A bad chicken casserole and the closure of the snack shop at Mexico's top-security prison have provoked the country's most notorious drug traffickers to go on a hunger strike.

Men convicted of blood-curdling crimes appear to have no stomach for the cook's offerings at Almoloya, a maximum-security jail in the mountains west of Mexico City.Earlier this month, more than 200 inmates - including guerrillas, drug kingpins, serial killers and big-time racketeers - fell ill after eating chicken stew.

When they protested, they were stripped naked and left to shiver in a drafty hall, according to human rights lawyers. The snack shop was closed, and lawyers say inmates have been denied basic necessities such as soap and toilet paper, as well as family visits.

"Prison authorities are ignoring our human rights," Almoloya's inmates complained in a letter to President Ernesto Zedillo this week.

The mortality rate at Almoloya is high. Four prisoners have died in the past two months due to inadequate medical care, the letter said.

On Tuesday, Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo and Rafael Caro Quintero, fallen bosses of the Tijuana cartel, began a hunger strike to protest against the "inhuman treatment" at Almoloya. They were expected to be joined by Ernesto Fonseca, the godfather of Mexico's drug-running business, and other convicted drug traffickers, who are demanding transfers to more benign Mexican jails.

The Interior Ministry, which oversees Mexico's prison system, said: "Inmates always kick up a fuss whenever a new interior minister takes office."

In early January, Francisco Labastida Ochoa replaced Emilio Chauyffet as interior minister after a massacre of Mexican Indian peasants in the southern state of Chiapas.

Mexican authorities don't deny that conditions at Almoloya are harsh. The jail was built in the early 1990s in response to a public outcry over the luxurious lifestyle convicted drug traffickers were allowed to lead at the Reclusorio Norte detention center in Mexico City.

For a fee, drug barons at the Reclusorio Norte were allowed to rent six-room suites decked out with personal gyms, steam baths and kitchen facilities. They ordered pizza, hooked up computers to the Internet and entertained their friends and mistresses at all-night parties.