MEXICO CITY — Calling a deadly fire at a casino “an act of terrorism,” Mexican President Felipe Calderon and his top law enforcement officials vowed Friday to capture the gangsters responsible for the deaths of 52 people who perished in a fire set by gunmen at the Casino Royale in Monterrey.
Security cameras captured images of a dozen assailants pulling up in four vehicles to the front doors of the casino, spilling out of their trucks and cars in mid-afternoon and entering the entertainment complex, which offers bingo and betting on sports and horse racing.
As casino customers are seen quickly rushing from the front doors, some of the gunmen stand watching by their cars. They did not appear to wearing masks, and with computer enhancements, the license plates numbers of their vehicles would likely be readable.
Within two minutes and 30 seconds of their arrival, black smoke and flames appear in the security video and the gunmen are seen rapidly leaving and driving away.
The Casino Royale is the third such establishment targeted this month in northern Mexico. On Wednesday night, gunmen attacked the Caliente Casino in Saltillo, following a similar attack on Aug. 15 against the Sun City casino there.
The industrial and business-oriented city of Monterrey was previously free from Mexico’s crime and murder wave, but in the past year the city has seen its homicide rates soar, as organized crime and drug gangs attack each other and police, and prey upon businesses in extortion rackets.
The governor of the state of Nuevo León in northern Mexico said at a press conference Friday morning the Monterrey fire was ignited by "a group of people linked to organized crime," but did not specify what group or if there were any links to Mexico’s drug trafficking organizations.
Gov. Rodrigo Medina de la Cruz put the official death toll at 52 and said that most of the victims appeared to have died of smoke inhalation and burns from the fire — and not from gunshots. The governor said that 13 eyewitnesses to the attack had been interviewed.
Wearing a black suit and tie as a sign of mourning, President Calderon said Friday morning that the country was “facing real terrorists who know no limits.
"We have to fight even more forcefully. They can not be allowed to own our streets, our cities," Calderon said.
In his remarks, Calderon also blamed the United States. The Mexican president called on Congress, the U.S. government and citizens to reflect on the tragedy and see that the insatiable consumption of drugs “involving millions and millions of Americans” fueled the criminal gangs in Mexico with billions of dollars in profits.
"This drug consumption should be reduced drastically, and if that is not possible, the United States must work at least to prevent the transfer of the dollars to Mexico," Calderon said.
Calderon, however, did not identify what drug smuggling cartel might have been involved in the fire.
The cause of the blaze is under investigation. Some witnesses reported that the attackers threw grenades into the Casino Royale in Monterrey, while others said gasoline bombs started the fire.
The flames trapped customers and staff in the building. A survivor told the Mexico City newspaper Reforma that many of the dead were crushed to death in a stampede for the emergency exits.