08/25/11 — In the second attack on a Mexican gambling establishment in a day, assailants killed over 50 people in a grenade ignited gasoline fire targeting the Casino Royale, located in the western portion of Monterrey, the capital city of the northern state of Nuevo León.
The incident occurred just before 4:00pm on Thursday, August 25, one day after an attack on the Grupo Caliente Casino located in the nearby city of Saltillo, the capital of the state of Coahuila. In that incident, patrons were startled by an explosion and gunfire, but no one was reportedly killed. The incident raised concerns about the links between Mexico’s growing gambling industry and its violent organized crime groups, which use such establishments to launder their profits from drug trafficking and other illicit activities. The Grupo Caliente Casino is owned by former-Tijuana Mayor Jorge Hank Rhon, who was arrested on June 4 but was subsequently acquitted of charges for unlawful firearms possession.
The attack in Monterrey took place in broad daylight, as armed men entered the casino and began to pour gasoline throughout the establishment located near the city center. After warning patrons on the first floor to leave, the gunmen used grenades to ignite a deadly inferno. Some who managed to escape reported that emergency routes were locked and many people remained trapped inside. Estimates of the number of dead began in the single digits earlier the day to a total of 53 by late Thursday evening, according to a statement by Nuevo León governor Rodrigo Medina in an interview with Televisa [The final number reported was 52 dead]. Monterrey mayor Fernando Larrazábal indicated earlier in the day that the city had tried to close the casino on May 4, but that lawyers for its proprietors had succeeded in blocking the decision, allowing the establishment to reopen.
In the ensuing months, Monterrey, the country’s third most populous city (located 140 miles south of the Texas border), has become the new epicenter of Mexico’s drug violence, as noted in our July news report. On June 15, 32 people were killed in 12 separate incidents throughout the city, followed on June 28 by the assassination of Germán Pérez, the police chief of a Monterrey suburb called Santa Catarina. On July 8, a late-night massacre reportedly killed over 20 people—among them 18 employees— in a Monterrey nightclub known as Sabino Gordo. Violence in the city began to escalate in March of last year due to a turf battle between the so-called Gulf Cartel and their former enforcers, known as the Zetas.
As a result of the spikes in violence, during each of the last six weeks Nuevo León has surpassed the number of drug related killings found in the state of Chihuahua, which had been Mexico’s most violent state for the past three years, as reported in our July news report. According to the conservative estimates produced by the Mexico City newspaper Reforma, Chihuahua has had nearly 420 killings since early June, while Nuevo León has had more than 540. Despite the fact that violence has dropped dramatically in Chihuahua (by nearly a third compared to the same time last year), the increase in Nuevo León and elsewhere has more than compensated for the difference, leaving Mexico on track to exceed last year’s record of more than 15,000 drug related killings, documented in a detailed study of official Mexican government statistics released by the Trans-Border Institute earlier this year.
Violence has continued despite government arrests in recent weeks that targeted prominent members of the Zetas, as well as the La Familia Michoacana organization. Alejandro Poire, security spokesman for President Felipe Calderón, warned that “Tonight I want to tell Mexicans that these unspeakable acts of terror will not go unpunished, will be pursued, and that the perpetrators will be stopped, and (they) will pay for this shameless, unspeakable, and unacceptable crime.”