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Fallout from deadly Mexico casino fire sparks political brawl

MEXICO UNDER SIEGE

The mayor of Monterrey, where 52 people died in last month's arson attack, is in President Felipe Calderon's PAN party, which wants him to resign. Its chief rival, the PRI, has leaped into the fray.

September 22, 2011|By Ken Ellingwood, Los Angeles Times
  • Monterrey Mayor Fernando Larrazabal is greeted by supporters as he arrives at city hall this month. He is under pressure from the ruling National Action Party to resign his post.
Monterrey Mayor Fernando Larrazabal is greeted by supporters as he arrives… (Tomas Bravo / Reuters )

Reporting from Mexico City — The mayor of Monterrey is feeling the squeeze. His brother is in police custody. His own party wants him to step down. And the horrific fire that killed 52 people in a casino in his city last month has become fodder for some election-season mudslinging.

The Aug. 25 arson attack has proved a debacle for Mayor Fernando Larrazabal and, by extension, for his National Action Party, or PAN, which also happens to be the party of Mexican President Felipe Calderon.

Larrazabal has been on the defensive since days after the blaze, when videos turned up showing his brother, Jonas, accepting wads of cash at another gaming center.

The videos stirred suspicion that Jonas Larrazabal might have been extorting money from casinos in the city. The mayor's brother, held under a kind of house arrest, says he was collecting payment for Oaxacan cheese that he sells.

PAN elders have demanded that the mayor step down, at least while his brother is investigated. But Fernando Larrazabal has defied them, saying his first duty is to his constituents.

PAN President Gustavo Madero, exasperated by Larrazabal's refusals, vowed last week to sanction the mayor. But he said it would be up to the party's chapter in the state of Nuevo Leon to decide a punishment.

"The National Action Party reiterates that it will not tolerate any lack of discipline by its members and states that the party's image, prestige and commitment to the people and transparency are above any personal plan," Madero said.

Apart from the PAN's internal squabbling, the casino fire has set off a festival of finger-pointing with rivals in the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, favored to regain the presidency next year after 12 years on the sidelines. The argument basically boils down to accusing the other side of being the real corruptos.

Larrazabal's troubles have been a godsend to PRI leaders, who at the time of the blaze were trying to tamp down a scandal over revelations that the party's president, Humberto Moreira, had left the state of Coahuila mired in massive debt when his term as governor ended this year.

PRI members cried dirty pool because it was the federal Finance Ministry, at the time run by Calderon confidant Ernesto Cordero, that disclosed the $2.5-billion debt. Cordero stepped down as finance minister this month to seek the PAN's nomination for president.

But the casino fire — and the broader issue of management of the thousands of betting parlors that have sprung up around Mexico in recent years — has allowed the PRI to turn the tables. Fiscal oversight of the gaming industry rests with the Finance Ministry.

"The media spotlight has changed direction: from Moreira to Larrazabal, from PRIista to PANista," columnist Leo Zuckermann wrote last week in the daily Excelsior newspaper.

Moreira called Cordero a "cynic who smells like a casino game." The PRI leader added, "We'll have to see what ties he has to casinos."

PAN leaders say their demands for Larrazabal to step down show that they have more integrity than the PRI, which is still trying to shake off a legacy of corruption earned during its graft-laden 70-year reign over the country, which ended in 2000.

"It's not the PRI of the past that concerns me," Cordero said last week. "It's the PRI of today."

Mexicans have watched the partisan fight with mounting dismay. Zuckermann, the columnist, used a crude scatological term to describe a filthy battle that he said is "barely starting."

And in case anyone forgot, the casino fire was also a grave criminal act. Federal prosecutors last week announced rewards of up to $1.1 million for the capture of 18 new suspects, believed to be members of the feared Zetas gang. That led to arrests of two suspects.

Six men had been arrested earlier, including a Nuevo Leon state police officer who officials said helped them identify the additional suspects.

Hours after prosecutors announced the new leads last week, unidentified attackers killed the parents and brother of the detained cop. A message left near the bodies called him a "traitor."

Monterrey residents were left shuddering once more.

ken.ellingwood@latimes.com

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