MEXICO CITY—More than 750 police and soldiers, backed by tanks, raided a maximum security prison 30 miles outside Mexico City on Friday to crack down on drug gangs that had all but taken control of the facility.
The raid was sparked by the New Year's Eve murder of Arturo Guzman, the inmate brother of fugitive drug trafficker Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, the leader of the so-called Juarez cartel, who escaped from another maximum-security prison on Jan. 19, 2001.
Three other high-profile drug trafficking suspects have been murdered at La Palma in recent months.
The raid followed the resignation Thursday night of Carlos Tornero Diaz, the head of Mexico's federal prison system. The prison's director, Maria Josefina Jaime Quiroz, said she hadn't been told in advance of the raid.
Authorities released no information about casualties. Family visits were suspended as the raid continued Friday afternoon, and federal agents, police and soldiers continued to arrive at the prison in Humvees and armored personnel carriers.
Some 90 wives and relatives formed a chain with their arms entwined to protest the measures. Several told reporters outside the prison that they were concerned about mistreatment, with inmates beaten and being forced to stand naked during searches. The newspaper Reforma reported relatives saying three prisoners had died during the operation, but the prison director denied the report.
"When it's over, relatives will be able to visit loved ones," Quiroz said.
Last year, La Palma, one of three maximum-security prisons in Mexico, was the scene of several riots, hunger strikes and protests. Authorities at one point feared drug-cartel gunmen were preparing to free prisoners.
Authorities say the additional army and police will remain at the prison until they've restored order and concluded searches for guns and drugs. Soldiers in 16 tanks will be stationed about a mile from the prison, which is in Almoloya de Juarez in Mexico state.
A press release from the Ministry of Public Security said prison officials declared "a state of alert because of the high risk against some inmates and the possibility of more escapes."
The raid came as Mexicans demand that President Vicente Fox do more to fight corruption among law enforcement agencies. Fox, who took office in 2000, has reorganized the attorney general's office and federal police forces. Mexico's prisons are legendary for illegal activities.
"Drug traffickers have ways to communicate among the prisons," federal Assistant Attorney General Jose Luis Santiago Vasconcelos told reporters.
La Palma holds some of the country's top drug leaders, including the heads of three of Mexico's major drug cartels—the Tijuana, Gulf and Juarez groups.
Vasconcelos said two La Palma inmates, Osiel Cardenas, who runs the Gulf cartel, and Benjamin Arellano Felix, leader of the Tijuana cartel, had joined forces against Guzman's Juarez cartel because the Juarez cartel was trying to take over territories that belonged to the other two.
He said officials have been concerned about security at the prison for some time.
"Before December 24, officials conducted a search at La Palma to find weapons, drugs or any other tools that could wound or kill a person, but nothing was found," Vasconcelos said. "But it's obvious there's a huge web of corruption inside this prison ... and this is also part of the investigation."
On Dec. 31, a fellow inmate shot and killed Arturo Guzman.
It wasn't the first time a Guzman had been targeted as part of the drug rivalry. In 1993, gunmen believed to be linked to the Tijuana cartel bungled an attempt to kill Joaquin Guzman at the Guadalajara airport. Instead, they killed the Roman Catholic cardinal of Guadalajara, Jesus Posadas.
On Dec. 19, the Drug Enforcement Administration in the United States announced a $5 million reward for the capture of Joaquin Guzman. Under a federal indictment released in September 1995 in U.S. district court in San Diego, he's accused of money laundering, conspiracy to import cocaine and other trafficking charges.
The DEA has put up a hot line for anyone with information about Guzman. The number in the United States is (866) 294-0820. Calls from Mexico, Central American and South America can be made toll-free to 001-866-294-0820. Tips can also be sent to chapotips(at)usdoj.gov.
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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