SEE UPDATE – SCROLL DOWN
By Hiram Soto / UNION-TRIBUNE STAFF WRITER / 10:13 a.m. September 18, 2008
TIJUANA – In an effort to restore order after two riots, Baja California’s governor sacked the top staff of La Mesa State Penitentiary and asked the federal government to temporarily take over the administration of the volatile prison.
On Thursday morning, more than 100 local, state and municipal police officers surrounded the damaged facility. About 200 family members, anxious for word on their loved ones inside, are being kept at least two blocks away. Previously, they were allowed to congregate just a few yards away from the walls.
Authorities are now sharing with the crowd the names of prisoners who are not injured inside the prison.
Also, about 20 vehicles carrying officials from the state department of health could be seen entering the facility Thursday morning and delivering medical supplies. Other vehicles with food were also seen inside the prison grounds.
Wednesday’s disturbance – the second in four days – started in the women’s wing about 1 p.m. when about a dozen women went to the rooftop of the building in which they were housed. They shattered lights and shouted down to the throng on the sidewalk outside that they were being beaten, and that dead and injured inmates were inside.
Then some dark smoke rose from the prison and gunshots resonated throughout the neighborhood surrounding the facility.
Hundreds of family members who had been clustered outside the prison walls for days shouted and sobbed and at one point stampeded in panic. Concrete chunks were hurled into the prison and the windows of numerous cars parked nearby were shattered by falling debris.
About three hours later, state officials claimed control of the 8,100-inmate penitentiary and began moving out prisoners accused of instigating the riots. The perimeter outside the prison was also secured.
Later in the day, Gov. Jose Guadalupe Osuna Millan announced the replacement the head of the state prisons and the administrator of the La Mesa facility.
Also, 200 male inmates and 50 female inmates, who authorities have identified as prisoners who incited the riot, have been transferred to other facilities, the governor announced in a statement.
He also put the death toll for the two riots at 17. Other officials previously said 19 had been killed.
Sunday’s riot, which lasted about 12 hours and left at least four people dead, may have been triggered by the death of an inmate during a confrontation with prison staff.
Officials said Israel Marquez Blanco, 19, died during scuffle with prison guards during a routine contraband check Saturday morning, in which marijuana, heroin and cellular phones were confiscated.
The U.S. Consulate in Tijuana reported Wednesday that there were 256 U.S. citizens in the prison population. Officials expressed “a high-confidence level” that no U.S. citizens are among the dead.
Tijuana prison riot update
by Omar Millán González / Union-Tribune / 7:21 p.m. Sept. 18, 2008
TIJUANA – The once-chaotic scene around the La Mesa state penitentiary began to return to normal by Thursday night.
A line of people that at one point stretched for seven blocks had dwindled to about 15 by 5 p.m. People in the line were relatives of inmates who were waiting to reach tables where they were given information about their loved ones and allowed to write messages to them.
Around 5 p.m., police officers began to withdraw from streets adjacent to the prison and started removing yellow tape. Two men arrived at the prison and started painting parts of burned, damaged walls.
Several trucks arrived with canned food.
“They should have done this from the beginning,” said Dolores Casas, who had waited in line for hours to find out about her son. “They could have avoided so much.”
Inmates rioted on Sunday and Wednesday. The violence left at least 24 dead and dozens injured.
Since Sunday, thousands of people had congregated on the streets next to the prison, demanding to know what had happened to their relatives inside. About 100 went on a rampage Wednesday evening, setting several fires and burning patrol cars before being arrested.
By Thursday evening, blankets could be seen hanging from some windows, a sign that some inmates had been allowed to do their laundry.
Baja California’s human rights director, however, warned that the La Mesa penitentiary, as well as the three other state prisons, remained dangerously overcrowded and that conditions that led to this week’s riots had not been addressed.