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(Reuters) – A battle between the feared Zetas drug cartel and rivals at a prison left 52 people dead in the northeastern Mexican city of Monterrey, authorities said on Thursday, days ahead of a planned visit by Pope Francis to another jail in Mexico’s far north.
The incident was one of the worst in a series of deadly riots in recent years to rock the country’s overpopulated prisons, some of which are largely controlled by cartels.
Fighting broke out before midnight in two areas of the Topo Chico prison between supporters of a gang leader known as “Zeta 27” and another group, Nuevo Leon state Governor Jaime Rodriguez said.
“Topo Chico is a…very old prison. A prison with very difficult security conditions,” said Rodriguez, who survived two assassination attempts while opposing drug cartels as mayor of a suburb of Monterrey, Mexico’s third most populous metropolitan area and home to many of the country’s largest corporations.
A 2014 human rights report faulted Topo Chico for not preventing violent incidents. The prison has long housed members of the Zetas, known for extreme violence. One Zetas leader was stabbed to death there in September.
It was not immediately clear how the victims died but Rodriguez said there was no gunfire. Flames licked the night sky after inmates set light to food storage areas.
Milenio TV reported that inmates’ relatives who had been within the prison’s premises for conjugal visits had seen inmates with burns. Twelve people were injured, five seriously, the state government said.
Speaking to local radio, Rodriguez acknowledged the public perception that the Zetas dominated the facility and said the prison system was one of his principal concerns.
“The problem is they have people like my brother living with narcos,” said an angry relative of an inmate doing time for robbery, waiting for names of the victims at the prison gates.
The state government released the names of 20 victims. The names of Zeta 27 and a rival known as El Credo were not among them.