MONTERREY, Mexico — Mexicans have endured plenty of horrific crimes during their country’s bloody five-year war against drug gangs, but an arson attack that killed at least 52 people has set a shocking new low for many in this battle-hardened country.
The victims this time weren’t cartel foot soldiers or even migrants resisting forced recruitment by gangs, as were the cases in other attacks. Instead, they were working or gambling at the Casino Royale in an affluent part of this industrial city Thursday when at least eight assailants burst into the building and set it on fire, trapping dozens inside.
As the country took in the grisly details Friday, some said a new, macabre milestone had been reached in a conflict that’s claimed nearly 40,000 people since Calderon launched his drug offensive in December 2006.
President Felipe Calderon signalled the moment’s solemnity during a nationally televised speech when he called for an unprecedented three-day mourning period and labeled the attack the worst against civilians in this country’s recent history.
“We are not confronting common criminals,” the visibly angry president said. “We are facing true terrorists who have gone beyond all limits.”
The president gave no indication, however, that he intended to back down from his confrontational policy against drug gangs. In fact, he announced he is sending more federal forces to the city of 1 million people.
Hours later, Calderon appeared in front of the burned-out casino and held a silent, minute-long vigil.
The attack even drew the condemnation of President Barack Obama, who called it “barbaric and reprehensible” in a statement.
In the streets around the casino, people said the latest violence deepened the sense of vulnerability many feel in this northern Mexican city, which had once been known as one of Mexico’s safest. In recent years, however, Monterrey has been ensnared in a turf battle between the Gulf cartel and its offshoot, the Zetas, and is on track for record levels of violence this year.
The Casino Royale itself had been attacked twice before, including in May when gunmen strafed it from the outside.
Elsewhere in the city last month, a gun attack killed 20 people at a bar.
Monterrey Mayor Fernando Larrazabal told Radio Formula that of the 29 casinos in his city, 12, including Casino Royale, had violated municipal laws but were allowed to remain open after obtaining federal court injunctions.
“What happened last night was the limit,” said a man nursing a Coke at a hamburger stand across from this city’s morgue, where families streamed in all night to identify bodies. Like many people, he refused to give his name out of fear.
“We don’t know how to protect ourselves or whom we’re talking to. We don’t have security right now.”
The attack has made a particularly strong national impact because many of the victims belonged to a middle class so far mostly untouched by drug war carnage, said Jorge Chabat, an expert in safety and drug trafficking at the Center for Research and Teaching in Economics.
Previous drug war incidents have claimed more victims, such as a mass grave uncovered last year with the bodies of 72 migrants, Chabat said. But the beheadings, dismemberings and other everyday horrors of the drug war have mostly touched people in lower economic classes, he said.
“Obviously, the media impact that this has is greater, because we’re talking about an attack on a civilian population of a certain income,” Chabat said. “Because who was there was from the middle class, the upper middle class of an important city in Mexico with obvious repercussions at a national and international level.”
Thirty-five of the victims were women and 10 men, authorities said, showing the popularity of the games among women who came to play bingo or slots for fun in the afternoons. The gender of the other seven couldn’t be determined.
Authorities showed a surveillance tape Friday of the attack depicting eight or nine men arriving in four cars at the casino and setting fire to the building in a matter of minutes. The gunmen had ordered people to leave before setting the fire, but many instead fled farther inside where authorities said they likely died quickly, the majority from smoke inhalation.
Nuevo Leon state Attorney General Adrian de la Garza told Imagen Informativa radio that police have found three of the cars used by the assailants. He said the vehicles had been reported stolen.
Civil protection authorities and the state Attorney General’s Office are investigating whether the casino had adequate safety measures and emergency exits amid conflicting accounts from survivors that exit doors to the parking area were locked.
Firefighters entering the building to control the fire found 16 bodies of people who apparently tried to take refuge from the gunmen near the emergency exits and became trapped by flames and smoke, authorities said. Others were found in offices and bathrooms.
Jorge Camacho Rincon, civil protection director for the state of Nuevo Leon, where Monterrey is located, said there had been attacks by gunmen on casinos before but never fires, so the people inside reacted accordingly.
“They sought places to protect themselves from firearms,” he said. “They went running to closed areas.”
Most were found clutching cellphones in their hands, a law-enforcement official who wasn’t authorized to be quoted by name told The Associated Press.
Secretary of the Interior Francisco Blake Mora told a news conference Friday that authorities were already looking for those responsible and were following all lines of investigation. Nuevo Leon Gov. Rodrigo Medina, said state coffers would cover the funerals for 12 victims whose families didn’t have the means.
So far, authorities have failed to establish communication with the legal representatives and owners of casino. They released the name of the company as Vallarta Attractions and Emotions and CYMSA Corp.
The victims, including 10 injured, were either clients or employees of the casino.
Miguel Angel Loera, 50, of Monterrey, had left his job as a chef at a nearby casino for an interview at the Casino Royale because he wanted to change jobs. Sonia de la Pena, 47, was a regular, going to play bingo with her friends several afternoons a week, according to her son, Francisco Tamayo. He still had no word of her Friday. Maria Guadalupe Monsivais, 26, was a hostess.
A colleague last saw Loera a little more than an hour before the attack Thursday afternoon. His family went searching when he didn’t come home from work.
“He never was late arriving home,” said his brother, Juan Loera, 65, who waited with other brothers outside the morgue. On Friday, authorities told them they found Loera’s identification on one of the bodies, but Juan Loera said the face was too burned to recognize.
Across the state of Nuevo Leon, residents were in shock at the loss of innocent life. Several in Monterrey said they had no way to even process what happened.
One tabloid headline declared the collective pain: “Nuevo Leon mourns casino attack.”
A 28-year-old woman who worked across the street from the casino, and who identified herself only as Lucy, said she watched six armed men flee the casino and then saw smoke billow from the building.
For her, it was the worst moment so far in Mexico’s war against organized crime.
“It means more fear, more terror, more lack of safety,” she said. “There is no control.”
“It’s a revelation, proof that they are going to do what they want when they want in the hour that they want.”
Associated Press writers Jack Chang, Olga Rodriguez and E. Eduardo Castillo in Mexico City and Porfirio Ibarra Ramirez in Monterrey contributed to this report.