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Suspect says Mexico casino fire set over unpaid extortion money

Five are arrested in the deadly Monterrey arson as public outrage mounts, with some calls for the president and state governor's resignation over the rising toll from the bloody drug war.

August 29, 2011|By Tracy Wilkinson, Los Angeles Times
  • Nuevo Leon State Gov. Rodrigo Medina speaks next to photographs of five men arrested in connection with an arson attack on a Monterrey, Mexico, casino that killed 52 people.
Nuevo Leon State Gov. Rodrigo Medina speaks next to photographs of five… (Carlos Jasso, Reuters )

Reporting from Mexico City — Public outrage continued to mount Monday in Mexico over last week's slaying by fire of 52 people in a popular casino as officials announced the arrest of five suspects.

At least one of the detained men confessed that the attack in Monterrey was in response to the casino owners' refusal to pay protection money, said Rodrigo Medina, governor of the state of Nuevo Leon, where the affluent northern city is located. Medina said the suspects were working for the notorious Zetas drug cartel, which has been locked in a bloody battle with rival drug traffickers for control of northeastern Mexico.

The victims, the majority of them women, were killed when gunmen torched the Casino Royale on Thursday afternoon. Authorities have given conflicting accounts on whether exits were blocked, which would have compounded the death toll.

"The attack was aimed at the casino, not the civilian population," Medina said in a news conference, suggesting that the assailants may not have intended to kill so many people.

It was the deadliest attack against Mexican civilians in nearly five years of drug warfare and has intensified pressure on the government of President Felipe Calderon to control the escalating violence, which has claimed at least 40,000 lives.

Full-page ads in newspapers Monday, one by major business organizations, demanded government action to punish culprits and pass long-delayed laws necessary to shut down traffickers and their money-laundering operations.

More than 2,000 people turned out Sunday in Monterrey to decry the casino arson and protest authorities' inability to protect citizens. Many called for the resignations of Calderon and Medina.

"This was not an isolated incident … but the straw that broke the camel's back," activist Tatiana Clouthier, one of the organizers, said Monday on Milenio TV. "Maybe this will serve as the detonator for society to say they've had enough."

Mexico has undergone a boom in casinos, some legal, some not and some allegedly used to launder drug money. The victims at the Casino Royale were mostly mothers and grandmothers who routinely enjoyed an afternoon game of bingo.

Medina, the governor, released videotape that showed suspects at a gas station where they filled jugs with the fuel allegedly used to torch the casino.

The incident was especially shocking because Monterrey, Mexico's industrial hub, was once known for its tranquillity. But it has been steadily engulfed in the same violence wrenching the rest of the country. A survey conducted in July by major business organizations and obtained by The Times showed that 90% of the city's residents feared for their safety.

Calderon, who declared three days of national mourning, pointedly used the words "terrorism" and "terrorist" to describe the attack and its perpetrators — terms he normally eschews so as not to give traffickers and their henchmen more status than that of mere criminals. The rhetorical escalation may be the president's attempt to rally a dispirited and disjointed public for support of his increasingly unpopular strategy.

"Elevating the category of the enemy helps give legitimacy to a fiercely questioned policy," columnist Roberto Zamarripa noted Monday in the Reforma newspaper. "The government can invoke unquestioning unity for a policy that is weak and erratic."

The owners of the casino have not yet appeared in public. Their attorney, Juan Gomez Jayme, told journalists over the weekend that his clients were prepared to report to authorities to answer questions, but as of Monday afternoon, that had not happened. Medina said the owners were being sought for questioning.

Gomez Jayme asserted that the casino had proper permits and that its operators had informed him the exits were not blocked. He said the owners did not plan to pay compensation to victims because the fire was not their fault.

wilkinson@latimes.com

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