Burning Down Casino Royale: Mexico's Latest Drug Atrocity

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Dario Leon / AFP / Getty Images

Thick smoke billows from the burning Casino Royale in Monterrey, Mexico, as firefighters attack the blaze on Aug. 25, 2011

After Monterrey saw piles of severed heads and corpses hanging from overpasses, it was hard to imagine a more gruesome attack in Mexico's industrial heartland. But the survivors pulled out of the city's burning Casino Royale described the truly hellish dimensions of the worst act of violence in the city in recent memory. The massacre illustrates how Mexico's drug cartels have steadily raised the stakes in trying to outbid one another as the most brutal player in the conflict. While their victims used to be limited to gangsters and police, now they are increasingly civilians, with catastrophic consequences.

CTV footage shows a gang of eight gunmen descending on the casino, located in an upper-middle-class neighborhood, on Thursday afternoon, Aug. 25, while about 150 croupiers and customers — mostly women — played bingo, roulette and slots. The scene quickly descended into psychosis and panic, as the crowd stampeded from the games into bathrooms, stairwells and a blocked emergency exit. They heard gunfire and explosions that they thought were grenades and saw men pour gasoline over the machines and set them alight. As the building burst into flames, most of the victims choked to death in trapped corners, while others burned as they tried to escape or were crushed by the stampede. When emergency crews finally smashed down the walls to rescue the survivors, corpses littered the game tables, stairwells and bathrooms. By Friday morning, police had counted 52 dead; dozens more were in hospitals.

President Felipe Calderón quickly underlined the terrorist nature of the attack, whose victims appeared to mostly be innocent civilians with no connection to the drug war. "I express my solidarity ... with the victims of this abhorrent act of terror and barbarity," he wrote in a statement. "These deplorable acts require all of us to persevere in the fight against those unscrupulous criminal gangs." The President's message reaffirmed his commitment to the all-out war against drug cartels he has waged since taking power in December 2006. But the promise of more fighting back from the government offered little comfort to Mexico's shaken public, which has watched cartels steadily escalate their tactics during the past decade. The bloody casino attack would have been inconceivable in Mexico five years ago. Yet as the country woke to news of the tragedy on Friday, people were disgusted but not surprised.

As in so much of the violence in this conflict, it is hard to fathom the motives of the criminal hit squads. In a news conference, officials said it was the work of "organized crime" — meaning drug cartels — but it did not say which gang it suspected. Monterrey has been torn by fighting between the Gulf Cartel and the Zetas, a criminal militia led by former special-forces commandos. Officials also said they are investigating the casino owners themselves for operating without a license. Casinos are one of the key businesses used by cartels for money laundering, and gangs like to hit their rivals' assets. But many businesses are the victims of cartel extortion and are attacked when they don't pay protection money.

Whatever the reason gangsters hit the casino, most of the victims were simply customers having a flutter. Some witnesses were reported as saying that although the assailants ordered them to leave, the terrified people in the crowd fled further into the building. Others didn't hear anything but gunshots and stampeding. Many with knowledge of cartels allege that the attackers were deliberately attacking civilians to make a bigger impact. On El Blog del Narco, a website that broadcasts cartel propaganda videos, the editor concluded that the attackers knew exactly what they were doing. "Without a doubt, the attack was thought up and ordered from the high levels of an organized crime group," he wrote. "The assassins knew perfectly what they were getting into. Their plan was to sow terror in the population." For many, killing civilians to make an impact is the definition of terrorism.

Mexico's cartels started the brutal tactic of beheading rivals as recently as 2006 — a technique they mimicked from al-Qaeda videos, investigators say. The stunt was meant to terrorize both their enemies and the public. In September 2008, gangsters hit civilians directly when they lobbed two grenades at revelers celebrating Independence Day, killing eight. In July 2010, the public became even more worried, when the Juárez Cartel set off a car bomb, killing police and civilians. Then, in August, the world was stunned when 72 migrants traveling through Mexico were shot dead in a massacre allegedly carried out by the Zetas in San Fernando County, which lies between Monterrey and the Texas border.

The Casino Royale tragedy is the second most deadly massacre in the conflict, after San Fernando. While the victims of last year's atrocity were poor migrants, the Casino Royale victims included many wealthy residents of Mexico's top business center. Among those waiting desperately outside the casino for word on family members was a former professional soccer player. In response, Calderón called for three days of national mourning. Amid this lamenting of what happened, many worry about what lies ahead — and what the cartels could possibly do next.