More than 750 troops and federal police officers along with tanks and helicopters on Friday seized control of the nation's top maximum-security prison, where drug kingpins have managed to carry out executions and conduct business in recent months.
The takeover came a day after the infamous leader of the Gulf Cartel, Osiel Cardenas, organized prisoners to protest the tightening of security at the prison, La Palma.
Guards had clamped down on the freedom of inmates after a gunman killed one of Cardenas' underworld enemies as he sat in a visiting room on New Year's Eve. The killing was the second drug-related execution inside the prison in three months.
The killing rocked the administration of President Vicente Fox and prompted the ouster of five prison officials this month. The incident also showed just how much influence Cardenas and the leader of the Tijuana cartel, Benjamin Arellano, had obtained over prison officials, through a combination of bribes and threats, federal officials said.
"We were conscious of the need to recover control," said Ruben Aguilar, a spokesman for Fox. "And we needed to retake control by force."
Aguilar said no one was hurt during the military operation, which started at 6:30 a.m. A lawyer for Cardenas, Mauricio Trujillo Chavarria, said three people had been killed and eight wounded during the takeover, but his assertions could not be verified.
Four armored personnel carriers were stationed outside the prison's hurricane fences, in Almoloya, about 28 miles east of Mexico City, and military checkpoints had been erected on the road to the entrance. Scores of police vehicles surrounded the compound. Soldiers and black-clad agents patrolled the perimeter with automatic rifles.
In recent months, Cardenas and Arrellano have joined forces while behind bars, and they are now waging a violent campaign to protect their turf from incursions by Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman and other traffickers from Sinoloa who control Ciudad Juarez, Mexican prosecutors said. The imprisoned drug traffickers, both awaiting extradition to the US on drug charges, have continued to run their criminal empires, using a phalanx of lawyers as messengers to lieutenants on the outside.
But the Fox administration responded forcefully Friday morning, ringing the sprawling prison with hundreds of troops and sending in dozens of federal agents to search cells for weapons. They also separated Cardenas and Arellano, cutting off communication between them.
Trujillo, the lawyer, said that Cardenas and hundreds of other prisoners had started a hunger strike on Wednesday to protest what they see as unduly harsh security measures taken after the New Year's Eve shooting. Families and lawyers of inmates have been forced to go through more security checks, often waiting more than an hour and a half to see the prisoners, he said. Prisoners had also complained of being mistreated by guards.
"It's a rehabilitation center, but it seems like a punishment center," Trujillo said, "because they punish even the families and lawyers. They threaten them very badly."
But federal officials say the two drug kingpins, far from being persecuted, had begun to wield unprecedented power in the prison. The prison regulations were not being enforced, a result of corruption that appeared to reach all the way up to the warden, officials said.