Latest News

Mexico blames gangsters for casino tragedy, but clears others

MEXICO CITY — Investigators probing a firebombing of a Mexican casino last summer that left 52 people dead said Tuesday that gangsters were the sole cause of the tragedy, clearing safety inspectors and the casino owner of any criminal negligence.

The investigators said the Casino Royale in Monterrey had been adequately equipped with safety features and emergency exits.

"Even if all safety and security measures were in place, it wouldn't have mattered for a fire of this kind," said Adrian de la Garza, the attorney general for the state of Nuevo Leon.

A survivor of the fire called the report a whitewash, saying the casino owner remains in Miami and that Mexico's chaotic casino industry is riddled with irregularities that allow politicians to line their pockets from corruption.

"They are washing their hands of responsibility," said Samara Perez Muniz, who lost her 18-year-old son in the blaze but escaped the building herself. "It is despicable."

Gangsters from Los Zetas, one of Mexico's most powerful and brutal crime groups, entered the casino on the afternoon of Aug. 25 and doused some 53 gallons of gasoline around the gaming floor before setting it afire, sending hysterical clients running into areas without exits, De la Garza said.

The act apparently was a reprisal for the casino owner's refusal to pay extortion.

"It was just too quick. . . . In 40 seconds, they lost the chance to evacuate," the state's chief prosecutor said.

The head of Mexico's federal anti-organized crime unit, Jose Cuitlahuac Salinas, concurred that neither city and state inspectors nor casino operator Raul Rocha Cantu was negligent.

"The facility didn't comply with all safety requirements," Cuitlahuac said. "Nevertheless, any shortcomings we found were not enough to determine that they bore criminal responsibility."

De la Garza said the Casino Royale, set in a posh area of the northern city of Monterrey, had eight exits, 40 fire extinguishers, emergency lighting and numerous signs for evacuation routes. Carpeting and fabric contained fire retardant, he added, and the doors were wide enough to permit rapid evacuation.

He said 18 people were in jail on charges related to the firebombing, but that as many as 18 others had helped take part in the Zetas attack.

De la Garza denied reports that some of the exits were locked or bricked up, a response to threats from Los Zetas, which moved heavily into Monterrey last year.

"There were no false doors. All the doors were exits," De la Garza said.

Monterrey's fire chief, Andres Molina, said in the weeks after the firebombing that firefighters found a casino door that had been bricked up and others locked. He said emergency exits at the casino were insufficient.

After his remarks, local authorities in Monterrey, in apparent reprisal, fined the volunteer fire department for holding an illegal money-raising raffle.

The firebombing of the casino — and the deaths of so many upper-middle-class victims — jolted Mexican politicians. President Felipe Calderon declared three days of national mourning and vowed a thorough probe, "whoever may fall."

A McClatchy investigation after the casino firebombing found that two consecutive administrations of Calderon's National Action Party had poked holes in a 1947 act that prohibited gambling, handing out hundreds of permits to allies in an opaque fashion, then allowing bingo and gaming halls to turn into full-fledged casinos.

In one case, federal regulators gave permits for as many as 60 casinos to a man who admitted to possession of 17 pounds of marijuana in New Mexico in 1994.

Critics of the murky regulations surrounding Mexican gaming say that politicians and bureaucrats at city, state and federal levels routinely pocket money from casino owners, much of it to finance political campaigns.

Less than a week after the Casino Royale bombing, videotapes surfaced showing Jonas Larrazabal, brother of Monterrey Mayor Fernando Larrazabal, visiting casinos on at least three occasions and receiving thick wads of cash. Authorities detained the mayor's brother for investigation.

The mayor, a member of the National Action Party, fended off calls by the party to step down. His brother said he was collecting debts on special cheeses he'd sold to the casinos. Last month, a casino owner dropped charges against Jonas Larrazabal, allowing him to go free.

A Nuevo Leon state lawmaker, Hector Gutierrez, said in an interview last week in Monterrey that the Casino Royale firebombing exposed how poorly the Interior Ministry's bureau of gaming and raffles had monitored the casino industry.

"They didn't know who the owner of the Casino (Royale) was. Can you believe it?" said Gutierrez, of the opposition Institutional Revolutionary Party.

Gutierrez headed a congressional task force that cited vast irregularities surrounding Casino Royale in a report issued in late October. The report said the casino was too close to a school (177 feet), never got approval from city officials and never registered the identities of its owners, operators and employees.

"A casino like this, that has changed management four times without the Interior Ministry checking on it, and that has expanded on one of Monterrey's busiest streets without anyone looking into it — well, there are too many complicities for us to keep quiet," Gutierrez said.

Edmundo Jimenez Ramirez, a retired lawyer who lost his wife in the casino tragedy, said he wouldn't rest until authorities behind the chaotic casino industry were brought to justice.

"I want them to punish the owner (of Casino Royale) and all the officials who turned a blind eye to this," Jimenez said.


Corruption in Mexico casinos takes a toll in the U.S., too

Mexico's top 2 crime gangs engaged in turf war

Mexico captures alleged Zetas leader tied to Monterrey casino blaze

Check out this McClatchy blog: Mexico Unmasked

Follow Tim Johnson on Twitter

Related stories from Miami Herald