As shell-shocked families waited to identify the decapitated and mutilated bodies of their loved ones after a grisly prison riot in Mexico, an ex-inmate called the jail a "time bomb" where gangs reigned.
Twenty-eight inmates were killed as rioters beheaded and hacked their rivals to death Thursday at the Las Cruces prison in Acapulco, the latest explosion of violence in Mexico's often lawless jails.
Overnight, dozens of grieving relatives gathered outside the Pacific coast resort town's morgue waiting to be called in to identify their loved ones' bodies.
As they waited in agony, the red and blue of police sirens flashing across their faces, they spoke in hushed tones about what they described as the abysmal conditions inside the jail, which holds nearly 2,200 inmates -- 65 percent over capacity, according to official figures.
"He didn't have to tell me how badly they treated him inside. You could see it a mile away," one 25-year-old woman said of her dead relative, fearful of giving her name.
"The mafia ruled in there. The others lived in fear."
One man waiting outside, himself a former prisoner, told AFP the prison was effectively governed by gangs -- like many in Mexico, where corruption abounds in the penitentiary system and the multi-billion-dollar narcotics business has fueled an explosion of powerful, ultra-violent drug cartels.
"It's a time bomb," said the man, puffing nervously on a cigarette and asking not to be identified for fear of reprisals by the cartel lookouts he said were hovering nearby.
He described a facility in which the jailers were powerless over their prisoners, who smuggled in guns and drugs with impunity.
He described a grim existence for the rest of the inmates.
"They're criminals and all, but they shouldn't have to pay for it like that," said the man, who served five years at Las Cruces, three of them in the maximum-security wing where the riot erupted.
He called the gangs' de facto rule "a plague."
"It's impossible to end it," he said.
"You kill 10, another 20 are born."
- 'Bodies piled like trash' -
The dead at the forensic service headquarters included two brothers, whose elderly relative had to be held up by two young men as she feebly made her way inside to identify them.
Nearby, a morgue worker taking a cigarette break described the scene at the prison when he arrived.
"As soon as you went inside, you could smell the blood," he said.
"There were four beheaded bodies at the entrance. The rest were piled up on top of each other in the laundry area, like trash. It was manic in there."
Forensic investigators found five bullet casings inside -- apparently fired by prisoners, he said.
The rest of the inmates were beaten and stabbed to death, he said.
Mexico's prisons are frequently hit by riots, killings and jailbreaks.
This was the country's deadliest prison violence since 49 inmates were killed in February 2016 in a riot at the Topo Chico prison in Monterrey, in the northeast.
"We're mad. We're furious.... This can't keep happening," said Luciano Pelaez, a 66-year-old construction worker who was waiting to find out whether a loved one was dead or alive.
But Hilario Salas, a lawyer who represented inmates at Las Cruces, was bleak on the prospects for change.
"This is our daily bread in Mexican jails," he said.