TIJUANA — As the death toll mounted after two separate riots at a prison here, Baja California state authorities came under fierce criticism Thursday for allegedly brutal tactics used by police on inmates and the treatment of inmates' relatives who had gathered outside the prison.
At least 21 inmates died and dozens were injured in uprisings Sunday and Wednesday at La Mesa State Penitentiary, most after state and federal police officers stormed the prison firing heavy weapons, said police officials and witnesses.
Human rights groups and families of inmates expect the death toll to climb further, saying authorities had failed to give a full accounting of casualties. Many asked why police used live rounds instead of rubber bullets or other nonlethal weapons against inmates armed with rocks.
On Wednesday, authorities had denied that live ammunition was used; they said officers fired only rubber bullets.
The prison has seen several uprisings in recent years as state officials have been unable to improve overcrowded conditions and control guard brutality and corruption.
Victor Clark Alfaro, director of the Binational Center for Human Rights in Tijuana, said inmate complaints, ignored for years, finally boiled over. The actions by state authorities in retaking the prison, he said, represented a grave human rights violation.
"It was a massacre provoked by the state," Clark said.
State authorities are investigating accusations of excessive force and whether top prison officials, including the warden, were involved in the death of an inmate that triggered the Sunday riot.
That 12-hour uprising left at least three inmates dead. Another died of his injuries the next day. Authorities dismissed rumors of more fatalities, but families gathered outside the prison refused to leave.
By Wednesday, hundreds of people clogged the streets under the prison towers as inmates revolted again. State authorities said that rival gangs were feuding; Clark and others said inmates were protesting a lack of food, water and medical treatment.
Rampaging inmates threw rocks at guards, set fires and tried unsuccessfully to breach a prison wall. When police reentered about two hours later, barrages of gunfire echoed across the densely populated area in eastern Tijuana.
The crowd outside the walls, during and after the police takeover, set fire to vehicles and threw rocks at officers, who fired back with rubber bullets and tear gas.
Angelica Cazares, who had been keeping vigil since Sunday, anxiously awaited word about her incarcerated son. "I don't know if he's alive or dead or at the hospital," she said. "They don't tell us anything."
Some politicians and human rights groups have called for the resignation of the state's top-ranking public security official, Daniel de la Rosa Anaya. On Wednesday, he initially said nobody had died in that day's melee, but within hours he announced the deaths of 19 inmates. State Atty. Gen. Rommel Moreno later said the number was 17.
For news, observations and links about Latin America by Times correspondents, go to latimes.com/laplaza.