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Guards held after 44 die in Mexico prison clashes

Daniel Becerril / Reuters

Inmates' relatives wait for news outside Apodaca prison in Monterrey, Mexico, which is about 140 miles from the border with Texas.

MEXICO CITY -- Around 44 prisoners died in battles between rival drug cartels in a prison in northern Mexico on Sunday, with victims being beaten, stabbed and stoned to death, according to officials.

"We can't rule out the possibility that some prisoners escaped, which also could be a motive if the fight started as a distraction," Reuters quoted Jorge Domene, security spokesman for the Nuevo Leon state government, as saying.

Inmates at the prison in Monterrey, about 140 miles from the border with Texas, include members of Mexico's Gulf cartel as well as the feared Zetas cartel.

The outburst in Apodaca prison would be the second-largest "mass homicide" in the state of Nuevo Leon's history, after an attack on a casino left 52 dead in August, according to Mexican magazine Proceso (Link in Spanish). In May, 14 inmates were killed and burned in Apodaca's psychiatric area, according to the magazine.

Authorities said clashes erupted at around 2 a.m. local time (3 a.m. ET), after which a fire broke out.  Unidentified sources told Proceso that gunfire was also heard. However, Domene told Milenion magazine that no firearms were used during the violence (Link in Spanish). Officials had regained control of Apodaca by 9 a.m. (10 a.m. ET)

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Corrupt prison guards may have been involved in facilitating the disturbance at the prison and authorities were holding all the prison officials for questioning, Domene said late Sunday.

In recent years there have been a number of prison breaks in Mexico, sometimes with the aid of complicit guards.

Sunday's violence was the second deadly incident at a Latin American prison within a week. Desperate overcrowding in Honduras' prisons last week led to a massive fire in a run-down jail that killed more than 350 inmates.

NBC's Kerry Sanders reports that more than 350 people are dead after an enraged inmate set the Comayagua prison in Honduras on fire. Doctors say the survivors suffered burns over 65 percent of their body.

The prison in Monterrey is, like many in Mexico, overcrowded as a result of the five-year-old drug war President Felipe Calderon has been waging against cartels.

The prison held about 80 percent more prisoners than it was designed for, Domene said, adding many of the inmates were charged with federal crimes related to drug trafficking.

In Mexico, where prisoners held on federal drug charges are mixed with common criminals, the system is troubled by violence tied to the powerful drug cartels battling for control of smuggling routes along the U.S.-Mexican border.

Officials: Honduras prison fire kills hundreds

Collusion between guards and prisoners is also a long-standing problem. In the most notorious example, collusion led to the escape of Mexico's most wanted man, Joaquin "Shorty" Guzman, from jail in a laundry basket in 2001.

In 2010, more than 140 inmates escaped through the front gate of a prison in Tamaulipas state, helped by prison officials.

About 50,000 people have been killed in Mexico in the past five years since Calderon launched an army-backed offensive against drug gangs shortly after taking office.

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Drug violence hit Monterrey, the wealthy capital of Nuevo Leon state, when the Zetas split off from their former employers the Gulf cartel and began fighting for control of drug trafficking routes and other criminal rackets in the city.

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Msnbc.com staff and Reuters contributed to this report.