MEXICO CITY – A fight among inmates Friday at a prison in northern Mexico killed 19 inmates and left more than 20 injured, Durango state officials said. The battle apparently involved inmates jailed on drug or organized crime charges.
Durango state Public Safety Department spokeswoman Barbara Ramirez said only inmates — not prison guards — were killed and injured in the afternoon clash at the prison in the city of Gomez Palacio, about 135 miles south of the Texas border.
State Public Safety Secretary Jorge Torres Castillo said in an interview with the Televisa television network that the fighting was "a dispute for dominance" among inmates at the prison. He suggested the presence of drug and organized crime suspects — who are being held on federal charges at a state-run, low-security prison — were responsible.
"We have a significant number of criminals linked to organized crime," Torres Castillo said. "I think it is precisely the federal inmates who disturb the internal dynamics of the penitentiary, and they place the governance of it at constant risk."
Ramirez said the facility had been secured and that no escapes were reported. Video from the scene showed smoke rising from the prison, and shots were heard as police surrounded the facility.
"The penitentiary at Gomez Palacio continues to be a time bomb," Torres Castillo said, adding that state officials had previously asked that federal inmates be moved to other facilities.
Mexican drug gangs have participated in prison fights in the past and have staged escapes and raids to free drug suspects from prisons.
Drug violence has claimed more than 11,000 lives in Mexico since President Felipe Calderon took office in late 2006 and launched a major offensive against cartels, filling prisons with thousands of drug suspects.
Mexico's often overcrowded and loosely run prisons were the scene of over 40 inmate deaths in fighting in 2008.
In October, 21 prisoners died in a fight between inmates at an other state prison in the border city of Reynosa, across from McAllen, Texas.
And in September, two riots at La Mesa state prison in the border city of Tijuana, across from San Diego, California, killed at least 23 people, including two inmates from the U.S.
La Mesa prisoners argued that officials weren't giving them food and water, but prison officials blamed troublemakers for the violence.