The dead were mainly mothers and grandmothers, middle-aged women who routinely stopped by the Casino Royale for an afternoon game of bingo or a shot at the slot machines.
At least 52 people were killed Thursday when armed men set fire to the gaming hall in a busy commercial center of Mexico’s wealthiest city. The attack, carried out in broad daylight, was the deadliest to target Mexican civilians in nearly five years of bloody drug warfare.
“Mexico has witnessed one of the most terrible acts of barbarism in memory,” President Felipe Calderon said Friday as he declared three days of national mourning. “Make no mistake: We are not talking about an accident. We are talking about criminals … true terrorists.”
Twin Mexican scourges stoked the death toll: a drug war that has increasingly engulfed the once-placid industrial hub of Monterrey, and the achingly routine flouting of laws that allowed emergency exits in the casino to be blocked, trapping the panicked homemakers and empty-nesters.
As Mexico’s best-off and third-largest city, Monterrey was once immune to the drug violence that has claimed tens of thousands of lives. An important business community, it was formerly known as being so calm that drug lords liked to park their families here.
But, in the last two years, the city in the border state of Nuevo Leon has become the setting for a brutal turf war between rival drug-trafficking gangs that at times have held gunfights on downtown streets, blocked major thoroughfares and killed suburban mayors or police chiefs.
Rodrigo Medina, governor of Nuevo Leon, did not offer a motive or identify the specific gang thought to be responsible, although most speculation centered on the notorious Zetas. Drug organizations, which increasingly specialize in extortion and other crimes, often attack businesses that refuse to pay protection money.
Eight or nine armed men in three cars, including a black pickup truck and a white Mini Cooper, pulled into the half-moon-shaped driveway of the Casino Royale at 3:48 p.m. Thursday, as seen in a surveillance videotape released by authorities.
The gunmen marched into the crowded gambling room, screaming profanities at patrons, spraying the interior of the building with gasoline and torching it. In less than three minutes, they sped away as thick smoke and flames spewed from the casino.
Before leaving, the gunmen ordered gamblers and employees to get out, witnesses said, but many instead fled to other parts of the casino, only to be trapped by blocked exits.
Many of the dead were found in a bathroom, victims of smoke inhalation, said Reynaldo Ramos, head of Monterrey’s civil protection agency.
A typical victim was Sonia de la Pena Guerrero, 46, who worked at a funeral home and loved bingo so much that she earned “frequent player” points that gave her free meals. She was at the casino for lunch Thursday. Her family, searching for her, found her car in the casino parking lot.
“This is pure terrorism,” daughter Brenda Tamayo, 24, said, before breaking down in tears as she waited outside the Monterrey morgue. Members of the family had given DNA samples to identify De la Pena’s body.
The Casino Royale was one of 50 gaming joints in Monterrey; it had a decidedly middle-class clientele, people who knew each other and enjoyed one another’s casual company.
Karla Espinoza, 19, was in her second day on the job at the Casino Royale on Thursday. On Friday, her mother was picking up her body at the morgue.
“When I saw my baby, I thought, how can I believe this,” said Guadalupe Vega, 45. “But it’s true .… This is too much.”
Authorities initially put the death toll at 53, including the fetus of a pregnant woman who was killed. The toll Friday was revised to 52. At least 20 people were injured in the attack, some critically.
Emergency crews scoured the ruins of the casino for the better part of Friday, but no additional bodies were found.
The Excelsior newspaper reported that owners of the Casino Royale had refused to pay 130,000 pesos a week (around $10,000) demanded by gangsters. The casino was attacked in January and May by gunmen who shot up the place but in the middle of the night, without harming anyone.
In addition, the casino was shut down in May for code violations but later allowed to reopen after lawyers for the casino won a court order, Monterrey Mayor Fernando Larrazabal said.
Authorities did not identify the casino’s owners but demanded that they report to police for questioning.
The attack was the second deadliest in the Mexican drug war. A year ago, Zeta gunmen slaughtered 72 immigrants, mostly from Central America, in the neighboring Mexican state of Tamaulipas.
And In a country where about 40,000 people have been slain in drug-war violence since December 2006, it sparked unusually intense outrage.
Calderon traveled to Monterrey with his wife and several Cabinet ministers. They laid a huge green wreath at the site of the charred casino, the letters “Bingo” and “Sports Book” on its broad red facade contorted by heat.
President Obama also condemned the “barbaric and reprehensible” attack.
Much of northeastern Mexico has been besieged for a year and a half by fighting between the Gulf cartel and former allies known as the Zetas.
The bloodshed has been especially shocking in Monterrey.
Hector Esquivel, 35, a valet parking attendant at the Casino Royale, had finished work half an hour before Thursday’s attack. He got a job at the casino after the bar where he had been working received extortion threats.
“I came over here thinking it would be more calm, with the older people,” he said. “It turned out worse. This is the dark side of Monterrey.”
The Times last year reported on the disintegration of Monterrey and quoted a leading businessman, Gilberto Marcos, who noted that if Monterrey is lost, so is all Mexico. There was hope at the time that a robust business elite would be able to fight back against encroaching drug trafficking networks.
“It’s gotten worse,” Marcos said Friday. “There are businessmen in cahoots with corrupt politicians, and the people are being terrorized. The state is very weak, and that’s how the criminals see it.
“We are in war.”
Times staff writers Ellingwood reported from Monterrey and Wilkinson from Mexico City. Cecilia Sanchez of The Times’ Mexico City bureau contributed to this report.