Image: Fire at Casino Royale in Monterrey, Mexico
Dario Leon  /  AFP - Getty Images
Thick smoke billows from the Casino Royale in Monterrey, Mexico, as firefighters attack the blaze.
msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 8/26/2011 2:17:06 PM ET 2011-08-26T18:17:06

Mexican President Felipe Calderon declared three days of mourning Friday for the 52 victims of a casino fire set by presumed drug traffickers, branding the attackers "true terrorists" and ordering authorities to offer a $2.4 million reward for their capture.

Calderon also once again lashed out at the United States, saying it is not doing enough to reduce the country's high demand for illicit drugs or to stop the illegal trafficking of U.S. weapons into Mexico.

Armed assailants burst into the casino Thursday afternoon, swearing and shouting for customers and employees to get out. But many of the terrified victims fled farther inside the building, where they died trapped amid the flames and thick smoke that soon billowed out of the building.

Calderon described the incident as the worst attack on innocent civilians in recent memory.

"We are not confronting common criminals," he said in a televised nationwide address. "We are facing true terrorists who have gone beyond all limits."

The federal Attorney General's Office announced the reward money, equal to the amount the government has offered for information leading to the capture of the nation's top drug lords.

Surveillance video shows at least eight gunmen arriving at the Casino Royale in four cars. The they then head to the main entrance as customers rush outside to their cars in an attack that lasted just a little more than two minutes. The attackers are also seen carrying three large bottles, which Gov. Rodrigo Medina said probably contained gasoline, while others stand guard by several awaiting vehicles.

Medina said investigators are talking to 13 witnesses and are looking for the owner and the legal representative for the casino.

Family members arrived at the morgue all through the night in Monterrey, a modern metropolis and one of Mexico's most important business centers that has been the scene of a ferocious turf battle between the Gulf and Zetas drug cartels.

Medina lowered the death toll to 52 early Friday. He had said late Thursday 53 people had died in the fire at the Casino Royale. He said 33 victims have been identified.

Nuevo Leon state Civil Protection Director Jorge Camacho said there were 35 women and 10 men among the victims. He said another seven could not be identified because they were badly disfigured.

Camacho said most victims died of asphyxiation and that most of the bodies were found in hallways leading to the exits.

Santiago Loera, 53, went to the morgue looking for his brother, Miguel Angel, a cook at another casino who had gone to the Casino Royale to sign a new contract.

"We think he's here," Loera said.

Loera said authorities have asked him for a DNA sample.

A visibly angry Calderon urged the United States to do more to curb demand for illegal drugs and stop weapon trafficking into Mexico.

"If ... they are resigned to consuming drugs, then they need to find alternatives ... and establish clear points of access different from the border with Mexico, but this situation can't keep going on like this," he said.

President Barack Obama condemned the attack as "barbaric" and "reprehensible."

In a statement issued from Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts, where he is wrapping up a vacation, Obama said Friday that the Mexican government and its people are waging a brave fight to disrupt violent transnational criminal organizations and that the U.S. will remain a partner with Mexico in that fight.

On the home front, Calderon called on Mexicans to convert their shock and anger into action.

"Today Mexico is upset and saddened and we have to transform this sadness and this grief into courage and valor to face ... these criminals in a united way," he said.

Calderon later visited the site of the attack, accompanied by first lady Margarita Zavala and several members of his security Cabinet.

The group, all dressed in black, arrived in a long motorcade and held a minute of silence outside the burned hulk of the Casino Royale before placing a giant green wreath in the circular driveway leading up to the building.

Calderon, Public Safety Secretary Genaro Garcia Luna and Defense Secretary Guillermo Galvan Galvan then left without saying a word.

Nuevo Leon state Attorney General Adrian de la Garza said a drug cartel was apparently responsible for the attack, though he didn't name which one. Cartels often extort casinos and other businesses, threatening to attack them or burn them to the ground if they refuse to pay.

It was the second time in three months that the Casino Royale was targeted. Gunmen struck it and three other casinos on May 25, spraying the building with bullets, but no was reported injured in that attack.

The fire in the two-story casino, which advertised sports book and bingo, was reported just before 4 p.m. local time (5 p.m. EDT; 2100 GMT), a slow time of day when normally about 80 people played the tables and slots, said former security guard Alberto Martinez Alvarado, 30. Martinez, who was on his way home from work Thursday when he saw the fire, said the casino could hold hundreds, perhaps 1,000 people.

"We're lucky we weren't there," he said. "Why couldn't the people who did this do some honest work instead?"

Slideshow: Narco culture permeates Mexico, leaks across border (on this page)

State police officials quoted survivors as saying armed men burst into the casino, apparently to rob it, and began dousing the premises with fuel from tanks they brought with them. The officials were not authorized to be quoted by name for security reasons. De la Garza said the liquid appeared to be gasoline.

Monterrey Mayor Fernando Larrazabal said many of the bodies were found inside the casino's bathrooms, where employees and customers had locked themselves to escape the gunmen.

Authorities commandeered backhoes from a nearby construction site and made a brief attempt to break into the casino's walls as smoke billowed from the main entrance, hindering firefighters.

Story: Mexican state nabs 2 for tweeting violence rumors

Maria Tomas Navarro, 42, stood weeping at the edge of the police tape stretched in front of the smoke-stained casino building. She was hoping for word of her brother, 25-year-old Genaro Navarro Vega, who had worked in the casino's bingo area.

Navarro said she tried calling her brother's cell phone. "But he doesn't answer. I don't know what is happening," she said. "There is nobody to ask."

Monterrey has seen bloody turf battles between the Zetas and Gulf cartels in recent months. Once Mexico's symbol of development and prosperity, the city is seeing this year's drug-related murders on a pace to double last year's and triple those of the year before.

Last month, gunmen killed 20 people at a bar in Monterrey. The attackers sprayed the bar with rounds from assault rifles, and police later found bags of drugs at the bar.

State police officials initially said witnesses reported hearing three explosions before Thursday's fire started, but later said a flammable material was used. The officials were not authorized to be quoted by name for security reasons.

The reports of explosions may have been the sound of the ignition of the liquid.

Norma Reyes, 45, was one of the people who received good news Thursday. Her son called her before she even heard about the fire to say he was all right. Jonathan Reyes, 25, who worked as an area supervisor, told his mother he was at the hospital trying to find out what happened to his co-workers.

"God took care of us today," she said.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

Photos: Narco culture permeates Mexico, leaks across border

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  1. Tijuana, June 2009: Mexico's drug culture is defined by guns and money, to be sure, but it includes sex, movies, music and even a heavy dose of religion. It also extends across the border into the U.S.

    Since 2008, photojournalist Shaul Schwarz has been documenting that culture. Presented here are snapshots of that coverage, starting with what makes it all happen: cash. This stash was confiscated and the alleged courier, seen at center, was detained by Mexican soldiers.

    "Since the beginning of President Felipe Calderon's drug war in 2006, Mexican officials have held press conferences to show detained suspects," Schwarz notes. "At the same time the violence persists" -- with nearly 35,000 people killed through 2010. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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    Ciudad Juarez, August 2009: Three young men died in this shootout in the parking lot of a shopping mall. In the first half of that year, more than 1,000 drug war deaths were counted in Juarez alone. The city of 1.3 million has been the center of a drug turf war between the Sinaloa and Juarez cartels. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Ciudad Juarez, August 2009: Residents of a neighborhood survey the site where a body was found, presumably another victim of drug turf clashes. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Mexico City, July 2009: Mexico's drug and gang culture has a strong religious streak. Thousands of devotees seen here attend a mass for Santa Muerte -- Saint Death -- a mythical figure condemned by the Catholic Church but embraced by many poor and criminal elements. This gathering is outside a shrine in Tepito, a gritty neighborhood famous for its street markets brimming with pirated and stolen merchandise.

    "Its violent and dangerous streets serve as a sort of mecca for Santa Muerte followers," Schwarz says. "Tepito is also home to the most popular Santa Muerte shrine, which sits outside a modest home. On the first day of every month, the shrine fills with followers who come bearing statuettes of the saint. Some pilgrims make their way from the subway on their knees; many smoke weed or cigars with their saints." (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Mexico City, October 2009: Devotees of Saint Judas Thaddaeus inhale glue out of plastic bags to get high as they gather outside San Hipolito church during the annual pilgrimage honoring the saint.

    Judas Thaddaeus is the Catholic Church's patron saint of desperate cases and lost causes, but in Mexico he is also known as "the saint of both cops and robbers (and prostitutes), as well as one of the biggest spiritual figures for young people in Mexico City," Schwarz says. "He has become the generic patron saint of disreputable activities. His biggest – and most important shrine – is at Hipolito, one of the best preserved colonial churches." (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Mexico City, October 2009: This shrine in the Colonia Doctores neighborhood pays homage to both Santa Muerte and Jesus Malverde, reputedly a bandit killed by officials in 1909.

    Jesus Malverde is revered by many as a Robin Hood who stole from the rich to give to the poor. Several dozen such shrines exist in this neighborhood and in Tepito, where the cults thrive. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Tijuana, June 2009: A shrine to Santa Muerte sits above a home in the notorious Colonia Libertad neighborhood. The shrine is walled in by the old border fence separating Tijuana from San Diego. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Tijuana, March 2009: A man peeks through a fence toward the U.S., studying Border Patrol movements before crossing. New fences are constantly being built to deter illegal immigrants and drug traffickers.

    In 2010, President Barack Obama ordered some 1,200 National Guard troops to the Southwest border and also signed a $600 million bill to fund 1,500 new Border Patrol agents, customs inspectors and law enforcement officials. But the U.S. has also had to pull the plug on a troubled $1 billion "virtual fence" project meant to better guard stretches of the border. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Tijuana, June 2009: Federal police pat down a stripper during the raid of a large dance club. Several nightclubs in the notorious downtown red-light district were raided that night. Other parts of the strip continued as normal, with foreigners approaching young prostitutes as families with small children walked by with little notice and mariachis played on. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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    Ciudad Juarez, December 2008: A woman's body lies on the autopsy table where it was discovered that she was raped and then murdered in what was made to look like a suicide.

    "Violence against women has also surged in correlation to the daily multiple uninvestigated and unpunished homicides," Schwarz says. "The coroner's office is open 24/7 and employs more than 100 doctors, technicians and investigative specialists, who cover Ciudad Juarez and northern Chihuahua state." (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Tijuana, June 2009: The drug culture is often portrayed by Mexican cinema. Here director Antonio Herrera films a scene for "Vida Mafiosa" -- Mafia Life -- a low budget film glorifying the culture. "This is the only thing selling at the moment for me," Herrera said at the time as he worked to complete his seventh narco film. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Tijuana, November 2010: A scene from "El Baleado" -- The Shooting Victim -- shows young men being executed shortly after smuggling drugs in from a beach. The film was produced by Baja Films Productions, a family-owned company that almost went out of business until family member Oscar Lopez, a San Diego resident, convinced his father to make a narco film. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Tijuana, April 2010: Los Angeles gangsters hang out at the production of a narco film. One of the gang members (not pictured) was an extra in the film. "That was a good excuse for them to come down to TJ and party where the drugs and women are cheap," Schwarz says. "It's common for gangsters/narcos to want to appear in these films." (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Mexico City, October 2009: Devotees of Saint Judas Thaddaeus gather outside San Hipolito church. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Tijuana, June 2009: Young Mexicans in the Colonia Libertad neighborhood smoke pot and hang out at a spot overlooking the border with the U.S. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Burbank, Calif., April 2010: Alfredo Rios, better known by his stage name "El Komander", walks down a street just outside the studio of his agent and music producer. From Sinaloa, El Komander is one of the hottest singers/composers of "Narcocorrido" songs, which glorify the drug culture.

    "He regularly performs at private parties for Sinaloa's cartel members as well as composes songs for/about them, at times even commissioned by the drug lords," Schwarz says. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Tijuana, April 2010: Narcocorrido performer "The Scorpion" (whose real name is Amador Granados) shows off his belt while on the set of a Baja Films Productions movie that translated into English means: Seagulls Don't Fly Alone. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Culiacan, March 2009: A man and his two sons visit Culiacan's main Jesus Malverde shrine, located across from a McDonald's and near the state legislature.

    "The narco culture is becoming more and more mainstream and the shrine draws people of all walks of life," Schwarz says. "Many visitors leave Polaroid photos with pithy notes giving thanks to Malverde."

    "The image of his mustachioed face, bedecked with a neckerchief, a gold chain with a pistol charm around his neck, and a large belt-buckle with a pistol around his waist can now be found all over the U.S.," Schwarz adds. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. El Monte, Calif., April 2010: The Bukanas De Culiacan band gets ready to perform during the launch event of "Movimiento Alterado," a new form of Narcocorrido gaining popularity. "Narco music clubs are mushrooming all over L.A., and up and down the West Coast," Schwarz says.
    "It's a social movement of people who came from nothing and dream of a chance out," said Joel Vazquez, the band's manager. "It's a lot like hip hop or gangsta rap, except it's Mexican culture, not black." (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Pico Rivera, Calif., April 2010: Partyers use the bathroom at El Rodeo Night Club, one of the many big Narcocorrido clubs in the Los Angeles area. "The cross-over music scene and culture is generating hybrid fashion trends and lifestyle ties between the Sinaloa mainstream, in Mexico and the Mexican-American mainstream culture in L.A.," Schwarz says. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Ciudad Juarez, August 2009: Police protect a crime scene where two bodies were found in the desert near the border with the U.S. Much of Mexico's drug violence is due to turf wars for control of the border routes. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Culiacan, July 2009: The Jardines del Humaya Cemetery hosts many grave sites dedicated to drug traffickers. Some are two- and three-stories tall; many have bulletproof glass, Italian marble and spiral iron staircases.

    "Inside the mausoleums are pictures of the deceased, often men in their 20s and 30s, and signs of Santa Muerte and Jesus Malverde," says Schwarz. "And, as in many of the cemeteries found in the drug-war inflicted Mexico, rows of freshly dug graves await their new tenants." (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Apatzingan, April 2010: This home hadn't been touched in the two years after it was shot at and burned down by soldiers in a deadly attack on members of the La Familia drug cartel. Many of its leaders were born in this town, and in December 2010 one of its founders was killed by soldiers there. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. The religion

    Culiacan, July 2009: A young man makes his way to the shrine of Jesus Malverde. Culiacan is the capital of the northwestern state of Sinaloa, long a hot bed of drug cultivation. For decades traffickers have worshipped at the shrine, helping to spread Malverde's fame. "Followers call Malverde the Robin Hood of Mexico," Schwarz says. "Critics say he has become a symbol of crime. Drug traffickers claim him as their own." (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Tultitlan, November 2009: Santa Muerte devotees attend a service in the courtyard of a church with a 65-foot-tall statue of the mythical figure. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. Angeles National Forest, Calif., August 2009: Santa Muerte worshipers gather in a creek just outside Los Angeles. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. Ciudad Juarez, August 2009: This bridge to El Paso, Texas, is one of the legal border crossings into the U.S. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Tijuana, March 2009: Mexico's military shows off the results of a raid on a party: assault weapons and the arrests of 58 people. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. Culiacan, July 2009: A new inmate kisses his wife goodbye as their daughter cries.

    The Culiacan prison is notorious for violence and riots. "Security forces most often stay outside just along the perimeter of the prison and do not go in to the living quarters themselves," Schwarz says. "Weed, other drugs and cell phones along with statues of saints are common inside this typical Mexican jail." (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  30. Tijuana, March 2009: A drug addict sits in a tent where he lives along the border canal with the U.S. "The border canal has become a regular spot for junkies to use heroin," Schwarz says. "While the Mexican police do nothing, the U.S Border Patrol are just out of jurisdiction." (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  31. Mexico City, October 2009: Jose Garcia Pichardo prays and smokes a cigar at the Santa Muerte altar in his bedroom. Pichardo said he once was a drug dealer and that two years earlier the Santa saved him from the police. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  32. Ciudad Juarez, August 2009: Women spread flour to soak up blood where a young man was murdered. Nearly 3,000 people were killed in the border city that year, and another 3,000 in 2010.

    "As a photojournalist I have covered conflicts and wars since 1996, but Mexico’s present situation haunts me like no other," Schwarz says. "While death statistics have been documented ad nauseum, far less has been said about the broader social reality created by the drug trade. As I continue to cover this story that seems to have no end in sight, I plan to focus not only on the harsh existence in border towns, but on the culture created for millions of Mexicans and Americans inevitably involved in or affected by the drug trade and a desire for “narco luxury.” (Shaul Schwarz/ Reportage By Gett / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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