U.S. drug thirst, gun sales must share blame for fire tragedy, Mexico says

 

McClatchy Newspapers

MEXICO CITY — His voice cracking with emotion, President Felipe Calderon said Friday that the United States bore some 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.

In a 20-minute televised address to the nation, Calderon 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 Royale.

He referred repeatedly 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, Calderon 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. But you, too, are responsible. This is my message,” Calderon said.

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.”

Calderon declared three days of national mourning.

The motive of Thursday’s attack wasn't clear, but authorities indicated that it might have been part of an extortion campaign against one of many casinos that operate in Mexico on the margins of the law.

Calderon's blast at the United States underscored frustrations here that there's little appreciation north of the border for the role Americans have played in strengthening the cartels that are responsible for the grisly violence that's claimed as many as 40,000 lives in the last 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 the police tasked with combating them. While Calderon'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,” Calderon said in his speech, “and also the greatest global arms vendor that pays billions of dollars each year to criminals.”

In a statement, President Barack 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. Ten people were injured in the blaze.

A video taken by a closed-circuit camera that overlooks the casino's entrance showed that the attack unfolded in only two and a half minutes. Four vehicles can be seen pulling into the driveway of the Casino Royale, on San Jeronimo Avenue in a posh area of western Monterrey, at 3:48 p.m. Gunmen jump out of the cars and enter the casino, carrying three canisters apparently filled with gasoline.

Moments later, gamblers and employees are seen scuttling from the building. 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 that they didn’t seek a high casualty count.

Initial reports said the gunmen sprayed gunfire inside the casino, but Nuevo Leon Gov. Rodrigo Medina said none of the 52 victims discovered by Friday morning 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. Cell phones 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.

Local media said that one of the main investors in Casino Royale is a company, Atracciones y Emociones Vallarta, that operates 26 casinos across northern Mexico. Its owners are reportedly relatives of a former mayor of Monterrey. 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 Calderon, who's 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.

Read more World Wires stories from the Miami Herald

  •  
In this Wednesday April 16, 2014 photo,  Charlotte van den Berg poses for a portrait outside the NIOD Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies, rear, in Amsterdam, Netherlands. Charlotte van den Berg was a 20-year-old college student working part-time in Amsterdam’s city archives when she and other interns came across a shocking find: letters from Jewish Holocaust survivors complaining that the city was forcing them to pay back taxes and late payment fines on property seized after they were deported to Nazi death camps. Van den Berg waged a lonely fight against Amsterdam’s modern bureaucracy to have the travesty publicly recognized. Now, largely due to her efforts, Amsterdam officials are considering compensating Holocaust survivors for the taxes and possibly other obligations, including gas bills, they were forced to pay for homes that were occupied by Nazis or collaborators while the rightful owners were in hiding or awaiting death in the camps.

    Student fought bureaucrats for Holocaust justice

    Charlotte van den Berg was a 20-year-old college student working part-time in Amsterdam's city archives when she and other interns came across a shocking find: letters from Jewish Holocaust survivors complaining that the city was forcing them to pay back taxes and late payment fines on property seized after they were deported to Nazi death camps.

  •  
South Korean rescue members search passengers believed to have been trapped in the sunken ferry Sewol near the buoys which were installed to mark the area in the water off the southern coast near Jindo, south of Seoul, South Korea, Saturday, April 19, 2014. The captain of the sunken South Korean ferry was arrested Saturday on suspicion of negligence and abandoning people in need, as investigators looked into whether his evacuation order came too late to save lives. Two crew members were also arrested, a prosecutor said.

    Prosecutor says mate steering waters for 1st time

    A prosecutor says that the third mate steering a South Korean ferry at the time of a major accident was navigating those waters for the first time.

  •  
FILE - In this Sunday, May 18, 2003 file photo, mountaineers pass through the treacherous Khumbu Icefall on their way to Mount Everest near Everest Base camp, Nepal. An avalanche swept down a climbing route on Mount Everest early Friday, killing at least 12 Nepalese guides and leaving three missing in the deadliest disaster on the world's highest peak.

    Search resumes for bodies in Everest avalanche

    Rescuers were digging through piles of snow and ice Saturday for four Sherpa guides buried on Mount Everest when an avalanche swept down the slopes and killed 12 other Nepalese guides in the deadliest disaster on the world's highest peak.

Miami Herald

Join the
Discussion

The Miami Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere on the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

The Miami Herald uses Facebook's commenting system. You need to log in with a Facebook account in order to comment. If you have questions about commenting with your Facebook account, click here.

Have a news tip? You can send it anonymously. Click here to send us your tip - or - consider joining the Public Insight Network and become a source for The Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald.

Hide Comments

This affects comments on all stories.

Cancel OK

  • Marketplace

Today's Circulars

  • Quick Job Search

Enter Keyword(s) Enter City Select a State Select a Category