with a greater share (see InSight's map here). If indeed the two factions involved in the prison fight belonged to the Zetas and the Gulf Cartel as reports suggest, it would only emphasize the bitterness of their rivalry.
More importantly, however, the fight, and supposed involvement of prison officials, highlights the problem facing Mexico's -- and more generally a large part of Latin America's -- penal system. With overcrowding endemic, prisons are becoming breeding grounds for violence and corruption. According to Domene, the prison in Apodaca, Nuevo Leon was 80 percent over capacity.
The figure of 80 percent is unusually high, though nationwide overcrowding stands at roughly 25 percent according to a report released last year. This has led to numerous riots and mass escapes in Mexico, as InSight Crime has noted. The most recent of these came just last month with a riot in a Tamaulipas prison leaving 31 dead.
With government's channeling of resources into the security effort against drug gangs, addressing the problem of an inefficient and archaic prison system has been largely left behind. In Mexico, for example, the government announced in 2008 that 12 new maximum-security prisons would be constructed. As of last year, however, nothing had been done, with no immediate progression or solution being offered.
This event follows on from the disaster that gripped Honduras last week when over 350 inmates were killed in a prison fire. Mexico has not seen something of this scale to date thanks to its comparatively advanced prison system and the fact it doesn't practise the indiscriminate detention policies seen throughout much of Central America in combating the Maras, or street gangs. However, its failure to address the existing problems means riots and escapes will likely remain commonplace until prison infrastructure is expanded and modernized.