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|Mexico casino arson attack shows violence is spreading
|Jo Tuckman in Mexico
| President Felipe
Calderón calls on Mexicans to unite behind policy against drug cartels
after attack in Monterrey
recently, Monterrey was seen by the rest of Mexico as an oasis of prosperity
and peace amid the violence of the country's drug wars. But this week's attack
on a casino, in which at least 52 people died, was a reminder that nowhere is
The victims, mostly women, died after armed men set fire to the
Casino Royale, which was filled with gamblers and staff, on Thursday. Rescue
workers were continuing to search the remains of the two-storey building for
bodies on Friday.
Mexico's president, Felipe Calderón, declared
three days of national mourning during a televised address in which he called
on Mexicans to unite behind his government's controversial offensive against
the drug cartels, which has coincided with a dramatic escalation of violence
around the country.
"We are confronting true terrorists,"
Calderón said. "We have to combat them with more force. They cannot be
the owners of our streets, our cities and our future."
He also laid
part of the blame for what he called "the tragedy we are living in Mexico" on
the failure of the US to control its drug consumption and prevent Mexican
cartels from easily replenishing their arsenals across the border. "We are
neighbours, we are allies and we are friends but you are also
responsible," the visibly angry president said.
A surveillance camera
outside the casino filmed a Mini Cooper, followed by two larger cars, stopping
by the building at 3.40pm on Thursday.
Armed men rushed in, carrying containers of what
the authorities say was probably petrol. The video shows the convoy driving
away at the same time as customers and workers ran from the scene just as black
smoke billows into view.
The attack on the casino is one of the worst
atrocities so far in the drug wars, in which more than 40,000 people have been
killed since the president launched a military-led crackdown on organised crime
in December 2006. "There was a time when people moved from the capital to
Monterrey because they felt safer there," Jorge Chabat, a drugs analyst, said.
"Now they are looking to come back."
Monterrey, the capital of the
state of Nuevo Leon, is about 140 miles from Texas and is a hub for big
business. The area has also long been attractive to traffickers as a strategic
break in the journey for drugs going north and money and weapons flowing south.
This all changed after burgeoning tensions between the Gulf cartel and
their former enforcers, the Zetas, developed into a full-scale war that began
in the north-eastern border state of Tamaulipas early last year and spread to
According to government figures, murders in Nuevo Leon
jumped from 267 in 2009 to 828 in 2010. That record had already been surpassed
by mid-June this year.
The governor, Rodrigo Medina, told a press
conference that police were investigating whether the attack on the Casino
Royale had been revenge for unpaid protection money. He refused to elaborate on
other possible lines of investigation or identify which criminal group was
suspected of being behind the arson.
Emergency services spokesman
Reynaldo Ramos said 42 of the victims were women, and almost all the bodies
were discovered inside the building's toilets.
Further bodies were
found in an office where it seems people sought refuge after running from the
gunmen and failing to find open emergency exits.
One survivor, who
identified herself as Alejandra, said: she was near the entrance when the armed
men entered and screamed at them to get out or die. "I heard shots, but I
didn't look back. We got out."
The impact of the tragedy was further
increased by the location of the gambling centre that featured bingo and slot
machines in a middle class area of the city.
Previous attacks on
obviously civilian populations have tended to focus on peasants, urban workers,
drug addicts and other vulnerable sectors. Exactly a year ago, 72 mostly
Central American migrants were killed at a ranch in Tamaulipas.
business leaders were notably quiet in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy
but, in recent times, have underlined their concern about the crumbling image
and confidence of a city they once felt proud of.
"Nuevo Leon has been
an example for the nation because of its drive, and it hurts us that today the
state is associated with corruption and insecurity," Alsonso Garza Garza told
La Cronica de Hoy, speaking just a day before the attack. "This cannot get
worse." It appears he was wrong.