ACAPULCO, Mexico -- Shell-shocked relatives of Mexican inmates who had been decapitated and mutilated by their rivals behind bars condemned on Friday what they called a reign of terror inflicted by gangs that extort and torture fellow prisoners.
Twenty-eight inmates were killed as rioters beheaded and hacked their rivals to death Thursday at the Las Cruces prison in Acapulco, the latest explosion of violence in Mexico’s often lawless jails.
Brenda Lopez, a 23-year-old psychology student, waited with her 80-year-old grandmother outside the hulking concrete structure for news of her uncle.
“They won’t tell us anything,” she said on the verge of tears. “We don’t know how he is, where he is.”
Overnight, dozens of grieving relatives gathered outside the Pacific coast resort town’s morgue, waiting to be called in to identify their loved ones’ bodies.
As they stood in agony, with red and blue police lights flashing across their faces, they spoke in hushed tones about what they described as the abysmal conditions inside the jail, which holds nearly 2,200 inmates -- 65 percent over capacity, according to official figures.
“He didn’t have to tell me how badly they treated him inside. You could see it a mile away,” one 25-year-old woman said of her dead relative, fearful of giving her name.
“The mafia ruled in there. The others lived in fear.”
One man waiting outside, himself a former prisoner, told AFP the jail was effectively governed by gangs -- like many in Mexico, where corruption abounds in the penitentiary system and the multi-billion-dollar narcotics business has fueled an explosion of powerful, ultra-violent drug cartels.
“It’s a time bomb,” said the man, puffing nervously on a cigarette and asking to be identified only as Aviles for fear of reprisals by cartel lookouts he said were hovering nearby.
He described a facility in which the jailers were on the payroll of the main prison gang, members of a drug cartel called the Independent Acapulco Cartel.
The gang smuggled in guns and drugs with impunity, extorting and torturing other inmates, said Aviles, who served five years at Las Cruces, three of them in the maximum-security wing where the riot erupted.
“I was tortured, too. The guards were all on the take. The prison director, too,” he said.
Prisoners at Las Cruces “are criminals and all, but they shouldn’t have to pay for it like that,” he said.
Authorities have announced that all staff at the prison are under investigation over the riot, including its director, Miguel Gomez Garduno.
Aviles called the gangs’ de facto rule “a plague.”
“It’s impossible to end it,” he said.
“You kill 10, another 20 are born.”
‘Bodies piled like trash’
A morgue worker taking a cigarette break described a grisly scene at the prison.
“As soon as you went inside, you could smell the blood,” he said.
“There were four beheaded bodies at the entrance. The rest were piled up on top of each other in the laundry area, like trash. It was manic in there.”
Forensic investigators found five bullet casings inside -- apparently fired by prisoners, he said.
The rest of the inmates were beaten and stabbed to death, he said.
Three guards and 11 inmates are being investigated for possible involvement in the violence, the governor of the violent southern state of Guerrero, Hector Astudillo, said Friday.
Mexico’s prisons are frequently hit by riots, killings and jailbreaks.
This was the country’s deadliest prison violence since 49 inmates were killed in February 2016 in a riot at the Topo Chico prison in Monterrey, in the northeast.
“We’re mad. We’re furious... This can’t keep happening,” said Luciano Pelaez, a 66-year-old construction worker who was waiting to find out whether a loved one was dead or alive.
But Hilario Salas, a lawyer who represented inmates at Las Cruces, was bleak on the prospects for change.
“This is our daily bread in Mexican jails,” he said.