Mexico expanding investigation of deadly Monterrey casino fire
The Mexican government is widening its corruption investigation of last month’s horrific casino arson attack and has identified six more suspects, possibly including police officers, the country’s attorney general said Wednesday.
Atty. Gen. Marisela Morales also said the owner of the casino, who fled Mexico after the fire that killed 52 patrons and employees, has been located in the United States and will be interrogated.
In a wide-ranging interview, Mexico’s first female attorney general condemned endemic corruption at local law enforcement levels that she said works to undermine justice.
“At all levels we see it,” she said. “This is most serious in what is happening; frequently police are at the service of organized crime, especially local police.”
As Morales spoke in a windowless conference room on a top floor of her agency’s headquarters, aides interrupted her to brief her on developments in the casino case.
The Casino Royale in the northern city of Monterrey,in the state of Nuevo Leon, was attacked Aug. 25 by gunmen purportedly retaliating for a failure to pay extortion money. They set the entrance ablaze, and scores of people were trapped inside.
The attack provoked universal outrage and triggered a broader scandal involving alleged casino bribes and corrupt politicians.
Days after the fire, a video emerged showing the brother of Monterrey Mayor Fernando Larrazabal accepting large wads of cash at a blackjack table in another casino. The mayor’s own party asked him to step down pending the outcome of the investigation.
The brother, Jonas Larrazabal, said in a statement that he was merely collecting payment for Oaxacan cheese he sells. One of the stacks of cash was estimated to be worth about $32,000.
Five men who authorities said belonged to the notorious Zetas gang and a police officer from Nuevo Leon have been arrested in connection with the arson attack.
Morales said that composite drawings will be released of six more people believed to have taken part in the attack, and that investigators think one or more might be police officers.
Police collusion with crime syndicates — especially at the state and local levels, but also within the federal government — is a huge problem for the Mexican government in its nearly 5-year-old war against drug traffickers.
“We have to make sure that the people who are fighting crime and providing security to citizens aren’t diverting their services to criminal activity,” said Morales, who took over as attorney general in April.
Since declaring war on drug cartels in late 2006, President Felipe Calderon has used U.S. aid to try to scrub graft-riddled forces, starting with the federal police. But the effort hasn’t gone far because many state and municipal governments, which account for the vast majority of uniformed officers in Mexico, have been slow to begin vetting police.
Morales said corruption remains a weakness of Mexican law enforcement, including the sprawling prosecutor’s office that she runs. She described a number of steps underway to screen and improve training for agents and prosecutors, and to evaluate their performance.
As part of the housecleaning, Morales replaced the top federal prosecutors in 21 states around Mexico last month.
“To win public trust,” she said, “you have to — in the first place, from inside the attorney general’s office — clean up and see that rules are followed.”
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