Image: A soldier stands guard outside the Casino Royale after a deadly assault that killed at least 52 people in Monterrey, Mexico.
Arnulfo Franco  /  AP
A soldier stands guard outside the Casino Royale after a deadly assault that killed at least 52 people in Monterrey, Mexico.
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updated 8/27/2011 5:41:51 PM ET 2011-08-27T21:41:51

Hundreds of soldiers and federal agents raided casinos in this northern city, authorities said Saturday, two days after an arson attack on a gambling house killed 52 people and stunned a country that had become numb to massacres and beheadings.

Security forces had so far confiscated about 1,500 slot machines at 11 casinos in Monterrey and its surroundings and arrested three people, Mexico's tax agency said. It said the continuing operation was meant to verify whether casinos had paid taxes or introduced slot machines illegally.

Thursday's arson attack by gunmen was a macabre milestone in a conflict that the government says has claimed more than 35,000 lives since President Felipe Calderon launched an offensive against drug cartels in late 2006. Others put the death toll near 40,000.

The torching of the Casino Royale has raised questions over Mexico's regulatory controls for fast-spreading gambling houses.

Authorities have not been able to reach the owners of two companies pointed out as titleholders of the casino. Jorge Domene, security spokesman for Nuevo Leon state, said an order to appear before state police has been issued for owners of the two companies, CYMSA Corp. and Vallarta Attractions and Emotions.

During the raids, which began Friday, about 700 soldiers, federal police and Treasury Department agents seized slot machines and put them in moving trucks.

Authorities did not say the raids were related to the arson. But one of the casinos searched was also registered under Vallarta Attractions and Emotions, according to the gaming unit of Mexico's Interior Department. Information of the other locations was not immediately available.

Federal police spokesman Juan Carlos Buenrostro said additional security forces were being deployed to this industrial metropolis of more than 4 million people Saturday. Buenrostro did not specify what actions police would carry out or the number of agents who would arrive to the city.

Mayor Fernando Larrazabal said the Casino Royale and other 12 casinos violated municipal laws and were allowed to remain open after obtaining federal court injunctions.

The casino had been attacked twice before, including an incident in May when gunmen strafed it from the outside. Last month, gunmen killed 20 people at a bar in Monterrey.

Cartels often extort casinos and other businesses, threatening to attack them or burn them to the ground if they refuse to pay.

Authorities have not blamed a specific drug-trafficking organization for the casino attack. But the city has been ensnared in a turf battle between the Gulf cartel and its offshoot, the Zetas, and is on track for record levels of killings this year.

The victims this time weren't cartel foot soldiers or migrants resisting forced recruitment by gangs, as were the cases in other attacks. They were workers or customers who liked to lunch or play bingo and slots in the afternoons in an affluent part of town.

"We're talking about an attack on a civilian population of a certain income," said Jorge Chabat, an expert in safety and drug trafficking at the Center for Research and Teaching in Economics. "Because who was there was from the middle class, the upper middle class of an important city in Mexico."

Friends perish
Lorena Villareal Elizondo went to meet a friend at the Casino Royale, a popular low-cost lunch spot, when armed men burst through the door shouting: "Get out! Get out! We're going to burn everything!"

It was only 19-year-old Carla Maria Espinoza Vega's second day at work at the casino when the intruders sprinkled accelerant around the front door and set the building on fire.

Both died in the arson attack that killed 52 people, mostly women, in the casino in this wealthy northern city.

Story: Mexico president blasts US after casino massacre

Friends and family mourned Villareal, a 39-year-old mother of three, at a visitation Friday, while Espinoza's mother filled out paperwork to retrieve her body.

"She was my baby," said Espinoza's tearful mother, Guadalupe Vega, as she waited at the morgue.

"She was like my sister," said Villareal's cousin, Guadalupe Elizondo Gracia, outside a giant funeral home that drew hundreds of mourners to a half-dozen visitations Friday night.

Attackers have 'gone beyond all limits'
In a nationally televised speech, an angry President Felipe Calderon declared three days of mourning and labeled the attack the worst against civilians in the nation's recent history.

"We are facing true terrorists who have gone beyond all limits," said Calderon, who also announced he is sending more federal forces to the city of 1 million people.

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

"Today, Mexico is upset and saddened and we have to transform this sadness and this grief into courage and valor to face ... these criminals."

Hours later, he appeared in front of the burned-out casino, where he placed a large wreath and observed a moment of silence.

A surveillance tape released Friday showed eight or nine men arriving in four cars and carrying canisters into the building, which was engulfed in flames in little more than two minutes as people tried to flee in panic.

Calderon offered a $2.4 million reward for information leading to their capture, the same amount offered for the arrest of top drug lords. Authorities had sketches of three of the men based on interviews with 16 survivors of the fire, said Jorge Domene, security spokesman for the state of Nuevo Leon, where Monterrey is located.

Domene also said officials had located three of the four vehicles in the video, dumped around various parts of the city. All had been reported stolen.

Image: Mexico's President Felipe Calderon and his wife, Margarita Zavala, attend a ceremony Friday outside the Casino Royale in Monterrey, Mexico, a day after a deadly assault.
Arnulfo Franco  /  AP
Mexico's President Felipe Calderon and his wife, Margarita Zavala, attend a ceremony Friday outside the Casino Royale in Monterrey, Mexico, a day after a deadly assault.

'They went running to closed areas'
Authorities said they are still investigating whether the exits were blocked. But many bodies were found in offices and the bathrooms, indicating the victims were expecting a shootout.

"They sought places to protect themselves from firearms," said Jorge Camacho Rincon, civil protection director for the state of Nuevo Leon. "They went running to closed areas."

Most died of smoke inhalation and were found clutching cell phones in their hands, a law-enforcement official who wasn't authorized to be quoted by name told The Associated Press.

In the streets around the casino on Friday, people said the latest violence deepened their sense of vulnerability. In recent years, the city has been ensnared in a turf battle between the Gulf cartel and its offshoot, the Zetas, and is on track for record levels of killings this year.

Story: Mexican state nabs 2 for tweeting violence rumors

The U.S. Consulate in Monterrey issued an emergency message for Americans following the attack and warned consular employees and their families to avoid casinos, adult clubs and similar places "that have been targets for violence."

The casino was attacked twice before. In May, gunmen strafed it from the outside. Last month, gunmen killed 20 people at a bar in Monterrey.

"What happened last night was the limit," said a man nursing a Coke at a hamburger stand across from the city's morgue, where families streamed in all night to identify bodies. Like many people, he refused to give his name out of fear.

"We don't know how to protect ourselves or whom we're talking to," he said. "We don't have security right now."

The attack resonated across the country because many of the victims were from the middle class, so far mostly untouched by violence, said Jorge Chabat, an expert in safety and drug trafficking at the Center for Research and Teaching in Economics.

"We're talking about an attack on a civilian population of a certain income," he said. "Because who was there was from the middle class, the upper middle class of an important city in Mexico."

Villareal, who had a travel agency near the casino, intended to meet a friend for lunch, but the person had just left by the time she arrived, said Francisco Medina, 41, a close friend and neighbor who attended a visitation packed with people and giant flower wreaths.

"She decided to stay and eat alone when the bad luck came," he said.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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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