MONTERREY, Mexico — Mexican President Felipe Calderon declared three days of mourning Friday for the 52 victims of a casino fire set by presumed drug traffickers, branding the attackers “true terrorists” and ordering authorities to offer a $2.4 million reward for their capture.
Calderon also once again lashed out at the United States, saying it is not doing enough to reduce the country’s high demand for illicit drugs or to stop the illegal trafficking of U.S. weapons into Mexico.
Armed assailants burst into the casino Thursday afternoon, swearing and shouting for customers and employees to get out. But many of the terrified victims fled farther inside the building, where they died trapped amid the flames and thick smoke that soon billowed out of the building.
Calderon described the incident as the worst attack on innocent civilians in recent memory.
“We are not confronting common criminals,” he said in a televised nationwide address. “We are facing true terrorists who have gone beyond all limits.”
The federal Attorney General’s Office announced the reward money, equal to the amount the government has offered for information leading to the capture of the nation’s top drug lords.
Surveillance video shows at least eight gunmen arriving at the Casino Royale in four cars. The they then head to the main entrance as customers rush outside to their cars in an attack that lasted just a little more than two minutes. The attackers are also seen carrying three large bottles, which Gov. Rodrigo Medina said probably contained gasoline.
Medina said investigators are talking to 13 witnesses and are looking for the owner and the legal representative for the casino.
Interior Secretary Francisco Blake said the casino is owned by Atracciones y Emociones Vallarta S.A., based in the western state of Jalisco. The company also owns casinos in the states of Tamaulipas and Coahuila.
Family members arrived at the morgue all through the night in Monterrey, a modern metropolis and one of Mexico’s most important business centres that has been the scene of a ferocious turf battle between the Gulf and Zetas drug cartels.
Medina lowered the death toll to 52 early Friday. He had said late Thursday 53 people had died in the fire at the Casino Royale. He said 33 victims have been identified.
It appeared the victims were trying to flee what they thought was going to be a mass shooting attack, said Jorge Camacho Rincon, civil protection director for the state of Nuevo Leon, where Monterrey is located.
“They sought places to protect themselves from firearms. They were found in offices, bathrooms,” he said. “They went running to closed areas.”
He said the smoke was likely very toxic and spread fast to the areas in the back where people were hiding. He said they would have died from asphyxiation in a matter of minutes.
There were 35 women and 10 men among the victims. Another seven could not be identified because they were badly disfigured, he said.
Santiago Loera, 53, went to the morgue looking for his brother, Miguel Angel, a cook at another casino who had gone to the Casino Royale to sign a new contract.
“We think he’s here,” Loera said.
Loera said authorities have asked him for a DNA sample.
A visibly angry Calderon urged the United States to do more to curb demand for illegal drugs and stop weapon trafficking into Mexico.
“If … they are resigned to consuming drugs, then they need to find alternatives … and establish clear points of access different from the border with Mexico, but this situation can’t keep going on like this,” he said.
President Barack Obama condemned the attack as “barbaric” and “reprehensible.”
In a statement issued from Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, where he is wrapping up a vacation, Obama said Friday that the Mexican government and its people are waging a brave fight to disrupt violent transnational criminal organizations and that the U.S. will remain a partner with Mexico in that fight.
On the home front, Calderon called on Mexicans to convert their shock and anger into action.
“Today Mexico is upset and saddened and we have to transform this sadness and this grief into courage and valour to face … these criminals in a united way,” he said.
Calderon later visited the site of the attack, accompanied by first lady Margarita Zavala and several members of his security Cabinet.
The group, all dressed in black, arrived in a long motorcade and held a minute of silence outside the burned hulk of the Casino Royale before placing a giant green wreath in the circular driveway leading up to the building.
Calderon, Public Safety Secretary Genaro Garcia Luna and Defence Secretary Guillermo Galvan Galvan then left without saying a word.
Nuevo Leon state Attorney General Adrian de la Garza said a drug cartel was apparently responsible for the attack, though he didn’t name which one. Cartels often extort casinos and other businesses, threatening to attack them or burn them to the ground if they refuse to pay.
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, but no was reported injured in that attack.
The fire in the two-story casino, which advertised sports book and bingo, was reported just before 4 p.m. local time (5 p.m. EDT; 2100 GMT), a slow time of day when normally about 80 people played the tables and slots, said former security guard Alberto Martinez Alvarado, 30. Martinez, who was on his way home from work Thursday when he saw the fire, said the casino could hold hundreds, perhaps 1,000 people.
“We’re lucky we weren’t there,” he said. “Why couldn’t the people who did this do some honest work instead?”
Authorities commandeered backhoes from a nearby construction site and made a brief attempt to break into the casino’s walls as smoke billowed from the main entrance, hindering firefighters.
Maria Tomas Navarro, 42, stood weeping at the edge of the police tape stretched in front of the smoke-stained casino building. She was hoping for word of her brother, 25-year-old Genaro Navarro Vega, who worked in the casino’s bingo area.
Navarro said she tried calling her brother’s cellphone. “But he doesn’t answer. I don’t know what is happening,” she said. “There is nobody to ask.”
Monterrey has seen bloody turf battles between the Zetas and Gulf cartels in recent months. Once Mexico’s symbol of development and prosperity, the city is seeing this year’s drug-related murders on a pace to double last year’s and triple those of the year before.
Last month, gunmen killed 20 people at a bar in Monterrey. The attackers sprayed the bar with rounds from assault rifles, and police later found bags of drugs at the bar.
Norma Reyes, 45, was one of the people who received good news Thursday. Her son called her before she even heard about the fire to say he was all right. Jonathan Reyes, 25, who worked as an area supervisor, told his mother he was at the hospital trying to find out what happened to his co-workers.
“God took care of us today,” she said.