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At least 21 dead in Mexico jail riot

REYNOSA, Mexico (Reuters) - At least 21 prisoners died in a jail riot in Mexico near the Texas border on Monday when inmates from rival gangs staged a gun battle and set fire to the building.

The riot started in the early hours in the prison in Reynosa, a rundown manufacturing city in northeastern Mexico where the powerful Gulf drug cartel is active.

The inmates attacked each other with knives and guns for about three hours, then resorted to setting fires with matches and gasoline taken from prison workshops.

“There was a shootout and then a fire. There are charred bodies among the dead,” said a spokesman at the local attorney general’s office who declined to be named.

While ambulances waited for police to bring out victims and military helicopters flew overhead, Jose Ives Soberon, police chief for the local Tamaulipas state, told Mexican radio the death toll had risen to 21 men.

Eight people were seriously injured, he added.

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Paramedics at the prison, which has 2,200 inmates but was designed for only 1,800, told Reuters as many as 25 prisoners could have died in the clashes.

Heavily armed soldiers quelled the fight and surrounded the prison and anti-riot police with body armor patrolled the prison rooftops to prevent further disturbances.

But some family members tried to push their way in, desperate to find out if their relatives were among the dead. Others threw stones at the prison’s administrative offices, breaking windows, and taunted police, ripping one official’s clothing, angry after hours of waiting.

“I’ve been here since five in the morning to find out about my son and no one will tell us anything,” said a weeping woman who declined to give her name.

Mexico has seen a surge in prison riots this year. Last month, 23 prisoners were killed in a riot at an overcrowded border jail in Tijuana.

A drug war between rival gangs has spilled over into prisons packed with traffickers as President Felipe Calderon increases arrests and tries to quash violence.

Despite the deployment of 36,000 troops across Mexico, drug violence over smuggling routes is spiraling, with more than 3,725 people killed in Mexico this year.

Additional reporting by Robin Emmott in Monterrey and Magdiel Hernandez in Nuevo Laredo, editing by Jackie Frank