President Calderón, center, and his wife pay tribute to victims on Friday.
By NICHOLAS CASEY And DAVID LUHNOW
MONTERREY, Mexico—Hundreds of soldiers, backed by helicopters, fanned out across Mexico's northern business capital of Monterrey on Friday to hunt for members of a presumed drug gang that set fire to a casino a day earlier, killing 52 people, most of them women.
President Felipe Calderón, in an emotional speech, declared three days of mourning and vowed to bring to justice the perpetrators of what local newspapers called the worst attack to date on Mexican civilians in the country's increasingly violent war between rival drug cartels.
"We are facing true terrorists," he said. "They can't and won't be the owners of our streets, our cities and our future."
Mr. Calderón also made an impassioned plea to the U.S. to cut down its drug consumption as well as sales of high-powered weapons that end up in Mexico and allow criminals here to outgun authorities. "We are neighbors, we are allies, we are friends, but you are responsible, too," he said. The president, dressed in black, later visited Monterrey and held a minute of silence in front of the burned-out casino.
President Barack Obama called the attack "barbaric and reprehensible" and said the U.S. would remain a partner with Mexico in its fight against organized crime.
The episode ranks among the bloodiest in Mexico's drug war, which has claimed more than 43,000 lives since December 2006, when Mr. Calderón took power and declared war on traffickers. in one incident last year, 72 migrants, most of them from Central America, were killed, presumably by cartel members.
Thursday's incident stunned Mexicans. The country's top sports daily, Record, devoted its entire front page not to sports news but to a bloodied map of Mexico with a call to stop the violence. "We can't ignore the tragedy that saddens Monterrey and all of Mexico. We have to unite and say 'Enough!' " it said.
A group of at least six masked men carrying automatic rifles burst into the Casino Royale on Thursday afternoon—traditionally a time when many women were in the casino playing bingo—and yelled at customers to leave, dousing the place with gasoline and setting it on fire, according to witnesses. The operation took just 2½ minutes and appeared well-planned, officials said.
Dozens of patrons and employees managed to escape through the main entrance before flames engulfed it, forcing those who remained to try to get out through rear exits, many of which appear to have been blocked, witnesses said.
On Friday, dozens of people gathered at Monterrey's University Hospital to identify friends or relatives or to collect the remains of the dead. A woman identifying herself as Hilda, 63 years old, had been at the hospital since 8 a.m. looking for the body of her friend Angelina, 66, who Hilda said went to the casino daily to play slot machines.
"She ate breakfast, lunch and dinner there," said Hilda, who had planned to join her friend that afternoon when she saw news of the attack.
Others had already received news of the worst. Among them was a taxi driver whose 19-year-old daughter Vanesa died during her second day on the job working a bingo game. The father said he had dropped his daughter off earlier that morning. "The last thing she said was, 'I'll see you in the afternoon when you pick me up,' " he said.
State officials said many bodies were too charred to be immediately identified, but that they believed at least 35 of the victims were women.
Some now suggest that the reasons that the casualties were so high was because emergency exits were blocked. Jasmin Leticia Uresti, a security worker at the poker tables who managed to escape, said there were only three exits unlocked in the building and that all doors on the bottom floor— where some victims died trying to escape— were either locked or blocked. "The employees knew where the exits were, that's how we got away," she said. "The clients didn't know."
Police said they would investigate why the casino's rear exits were blocked. Many Mexican bars lock fire exits to prevent customers from leaving without paying, but the practice has proved deadly in the past. In 2000, 21 people died in a fire at a glitzy Mexico City nightclub due to a lack of open fire exits.
Federal officials offered a $2.5 million reward for information leading to the capture of the perpetrators, who used a variety of cars, including a Mini Cooper, as getaway vehicles, officials said.
Adrián de la Garza, attorney general of the state of Nuevo León, of which Monterrey is the capital, said a drug cartel was apparently responsible for the attack, though he didn't say which one. Cartels often extort casinos and other businesses, threatening to attack them or burn them to the ground if they refuse to pay.
The efficiency of the operation suggests the work of the Zetas drug cartel, said George Grayson, a Mexico expert at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va.
It was the second time in three months that the Casino Royale was targeted. Gunmen struck it and three other casinos on May 25, spraying the building with bullets.
Mexican analysts said the grueling scenes could boost public support for Mr. Calderón's campaign against cartels. Although the president has deployed tens of thousands of army troops and federal police to take on the drug gangs, the violence has only increased, making Mexicans increasingly pessimistic.
Experts say Mexico needs to redouble efforts to clean up its police, courts and prisons as part of the crackdown.
The mention of "terror" has been a controversial one in Mexico's drug wars, where officials have argued against terminology suggesting an insurgency. In 2008, many here feared that drug traffickers would resort to conventional terrorist methods after grenades were thrown into a crowd gathered for Mexican Independence Day, killing eight and wounding 131. Since then, however, drug cartels have typically shied away from large-scale attacks on the public.
It remains far from clear if the assailants meant to kill the victims. They may have wanted to scare the casino's owners, not knowing that the rear exits were blocked.
The assailants may have also had a dispute with the casino owners, whose identity remained unknown. Casinos and gambling are technically illegal in Mexico, but many establishments skirt the law by focusing on lower-profile activities such as bingo instead of having traditional dealers and games like blackjack and craps.
The Casino Royale incident was the latest blow for Monterrey, which had long been Mexico's most modern city and one of Latin America's safest. But since last year, the city has become a battleground for two of Mexico's most powerful drug-trafficking organizations, the Zetas and the Gulf cartel, which are fighting for control of lucrative local drug markets and drug routes to the U.S.
In July, gunmen attacked a Monterrey bar with a reputation as a drug distribution center, killing 21 people, most of them bar workers. So far this year, more than 1,000 people have died in drug-related violence in the state of Nuevo León.
Four months ago, a Mexican congresswoman filed a formal complaint against Casino Royale with federal prosecutors, saying the business was illegal and didn't have the correct permits. Prosecutors on Friday had no immediate comment on whether her complaint was investigated.
Write to Nicholas Casey at email@example.com and David Luhnow at firstname.lastname@example.org
Surprised this wasn't posted already. Kinda confirms my belief that no1currs about Mexico. :\