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Mexican army, feds raid casinos after arson attack

An official of Mexico's Attorney General's Office says soldiers and federal agents have confiscated hundreds of slot machines at five casinos in Monterrey.
A soldier stands guard outside the Casino Royale after a deadly assault that killed at least 52 people in Monterrey, Mexico.
A soldier stands guard outside the Casino Royale after a deadly assault that killed at least 52 people in Monterrey, Mexico.Arnulfo Franco / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

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.

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.

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"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.

Mexico's President Felipe Calderon and his wife Margarita Zavala attend a ceremony outside the Casino Royale after a deadly assault in Monterrey, Mexico, Friday Aug. 26, 2011. Mexican officials say a group of at least eight assailants poured gasoline inside the casino on Thursday, trapping dozens of people inside and killing at least 52 people. (AP Photo/Arnulfo Franco)Arnulfo Franco / AP

'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.

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.