Last week, a prison riot in northern Mexico claimed the lives of 49 inmates. The violence that convulsed Topo Chico prison, in the city of Monterrey, involved clashes between members of rival factions of the notorious Zetas cartel, and was the worse such clash since a similar 2014 battle, that also took place in the state of Nuevo Leon, saw the deaths of 44 members of the Gulf cartel.
Authorities recovered some 60 hammers, 86 knives and 120 shivs used in the deadly fracas, which they believe was a turf war within the complex. It began after a group of inmates set fire to a storage area within the facility.
In the wake of the attack, a crowd of relatives and onlookers massed at the prison’s gates, demanding answers and access to see if their relatives were safe.
But authorities have subsequently also revealed the scale to which some inmates were operating with an astonishing degree of impunity within the prison, all under the supposed watch of guards and local officials.
According to an Associated Press report, state officials uncovered some 280 food and grocery stands, and found that numerous cells were fitted with mini-fridges, digital cable and even aquariums. Photos released by the state government showed murals and shrines to the Death Saint, a folk figure popular among gangsters and the downtrodden, as well as amenities such as air-conditioning units affixed to certain cells.
In the cell of Zetas leader Ivan Hernandez Cantu, there was apparently a king-sized bed, a flat-screen television and a luxury sauna. At the time the riot flared, “a lady was with him,” a chief prosecutor told reporters.
“We knew about all of the irregularities that existed, arbitrary acts, abuses, taxes,” Gen. Cuauhtemoc Antunez, security secretary for the state of Nuevo Leon, said in a statement. A United Nations investigator had already toured the prison in 2014 and warned of the prison’s generally terrible conditions and permissive rules.
“I could see that the excessive leniency in the way the inmates were governed led to autonomy and violence at the prison,” said Juan Mendez, the U.N. special rapporteur for torture, on Tuesday.
So far, the prison’s warden, superintendent and a guard have been arrested on charges of murder after Thursday’s deadly riot.