Drug cartel battle kills 52 in northeastern Mexican prison

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Gang-Related Fire Kills 52 in Mexican Prison

MONTERREY, Mexico (Reuters) -- A battle between the feared Zetas drug cartel and rivals at a prison left 52 people dead in the northeastern Mexican city of Monterrey, authorities said on Thursday, days ahead of a planned visit by Pope Francis to another jail in Mexico's far north.

The incident was one of the worst in a series of deadly riots in recent years to rock the country's overpopulated prisons, some of which are largely controlled by cartels.

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Riot and fire at Topo Chico prison in Mexico
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Drug cartel battle kills 52 in northeastern Mexican prison
Inmates stand on the rooftop of the Topo Chico prison as police stand guard on the perimeters, after a riot broke out around midnight, in Monterrey, Mexico, Thursday, Feb. 11, 2016. Dozens of inmates were killed and several injured in a brutal fight between two rival factions at the prison in northern Mexico, the state governor said. (AP Photo/Emilio Vazquez)
Picture of the Topo Chico prison in the northern city of Monterrey in Mexico where according to Nuevo Leon State governor at least 52 people died and 12 were injured in a prison riot on February 11, 2016. Riot police and ambulances were deployed at the Topo Chico prison as smoke billowed from the facility. Broadcaster Televisa reported that 30 died while Milenio television spoke of 50 victims, with inmates and prison guards among them. AFP PHOTO / JULIO CESAR AGUILAR / AFP / Julio Cesar Aguilar (Photo credit should read JULIO CESAR AGUILAR/AFP/Getty Images)
Relatives of inmates argue with the riot police as they gather outside the Topo Chico prison in the northern city of Monterrey in Mexico where according to local media at least 30 people died in a prison riot on February 11, 2016. Riot police and ambulances were deployed at the Topo Chico prison as smoke billowed from the facility. Broadcaster Televisa reported that 30 died while Milenio television spoke of 50 victims, with inmates and prison guards among them. AFP PHOTO / JULIO CESAR AGUILAR / AFP / Julio Cesar Aguilar (Photo credit should read JULIO CESAR AGUILAR/AFP/Getty Images)
Relatives of inmates stand outside the Topo Chico prison, where a riot brokeout around midnight, in Monterrey, Mexico, Thursday, Feb. 11, 2016. Dozens of inmates were killed and several injured in a brutal fight between two rival factions at the prison in northern Mexico, the state governor said. (AP Photo/Emilio Vazquez)
A man holds on to a fence surrounding the Topo Chico prison, where a riot broke out around midnight, in Monterrey, Mexico, Thursday, Feb. 11, 2016. Dozens of inmates were killed and several injured in a brutal fight between two rival factions at a prison in northern Mexico on Thursday, the state governor said. (AP Photo/Emilio Vazquez)
Relatives of inmates stand facing police outside the Topo Chico prison, where a riot broke out around midnight, in Monterrey, Mexico, Thursday, Feb. 11, 2016. Dozens of inmates were killed and several injured in a brutal fight between two rival factions at a prison in northern Mexico on Thursday, the state governor said. (AP Photo/Emilio Vazquez)
Relatives of inmates stand outside the Topo Chico prison facing police, after a riot broke out around midnight, in Monterrey, Mexico, Thursday, Feb. 11, 2016. Dozens of inmates were killed and several injured in a brutal fight between two rival factions at a prison in northern Mexico on Thursday, the state governor said. (AP Photo/Emilio Vazquez)
Inmates shout from a barred window at the Topo Chico prison, after a riot broke out around midnight, in Monterrey, Mexico, Thursday, Feb. 11, 2016. Dozens of inmates were killed and several injured in a brutal fight between two rival factions at a prison in northern Mexico on Thursday, the state governor said. (AP Photo/Emilio Vazquez)
Relatives of inmates stand outside the Topo Chico prison, where a riot broke out around midnight, in Monterrey, Mexico, Thursday, Feb. 11, 2016. Dozens of inmates were killed and several injured in a brutal fight between two rival factions at the prison in northern Mexico, the state governor said. (AP Photo/Emilio Vazquez)
Video grab showing riot police officers deployed outside a prison in the northern city of Monterrey in Mexico on February 11, 2016 where according to local media at least 30 people died in a prison riot. Riot police and ambulances were deployed at the Topo Chico prison as smoke billowed from the facility. Broadcaster Televisa reported that 30 died while Milenio television spoke of 50 victims, with inmates and prison guards among them. AFP PHOTO / FRANCISCO COBOS / AFP / Francisco Cobos (Photo credit should read FRANCISCO COBOS/AFP/Getty Images)
Video grab showing police vehicles leaving a prison in the northern city of Monterrey in Mexico on February 11, 2016 where according to local media at least 30 people died in a prison riot. Riot police and ambulances were deployed at the Topo Chico prison as smoke billowed from the facility. Broadcaster Televisa reported that 30 died while Milenio television spoke of 50 victims, with inmates and prison guards among them. AFP PHOTO / FRANCISCO COBOS / AFP / Francisco Cobos (Photo credit should read FRANCISCO COBOS/AFP/Getty Images)
Video grab showing riot police outside a prison in the northern city of Monterrey in Mexico on February 11, 2016. At least 30 people died in a prison riot on Thursday, local media reported. Riot police and ambulances were deployed at the Topo Chico prison as smoke billowed from the facility. Broadcaster Televisa reported that 30 died while Milenio television spoke of 50 victims, with inmates and prison guards among them. AFP PHOTO/FRANCISCO COBOS / AFP / Francisco Cobos (Photo credit should read FRANCISCO COBOS/AFP/Getty Images)
Security forces are deployed outside the Topo Chico prison in the northern city of Monterrey in Mexico where according to local media at least 30 people died in a prison riot on February 11, 2016. Riot police and ambulances were deployed at the Topo Chico prison as smoke billowed from the facility. Broadcaster Televisa reported that 30 died while Milenio television spoke of 50 victims, with inmates and prison guards among them. AFP PHOTO / JULIO CESAR AGUILAR / AFP / Julio Cesar Aguilar (Photo credit should read JULIO CESAR AGUILAR/AFP/Getty Images)
Relatives of inmates gather outside the Topo Chico prison in the northern city of Monterrey in Mexico where according to local media at least 30 people died in a prison riot on February 11, 2016. Riot police and ambulances were deployed at the Topo Chico prison as smoke billowed from the facility. Broadcaster Televisa reported that 30 died while Milenio television spoke of 50 victims, with inmates and prison guards among them. AFP PHOTO / JULIO CESAR AGUILAR / AFP / Julio Cesar Aguilar (Photo credit should read JULIO CESAR AGUILAR/AFP/Getty Images)
Video grab showing riot police and relatives of inmates of a prison in the northern city of Monterrey in Mexico on February 11, 2016. At least 30 people died in a prison riot on Thursday, local media reported. Riot police and ambulances were deployed at the Topo Chico prison as smoke billowed from the facility. Broadcaster Televisa reported that 30 died while Milenio television spoke of 50 victims, with inmates and prison guards among them. AFP PHOTO/FRANCISCO COBOS / AFP / Francisco Cobos (Photo credit should read FRANCISCO COBOS/AFP/Getty Images)
Video grab showing riot police and relatives of inmates of a prison in the northern city of Monterrey in Mexico on February 11, 2016. At least 30 people died in a prison riot on Thursday, local media reported. Riot police and ambulances were deployed at the Topo Chico prison as smoke billowed from the facility. Broadcaster Televisa reported that 30 died while Milenio television spoke of 50 victims, with inmates and prison guards among them. AFP PHOTO / FRANCISCO COBOS / AFP / Francisco Cobos (Photo credit should read FRANCISCO COBOS/AFP/Getty Images)
Video grab showing security forces deployed in the northern city of Monterrey in Mexico where according to local media at least 30 people died in a prison riot on February 11, 2016. Riot police and ambulances were deployed at the Topo Chico prison as smoke billowed from the facility. Broadcaster Televisa reported that 30 died while Milenio television spoke of 50 victims, with inmates and prison guards among them. AFP PHOTO / FRANCISCO COBOS / AFP / Francisco Cobos (Photo credit should read FRANCISCO COBOS/AFP/Getty Images)
Video grab showing the prison in the northern city of Monterrey in Mexico where according to local media at least 30 people died in a prison riot on February 11, 2016. Riot police and ambulances were deployed at the Topo Chico prison as smoke billowed from the facility. Broadcaster Televisa reported that 30 died while Milenio television spoke of 50 victims, with inmates and prison guards among them. AFP PHOTO / FRANCISCO COBOS / AFP / Francisco Cobos (Photo credit should read FRANCISCO COBOS/AFP/Getty Images)
Relatives of inmates gather outside the Topo Chico prison in the northern city of Monterrey in Mexico where according to local media at least 30 people died in a prison riot on February 11, 2016. Riot police and ambulances were deployed at the Topo Chico prison as smoke billowed from the facility. Broadcaster Televisa reported that 30 died while Milenio television spoke of 50 victims, with inmates and prison guards among them. AFP PHOTO / JULIO CESAR AGUILAR / AFP / Julio Cesar Aguilar (Photo credit should read JULIO CESAR AGUILAR/AFP/Getty Images)
Relatives of inmates gather outside the Topo Chico prison in the northern city of Monterrey in Mexico where according to local media at least 30 people died in a prison riot on February 11, 2016. Riot police and ambulances were deployed at the Topo Chico prison as smoke billowed from the facility. Broadcaster Televisa reported that 30 died while Milenio television spoke of 50 victims, with inmates and prison guards among them. AFP PHOTO / JULIO CESAR AGUILAR / AFP / Julio Cesar Aguilar (Photo credit should read JULIO CESAR AGUILAR/AFP/Getty Images)
Relatives of inmates block a road outside the Topo Chico prison in the northern city of Monterrey in Mexico where according to local media at least 30 people died in a prison riot on February 11, 2016. Riot police and ambulances were deployed at the Topo Chico prison as smoke billowed from the facility. Broadcaster Televisa reported that 30 died while Milenio television spoke of 50 victims, with inmates and prison guards among them. AFP PHOTO / JULIO CESAR AGUILAR / AFP / Julio Cesar Aguilar (Photo credit should read JULIO CESAR AGUILAR/AFP/Getty Images)
Security forces are deployed outside the Topo Chico prison in the northern city of Monterrey in Mexico where according to local media at least 30 people died in a prison riot on February 11, 2016. Riot police and ambulances were deployed at the Topo Chico prison as smoke billowed from the facility. Broadcaster Televisa reported that 30 died while Milenio television spoke of 50 victims, with inmates and prison guards among them. AFP PHOTO / JULIO CESAR AGUILAR / AFP / Julio Cesar Aguilar (Photo credit should read JULIO CESAR AGUILAR/AFP/Getty Images)
Relatives of inmates demonstrate as they gather outside the Topo Chico prison in the northern city of Monterrey in Mexico where according to local media at least 30 people died in a prison riot on February 11, 2016. Riot police and ambulances were deployed at the Topo Chico prison as smoke billowed from the facility. Broadcaster Televisa reported that 30 died while Milenio television spoke of 50 victims, with inmates and prison guards among them. AFP PHOTO / JULIO CESAR AGUILAR / AFP / Julio Cesar Aguilar (Photo credit should read JULIO CESAR AGUILAR/AFP/Getty Images)
A woman cries as relatives of inmates gather outside the Topo Chico prison in the northern city of Monterrey in Mexico where according to local media at least 30 people died in a prison riot on February 11, 2016. Riot police and ambulances were deployed at the Topo Chico prison as smoke billowed from the facility. Broadcaster Televisa reported that 30 died while Milenio television spoke of 50 victims, with inmates and prison guards among them. AFP PHOTO / JULIO CESAR AGUILAR / AFP / Julio Cesar Aguilar (Photo credit should read JULIO CESAR AGUILAR/AFP/Getty Images)
Relatives of inmates demonstrate as they gather outside the Topo Chico prison in the northern city of Monterrey in Mexico where according to local media at least 30 people died in a prison riot on February 11, 2016. Riot police and ambulances were deployed at the Topo Chico prison as smoke billowed from the facility. Broadcaster Televisa reported that 30 died while Milenio television spoke of 50 victims, with inmates and prison guards among them. AFP PHOTO / JULIO CESAR AGUILAR / AFP / Julio Cesar Aguilar (Photo credit should read JULIO CESAR AGUILAR/AFP/Getty Images)
A relative of an inmate tries to break a chain and get into the Topo Chico prison in the northern city of Monterrey in Mexico where according to local media at least 30 people died in a prison riot on February 11, 2016. Riot police and ambulances were deployed at the Topo Chico prison as smoke billowed from the facility. Broadcaster Televisa reported that 30 died while Milenio television spoke of 50 victims, with inmates and prison guards among them. AFP PHOTO / JULIO CESAR AGUILAR / AFP / Julio Cesar Aguilar (Photo credit should read JULIO CESAR AGUILAR/AFP/Getty Images)
Female inmates look to the street from the Topo Chico prison in the northern city of Monterrey in Mexico where according to local media at least 30 people died in a prison riot on February 11, 2016. Riot police and ambulances were deployed at the Topo Chico prison as smoke billowed from the facility. Broadcaster Televisa reported that 30 died while Milenio television spoke of 50 victims, with inmates and prison guards among them. AFP PHOTO / JULIO CESAR AGUILAR / AFP / Julio Cesar Aguilar (Photo credit should read JULIO CESAR AGUILAR/AFP/Getty Images)
Relatives of inmates gather outside the Topo Chico prison in the northern city of Monterrey in Mexico where according to local media at least 30 people died in a prison riot on February 11, 2016. Riot police and ambulances were deployed at the Topo Chico prison as smoke billowed from the facility. Broadcaster Televisa reported that 30 died while Milenio television spoke of 50 victims, with inmates and prison guards among them. AFP PHOTO / JULIO CESAR AGUILAR / AFP / Julio Cesar Aguilar (Photo credit should read JULIO CESAR AGUILAR/AFP/Getty Images)
Relatives of inmates demonstrate as they gather outside the Topo Chico prison in the northern city of Monterrey in Mexico where according to local media at least 30 people died in a prison riot on February 11, 2016. Riot police and ambulances were deployed at the Topo Chico prison as smoke billowed from the facility. Broadcaster Televisa reported that 30 died while Milenio television spoke of 50 victims, with inmates and prison guards among them. AFP PHOTO / JULIO CESAR AGUILAR / AFP / Julio Cesar Aguilar (Photo credit should read JULIO CESAR AGUILAR/AFP/Getty Images)
Relatives of inmates demonstrate as they gather outside the Topo Chico prison in the northern city of Monterrey in Mexico where according to local media at least 30 people died in a prison riot on February 11, 2016. Riot police and ambulances were deployed at the Topo Chico prison as smoke billowed from the facility. Broadcaster Televisa reported that 30 died while Milenio television spoke of 50 victims, with inmates and prison guards among them. AFP PHOTO / JULIO CESAR AGUILAR / AFP / Julio Cesar Aguilar (Photo credit should read JULIO CESAR AGUILAR/AFP/Getty Images)
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Fighting broke out before midnight in two areas of the Topo Chico prison between supporters of a gang leader known as "Zeta 27" and another group, Nuevo Leon state Governor Jaime Rodriguez said.

"Topo Chico is a...very old prison. A prison with very difficult security conditions," said Rodriguez, who survived two assassination attempts while opposing drug cartels as mayor of a suburb of Monterrey, Mexico's third most populous metropolitan area and home to many of the country's largest corporations.

A 2014 human rights report faulted Topo Chico for not preventing violent incidents. The prison has long housed members of the Zetas, known for extreme violence. One Zetas leader was stabbed to death there in September.

It was not immediately clear how the victims died but Rodriguez said there was no gunfire. Flames licked the night sky after inmates set light to food storage areas.

Milenio TV reported that inmates' relatives who had been within the prison's premises for conjugal visits had seen inmates with burns. Twelve people were injured, five seriously, the state government said.

Speaking to local radio, Rodriguez acknowledged the public perception that the Zetas dominated the facility and said the prison system was one of his principal concerns.

"The problem is they have people like my brother living with narcos," said an angry relative of an inmate doing time for robbery, waiting for names of the victims at the prison gates.

The state government released the names of 20 victims. The names of Zeta 27 and a rival known as El Credo were not among them.

Rodriguez said the fighting had been brought under control at about 1:30 a.m.(0730 GMT) on Thursday and ruled out a prison break. Worried family members at one point forced open the prison gates and threw timber and stones at riot police inside, television images showed.

Rodriguez said no women or children were hurt.

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Raw: Deadly Fire Breaks Out At Mexican Prison

Pope Francis is set to begin his first visit to Mexico as pontiff on Friday. Next week, he will visit a prison in border city Ciudad Juarez, once one of the world's most violent cities.

Both Monterrey and Ciudad Juarez are more peaceful than at the peak of the war between rival cartels for control of routes to nearby Texas.

For much of the last decade, the Zetas spread terror across Mexico before being debilitated by arrests and deaths of their founding members.

Juan Pedro Salvidar Farias, or Zeta 27, has been mentioned in local media as a suspect in the 2010 murder of U.S. citizen David Hartley.

Thursday's riot was a blow to Nuevo Leon, where many were uplifted when Rodriguez, a blunt, outspoken rancher with a penchant for cowboy hats known as "El Bronco," or "the gruff one," defeated President Enrique Pena Nieto´s ruling party last year, becoming Mexico's first independent candidate to win a governorship.

In 2012, at least 44 inmates died in another Nuevo Leon prison when members of the Zetas plotted with prison guards to stage an elaborate escape.

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