By Tom Ramstack

Monterrey, Nuevo Leon, Mexico

Mexican prison officials are being accused of helping 30 members of the violent Zetas drug cartel escape from a northern Mexico prison after they murdered dozens of their rivals.

Before they left, the escapees knifed or bludgeoned to death 44 members of the rival Gulf cartel, according to Mexican media reports.

Within a day after the escape, the director of Apocada prison, three top officials and 18 guards were fired as an investigation continues.

Rodrigo Medina, governor of the northern state of Nuevo Leon, said, "Unfortunately, a group of traitors has set back the work of a lot of good police. The most important thing is to make sure that the people working on the inside are on the side of the law, and that they not be corrupted and collaborate with the criminals, as the investigations indicate they presumably did."

The governor gave few details of how the prison break occurred, other than to say it involved a security breach near "Tower Six."

He also said no firearms were used and no one broke into the prison to aid the escapees.

All of the escaped prisoners were members of the Zetas drug cartel, a super-violent gang organized by former members of an elite Mexican military unit, Medina said.

The governor is offering a reward of $788,000 for information leading to the arrests of the escapees.

Other accounts of the murders came from Nuevo Leon state officials.

The prisoners fought with knives and burned mattresses, said Jorge Domene, public safety spokesman for the state of Nuevo Leon.

"According to an investigation, so far all the deceased inmates were in the Delta pavilion and were killed with sharp objects, stones and bars," he said.

Local media in the Monterey area reported that many of the bodies of the victims had their skulls shattered by blows with pipes, sticks, bricks, stones and pieces of compact discs.

The Apocada prison holds about 2,500 inmates, or 180 percent of its capacity, because of a crackdown on organized crime in the Monterrey area.

Monterrey is Mexico's wealthiest city and often cited as an example of the country's prosperity.

It also is a battleground over control of drug trafficking routes between the Zetas and the rival Gulf cartel.

Both of them are known for carrying out brutal murders - sometimes with beheadings and dismemberment - to protect their income from illegal drugs.

Medina implied that prison overcrowding might have contributed to the violence.

"It would be very good for the state if a large number of federal inmates are transferred out in light of the overcrowding we have," Medina said.

The prison is used to hold prisoners either convicted or charged with federal crimes, which often refers to drug trafficking and racketeering.

Medina said many of the prisoners "are very highly dangerous."

Mexico's five-year-old war against drug cartels has caused many state and federal prisons to become overcrowded recently, which also has prompted a prison building boom.

The 44 murders Monday at the Apocada prison represented the most deadly prison incident in recent years but was hardly the only uprising that resulted in multiple deaths.

Last month, 31 prisoners were killed during a prison riot in Altamira, near the border with Texas. In October, 20 prisoners were killed and 12 injured in a prison riot at Matamoros.

The mass murder this week follows a fire at a prison in Honduras last week that killed 359 prisoners.

Overcrowding and poor housing led the United Nations to conclude in a recent report that Latin American prisons often create dangerous and inhumane conditions for inmates.

The Spanish news organization El Referente said in an editorial that, "The case in Mexico is especially alarming, considering that the prisoners who escaped belonged to one of the most dangerous drug trafficking gangs in the world, extremely violent and strongly militarized. In addition to being a planned escape and with the alleged complicity of personnel charged with maintaining security at the site, it shows with clarity the incapacity of the authorities to control order in the prisons."


44 killed in Mexican prison riots

Apodaca, Mexico

Dozens of inmates were killed in a brawl inside a Mexican prison, authorities reported. The incident was the latest in Latin America's overcrowded, poorly maintained and corrupt jails.

By late afternoon, the number of dead at the prison, located outside the northern industrial city of Monterrey, had risen to 44. Officials say the death toll may rise.

The violence has been blamed on efforts to transfer some inmates to another jail elsewhere in the country. However, the uprising is also likely to be blamed on fighting involving rival drug gangs. One guard was reported taken hostage, but no guards have been reported killed.

The melee occurred just as relatives began waiting outside the prison for Sunday visiting hours. They soon realized something bad was happening inside. Reports are that many stormed the gates demanding information, and some told reporters they heard explosions and saw smoke coming from the prison.

Authorities gained control of the situation about four hours after the uprising.

Most of the prisoners were incarcerated on drug trafficking charges and other crimes, officials said.

Mexico's raging drug wars are filling up prisons at a rapid rate in many cities to more than twice their capacity.

The prison is located in the town of Apodaca, about 20 miles from Monterrey. It was built to hold 1,500 inmates, but had a population of 3,000.


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