Pubdate: Sat, 27 Aug 2011
Source: National Post (Canada)
Copyright: 2011 Canwest Publishing Inc.
Page: A19
Author: Miguel Angel Gutierrez - Reuters, with files from news services


52 Killed As Gunmen Set Fire To Casino

MEXICO CITY   Felipe Calderon, the Mexican President, declared three 
days of mourning Friday and demanded a crackdown on drugs in the 
United States after armed men set fire to a casino in northern 
Mexico, killing at least 52 people.

I earnestly ask you to end once and for all the criminal sales of 
assault weapons to the criminals that operate in Mexico," Mr. 
Calderon, 49, said in a speech broadcast to the nation.

Under intense pressure as violence soars, he said he would send more 
federal security forces to the city of Monterrey, where gunmen set 
fire to an upmarket casino on Thursday in one of the worst attacks in 
the country's drug cartel war.

His government also offered a reward of Us$2.4-million for the brazen 
mid-afternoon assault, whose victims were mainly women and elderly, 
asphyxiated by the smoke and fumes.

A security camera captured video of four vehicles pulling up to the 
front of Casino Royale.

At least eight men spilled out, some dashing into the casino while 
others, holding what appeared to be assault rifles, waved people away 
as city traffic carried on as usual. Within two minutes and 30 
seconds, thick black smoke and flames could be seen on the video.

Authorities said the intruders spread flammable liquid all around the 
interior and lit it, causing flames and smoke to quickly engulf the 
building as dozens of people inside stampeded in terror.

They screamed, 'Everyone hit the floor,' " a witness told local 
media, speaking on condition of anonymity.

I don't know if there was a weapon that makes such a noise, but an 
impressive explosion followed - I never want to go through something 
like that again," said the witness, who escaped with a friend to the rooftop.

Firefighters had to knock large holes in the building's walls to 
reach the second floor as they took four hours to extinguish the blaze.

Officials said the death toll was likely to rise as rescue workers 
searched the huge building.

Barack Obama, the U.S. President, called the attack "barbaric" and 
said his government stood shoulder to shoulder with Mexico in the 
battle against the gangs.

Washington provides money and resources to Mexico in the anti-drug 
war, but joint co-operation has been damaged by mistrust, a botched 
U.S. plan to track down weapon smugglers and the killing of a U.S. 
customs agent by suspected hitmen in Mexico this year.

Mr. Calderon first ordered a crackdown against the cartels when he 
took office in late 2006 and several senior traffickers have been 
arrested. However, turf wars between rival cartels have killed about 
42,000 people.

The Mexican President insists his campaign has weakened the cartels 
but critics say it simply brought a surge in violence and has done 
little or nothing to slow the flow of cocaine, marijuana and other 
drugs into the United States.

The carnage has hurt support for Mr. Calderon's conservative National 
Action Party (PAN), which already faces an uphill battle to retain 
the presidency in elections next July.

The casino attack is particularly bitter for Mr. Calderon because the 
victims were mainly well-to-do civilians with no link to the 
conflict, in an area that has traditionally been a electoral 
stronghold for the business-friendly PAN.

Monterrey, which lies about 230 kilometres from the Texas border, is 
a relatively wealthy city of about four million people and home to 
some of Mexico's biggest companies. For many years, it was seen as a 
model of economic development but it has been ravaged by the drug 
cartel war over the past two years.

The casino attack surpasses the killings of 21 people last month in a 
bar in Monterrey as the deadliest single incident since Mr. Calderon 
became president, Milenio TV said, citing its own statistics.

A year ago, Mexico's navy found 72 bodies in a mass grave near Texas, 
the remains of migrants from other Latin American countries killed as 
they tried to make their way to the U.S. border.
- ---
MAP posted-by: Keith Brilhart