Cartel gunmen kill at least 53 by torching casino in Monterrey

AT LEAST 53 people were killed after gunmen burst into a casino in northern Mexico, splashed petrol about and set it on fire.

Burned bodies were still being pulled from the wreckage of the Casino Royale in Monterrey yesterday as distraught relatives barracked police for providing no information. Later, relatives were allowed into the city morgue to help identify the victims.

Local man Francisco Tamayo, 28, said he and family members looked at some 40 bodies in search of his mother, Sonia de la Pena, 47, who loved to gamble at the casino and was there on average four days a week. They had yet to find her.

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Mr Tamayo went to the scene when he learned of the fire from television.

“She’s probably here,” he said, after repeatedly calling her mobile phone, to no avail.

Last night governor Rodrigo Medina said the death toll had reached 53.

Monterrey has seen a surge in drug-related violence since president Felipe Calderon launched a war on the cartels in late 2006.

Mr Calderon tweeted that the latest attack was “an abhorrent act of terror and barbarism” that requires “all of us to persevere in the fight against these unscrupulous criminal bands”.

Attorney-general Leon Adrian de la Garza said a drug cartel was apparently responsible for the attack, though he did not say which one. Cartels often extort casinos and other businesses, threatening to burn them if they refuse to pay.

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

The fire in the two-storey casino was reported just before 4pm local time on Thursday when normally about 80 people played the tables and slot machines, said former security guard Alberto Martinez Alvarado, 30, who on his way home from work when he saw the flames. He said the casino could hold up to 1,000 people.

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Police officials quoted survivors as saying that armed men burst into the casino, apparently to rob it, and began dousing the premises with petrol from fuel canisters they brought with them. The attackers shouted and swore at customers and employees to get out, but many fled further inside the premises, where they died trapped by flames and thick smoke. Monterrey mayor Fernando Larrazabal said many of the bodies were found inside the casino’s toilets, where people locked themselves to escape the gunmen.

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

Monterrey has seen bloody turf battles between the Zetas and Gulf cartels in recent months. Last month, gunmen killed 20 people at a bar in the city. 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 yesterday’s fire started, but later said a flammable substance was used.The reports of blasts may have been the sound of petrol canisters exploding.

Norma Reyes, 45, was one of the people who received good news yesterday. 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.