- Associated Press - Friday, February 12, 2016

MONTERREY, Mexico (AP) - Mexico’s deadliest prison brawl in many years was a bloodbath in which inmates attacked each other with hammers, cudgels and makeshift blades, authorities said Friday, underlining yet again the power that drug cartels wield inside many of the country’s lockups.

But questions about the melee deepened Friday when Nuevo Leon state prosecutor Roberto Flores revealed that three officers of the state public safety department, which supplies the prison’s guards, had been charged with homicide and abuse of authority. He did not say if they were accused of killing inmates, but authorities have said a guard fired a bullet found in one dead inmate.

Flores also said that four of the nine bodies still unidentified could not be named because the prison had no record of them at the facility.

“It is a pretty irregular situation,” he said. The other five bodies were badly burned and await DNA testing.

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.

“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.”

He acknowledged that prisoners effectively lord over the facility and that there were not enough guards watching them: “Nobody wants to be a guard,” he said, because of the meager pay.

Before flying from Cuba to Mexico Friday afternoon, Pope Francis sent a message to Monterrey’s archbishop expressing his profound sorrow for the victims. He also asked that his condolences be conveyed to the victims’ families and wished a speedy recovery of those injured in the melee.

About half the inmates at Topo Chico have been sentenced for minor offenses or are suspects still awaiting trial. Nevertheless they are housed in the prison’s overcrowded general population alongside many of the country’s most hardened killers.

One of them was Raymundo Gonzalez Hernandez, a 23-year-old who is accused of kidnapping but whose trial is still pending. He was not among those listed as wounded during the riot, but his cousin said he was covered by bruises and welts when she was allowed inside to see him.

“Both his eyes were practically closed from all the hits they gave him,” Cynthia Hernandez said.

“He couldn’t even speak, he just went like this,” she added, moving her head from side to side.

The harsh conditions inside the lockup were a familiar story 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.

Garza was sent to Topo Chico in September for missing a parole appointment and immediately thrown in with a prison population that included convicted 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.

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.

Flores confirmed the clash was between two gangs led by two members of the infamous Zetas drug cartel, Juan Pedro Zaldivar Farias, also known as “Z-27,” and Jorge Ivan Hernandez Cantu.

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.

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