Latin America & Caribbean

Mexico drugs crisis: Monterrey shocked by casino attack

Casino Royal employees pray for victims of the attack in Monterrey on 26 August 2011
Image caption Casino staff who survived gathered a day after the attack to pray for those who died

Mexico's authorities are promising justice for the 52 people who lost their lives in Thursday's attack on a casino in Monterrey. But in Monterrey itself, such talk is falling on deaf ears, the BBC's Julian Miglierini reports.

People here are still reeling from the shock of seeing their city, once known to be one of the safest in Latin America, become the scene for the first massive attack on innocent civilians in the history of Mexico's complex drugs conflict.

The Casino Royale, now guarded by the army, is close to collapse after flames engulfed it. The smell of burnt plastic and wood lingers on.

The facade was torn down by a crane from a nearby construction site as desperate casino employees tried to reach those who had gone back into the burning building to avoid being attacked by the gunmen. They had not realised that the emergency doors were locked, turning the building into a death trap.

"We found the bodies in toilets, offices, in places in which the victims tried to protect themselves from what they thought was a shoot-out at the entrance of the casino," rescuer Jorge Camacho Rincon said.

"They never imagined that the biggest threat was actually the fire that was started intentionally".

"Monterrey is hurting," said Juan, a cab driver, and that is how many in this city feel after an attack the government described as "terrorism".

It hurts, they say, because this is a city that liked to think highly of itself both as the industrial engine of the country and as a sophisticated counterpart - often a rival - to chaotic Mexico City.

The city is quickly losing its pristine reputation because of the drug cartels who seem to be fighting over trafficking routes to the US border and for control of the affluent Monterrey drugs business.

Many in Monterrey have no doubt that Thursday's attack was part of the violence that has brought this city of 1.1 million people to its knees.

Bold move

Since the fire, Monterrey's drama is most palpable outside the city's morgue.

Here, relatives of the missing wait anxiously for news and DNA results. Those who have received the remains of their relatives are "lucky", some say.

Media captionWitness who does not want to be identified: "I heard the explosion and I hit the ground"

You hear stories like that of Francisco, who is still looking for his wife. The only indication that she was in the casino at the time was that her car was found in the parking lot outside.

Guadalupe Vega, however, has recovered the corpse of her 19-year-old daughter Carla Espinosa, who started work at the casino a day before the attack.

Guadalupe is shocked that her daughter is now on the long list of people - almost 40,000 - who have died in Mexico's drug conflict since late 2006.

"I feel very powerless. We are seeing this major violence all around the country, but I had never thought that one day if would be my turn. I can't believe it. There's just so much crime, and no solution that we can think of," she said, tearfully.

Investigators can still be seen at the site of the fire, scouring every corner of the burnt-out building for any leads that will help them understand what exactly happened on Thursday - and why.

The attack was a bold move by the gangs. It happened in broad daylight, was aimed at civilians and took place in the heart of the city.

Many people are struggling to understand what could have pushed organised crime groups to stage such a high-profile hit.

There is talk of an issue about government permits for the casino to remain open, and about alleged links between drug gangs and the city's gambling business.

Others, like local journalist Luis Petersen, hint that the attack could be related to the "fee" many gangs allegedly demand from business owners in exchange for protection.

This extortion practice - similar to the "pizzo" demanded by the mafia in Southern Italy - is widespread in Monterrey, says Mr Petersen.

Image caption The attack happened in broad daylight in the centre of Monterrey

"That is why so many businesses end up moving to another city or even to the the United States," he tells the BBC.

The political shockwaves caused by the attack have been felt beyond the mountain ranges that surround Monterrey, and have reached the highest level of government.

President Felipe Calderon has been sharply criticised for what many in Mexico say is his failed strategy to tackle Mexico's security problem.

On Friday, when he visited the scorched remains of the casino to place a wreath in remembrance of those who died, Mr Calderon was visibly emotional. He looked stern and thoughtful.

Only time will tell if Thursday's attack will mark a turning point in the battle for Mexico's security that he launched as soon as he came into power.

A white pick-up truck with a silver ribbon is still parked near the casino entrance. It was placed there to lure gamblers into the building.

It is a reminder that Monterrey's Casino Royale was once a place for people to dream. What they got was a nightmare - a tragic event that adds to Monterrey's already troubled times.

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