, MONTERREY, Mexico, Feb 20 – At least 44 inmates were killed in a Mexican prison riot on Sunday, just days after a deadly inferno in a jail in Honduras, again highlighting terrible overcrowding in Latin American prisons.
The deaths occurred as clashes broke out in the early hours of Sunday between rival gangs at Apodaca prison, near Monterrey, which was holding some 3,000 inmates despite an official capacity of 1,500.
Notorious for violence and overcrowding, prisons in the region are beset by a litany of problems such as rampant drug trafficking and gang members seeking to settle scores.
The prison population in Mexico and Central America has swollen in line with the region’s increasingly important role in the cocaine trafficking trade, meaning outdated facilities are straining at the seams.
Families gathered Sunday outside the Apodaca prison, located some 30 kilometers (18 miles) from the northern city of Monterrey, awaiting news of loved ones in a desperate scene, with some women fainting.
“We have 44 deaths,” state security spokesman Jorge Domene told reporters, adding the casualties were not killed by firearms but had suffered stab wounds.
Domene said the fight likely was part of a turf war between the brutal Zetas drug gang and their former employers, the Gulf cartel, for control of the prison.
Monterrey, an industrial hub and Mexico’s third largest city, has seen an upsurge in violence in recent months blamed on fighting between the two groups.
Domene said the situation inside the prison was now calm and that forensic teams were working to identify the bodies.
It was the second deadly such brawl in recent months in the Monterrey area after seven inmates died and 12 were injured in a clash in October at Cadereyta prison.
The toll from the two incidents appeared to top the total deaths in Monterrey’s three main prisons in all of last year, when 50 inmates died from executions, brawls, and suspected suicides, according to official data.
In Honduras, the toll of Tuesday’s blaze at the overcrowded Comayagua prison, thought to be the world’s worst-ever prison fire, rose by one to 359 dead, after an inmate succumbed to severe burn injuries.
Anger was building among families over the slow return of bodies and at the slow pace of the investigation into the cause of the blaze.
Only 38 bodies have so far been identified in the morgue in the Honduran capital Tegucigalpa, and just 19 have been returned to their families for burial.
Forensics experts were conducting blood tests on corpses, many too charred to be identified by sight, in a bid to discover their identities.
Expert teams from the United States, Chile, El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico and Peru are helping the Honduran authorities with their investigations into the fire, the cause of which remains unclear.