At least 44 inmates were killed during a prison riot near the northern Mexican city of Monterrey on Sunday.
Some of the victims were beaten, stabbed and stoned to death when a fight between rival gang members broke out at the Apodaca prison in Nuevo Leon state around 2 a.m. Authorities are investigating whether the riot was staged to cover up a jailbreak.
We can't rule out the possibility that some prisoners escaped, which also could be a motive if the fight started as a distraction, Jorge Domene, security spokesman for the Nuevo Leon state government, told Reuters.
Members of rival drug cartels Los Zetas and the Gulf Cartel are normally kept separate, but somehow clashed inside the grounds, leaving authorities to suspect that one or multiple guards could have been involved in the incident. The jail's director and all 17 guards have been detained for questioning.
The Nuevo Leon prison was reportedly 180 percent over capacity, with a total of 2,500 inmates inside its close quarters. Around 70 percent of them had yet to be convicted. Overcrowding, which is rampant in prisons in Mexico and Latin America, exacerbates the dangers of such incidents.
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Last week, a fire spread across a prison in Comayagua, Honduras. The prison held nearly 900 people -- double its capacity -- many of whom had yet to be charged with a crime. They were watched by just six guards who shared one set of keys. When the fire started, the guards fled without freeing many of the inmates, who suffocated and were burned to death inside their locked cells. A total of 359 people died in the incident.
A crackdown against the narcotics trade in Mexico and Honduras has been blamed for prison overcrowding, which in turn clogs the judicial system. Many prisoners are left behind bars waiting for trial for months.
''You have this tremendous public security crisis and the quick answer that prevailed for all of these years is 'iron fist,''' said Jose Miguel Vivanco, Americas director for Human Rights Watch.
''By 'iron fist' you mean increasing penalties, making it more difficult for prisoners to get out of prison,'' he said.
Prison riots are common in Venezuela, where the country's 30 federal prisons are designed to hold 12,000 inmates but actually have closer to 50,000 inside.
In the first six months of 2011, more than 150 prisoners died in Venezuelan prisons, according to CNN, including 19 last June when inmates took over a section of the El Rodeo I prison near Caracas.