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44 killed in Mexican prison melee

By the CNN Wire Staff
updated 12:01 AM EST, Mon February 20, 2012
Dozens of people gather outside a prison in northern Mexico to find out if their family members were killed in a riot.
Dozens of people gather outside a prison in northern Mexico to find out if their family members were killed in a riot.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: The riot could have been a cover for a breakout, a state security spokesman says
  • NEW: Authorities are questioning guards
  • NEW: Family members of inmates gather outside the prison
  • Some prisoners set mattresses ablaze, the spokesman says

Monterrey, Mexico (CNN) -- At least 44 people died during a prison riot in northern Mexico on Sunday that could have been a cover for a breakout, a security official said.

Inmates took a guard hostage as clashes broke out early Sunday morning at a prison in Apodaca, Nuevo Leon, said state security spokesman Jorge Domene.

He did not rule out the possibility the melee masked an escape. Guards could have been complicit and they, along with the prison's director, have been detained for questioning, he said.

Some prisoners also set mattresses ablaze, Domene said, sending a column of smoke rising above the facility.

Federal and state police had the situation under control later in the day.

The clashes, which occurred in a part of the prison where most inmates were serving time for federal drug trafficking offenses, may have begun as a fight between the Zetas and Gulf cartels, Domene said.

The Zetas started with deserters from the Mexican Army, and quickly gained a reputation for ruthless violence as the armed branch of Mexico's Gulf cartel. It split off into a separate drug-trafficking organization in 2010.

Friends and family members of inmates gathered outside the prison to find out whether their loved ones had died.

In May 2011, 14 inmates were killed and 35 people were injured in a fire in the prison's psychiatric ward.

CNN's Rey Rodriguez in Mexico City, journalist Victor Badillo in Monterrey and CNNMexico.com contributed to this report.

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