President Felipe Calderón said Friday that the United States shares blame for "an act of terror" by gangsters who doused a casino in Monterrey, Mexico, with gasoline and set a fire that killed at least 52 people.
MEXICO CITY — His voice cracking with emotion, President Felipe Calderón said Friday the United States shares blame for “an act of terror” by gangsters who doused a casino with gasoline and set a blaze that killed at least 52 people.
The attack Thursday in Monterrey, an industrial city of 4 million barely a two-hour drive from Texas, stunned Mexicans and seemed likely to mark a watershed in the country’s intensifying war against criminal syndicates.
The Excelsior newspaper reported that owners of Casino Royale, in a posh area of the western part of the city, had refused to pay 130,000 pesos a week (roughly $10,000) demanded by gangsters. The casino previously was attacked twice this year, in January and May, by gunmen who shot up the place in the middle of the night, without harming anyone.
In a 20-minute televised address, Calderón declared three days of national mourning and gave an unusually blunt assessment of the causes of Mexico’s surging violence before flying to Monterrey to place a wreath at the burned-out hulk of the casino.
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He repeatedly referred to the attack as a terrorist act, elevating the conflict to a new level, at least linguistically, and casting it in terms of a broader struggle for control of Mexico. He said rampant corruption within his nation’s judiciary and law enforcement bore some blame.
But in unprecedented, direct criticism of the United States, Calderón said lax U.S. gun laws and high demand for drugs stoked his nation’s violence. He appealed to U.S. citizens “to reflect on the tragedy that we are living through in Mexico.”
“We are neighbors, allies and friends,” Calderón said. “But you, too, are responsible. This is my message.”
He called on the United States to “once and for all, stop the criminal sale of high-powered weapons and assault rifles to criminals that operate in Mexico.”
Calderón’s blast underscored frustrations here that there’s little recognition north of the border for the role Americans have played in strengthening the cartels responsible for the grisly violence that’s claimed as many as 40,000 lives in the past five years.
With weapons bought in the United States, the gangs, whose roots lie in drug smuggling but which have branched out into a variety of criminal enterprises, are better armed than police. While Calderón’s government has captured dozens of mid- and upper-level gangsters, beheadings, public executions and kidnappings are epidemic, and many Mexicans feel less safe than ever.
“Part of the tragedy that we Mexicans are living through has to do with the fact that we are next to the world’s greatest drug consumer,” Calderón said in his speech, “and also the greatest global arms vendor that pays billions of dollars each year to criminals.”
In a statement, President Obama condemned “the barbaric and reprehensible attack” and lauded Mexico’s “brave fight to disrupt transnational criminal organizations that threaten both Mexico and the United States.”
Of the 52 who died in Thursday’s firebombing, 35 were women, mostly in their 40s, 50s and 60s, who were passing time in the casino on a weekday afternoon, civil-defense officials said. At least 20 people were injured, some critically, and the death toll was expected to increase.
A video taken by a closed-circuit camera that overlooks the casino’s entrance showed the attack unfolded in 2 ½ minutes. Four vehicles can be seen pulling into the driveway of the casino at 3:48 p.m. Gunmen jump out of the cars and enter the casino, carrying three canisters apparently filled with gasoline.
Gamblers and employees are seen scuttling from the building moments later. Black smoke then pours from the casino as the assailants jump into the vehicles and drive off.
Witnesses who fled the casino said the gunmen shouted at gamblers to flee before setting the building ablaze, indicating they didn’t seek a high casualty count. Emergency exits were blocked, exacerbating the death toll.
Initial reports said the gunmen sprayed gunfire inside the casino, but Nuevo León Gov. Rodrigo Medina said none of the 52 victims had bullet wounds.
“It was an indescribable scene,” said Reynaldo Ramos, of Monterrey Civil Defense. Most victims died from smoke inhalation rather than direct contact with fire, he said. Cellphones on the bodies of victims rang constantly as rescuers removed them, he added.
He said some 300 people were in the casino at the time of the attack.
No arrests were made immediately. The attorney general’s office offered a $2.5 million reward for information leading to the conviction of the attackers.
Monterrey is seen as a bellwether for Mexico’s rising chaos. Home to some of Mexico’s biggest companies and with the highest standard of living in the nation, with a per-capita income of $18,000 per year, the city has been identified with booming entrepreneurship. As recently as early last year, Monterrey was hailed as a safe, prosperous city, a Mexican version of Dallas or Houston.
But a turf war between large criminal syndicates — the Gulf Cartel and Los Zetas — now unfolds in city streets daily. Drive-by shootings, roadblocks, gangland grenade attacks and bodies hanging from overpasses are common.
Earlier this week, gangsters hung a still-living victim by the neck from a pedestrian walkway in the city in broad daylight, then took potshots at the victim with weapons.
Gangs routinely shake down casinos for payoffs. On Wednesday, gunmen threw a grenade at a casino in the city of Saltillo in northern Coahuila state.
Anger at Calderón, in the final 15 months of his six-year term, boiled over on social media, a sign of the sagging support for his policy of direct confrontation with cartels. Since he came to office in late 2006, Mexico has tallied around 40,000 murders.
“Sometimes I would like to leave the country but it is MY COUNTRY. Make them leave,” a Twitter post by Roduguevara said.
Information from the Los Angeles Times is included in this report.