TIJUANA, Mexico -- Under cover of predawn darkness, 2,000 prisoners were handcuffed and moved out of La Mesa penitentiary surrounded by heavily armed police and soldiers today as the Mexican government sought to regain control over one of North America's most notorious prisons.
With helicopters flying overhead as an extra precaution, the most dangerous convicted murderers, drug traffickers and other convicts from La Mesa were herded onto buses and trucks and driven to a new prison in El Hongo, a small town 50 miles east of Tijuana just south of the border with California.
For decades, the wives and children of convicts have been permitted to live inside La Mesa, home to many of Mexico's drug traffickers. But today that practice ended, too, as hundreds of women and children were escorted out of the prison carrying their belongings.
Bulldozers this afternoon began to raze the center of the prison, called El Pueblito or Little Town because it resembled a neighborhood. There, wealthier inmates built more than 400 homes, some equipped with computers, phones, DVD players and tequila bars. The plan is to turn La Mesa into a conventional state prison -- with cellblocks, no frills and no families -- for the more than 4,000 inmates who will remain.
Mexican officials said La Mesa has been controlled over the years as much by inmates as state authorities
. Previous plans to remove families and transfer prisoners were never executed because of fears of rioting and, many believe, because prisoners paid kickbacks to quash any proposed changes.