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Who is responsible for the casino tragedy in Mexico?

August 29, 2011 |  4:05 pm

Monterrey protest

Four days after the deadly casino attack in Monterrey in northern Mexico, the owner of the burned-out Casino Royale has not emerged in public or spoken with authorities.

In fact, little is known about the owners and operators of the casino, despite initial reports (later contradicted) that said emergency exits in the establishment were blocked, contributing to the high death toll of 52. The dead included one pregnant woman, and over the weekend, as families buried their loved ones, another large demonstration against violence and insecurity took place in Monterrey (link in Spanish).

The demonstration ended in scuffles for some as activists made competing calls for the resignations of the Monterrey mayor, the Nuevo Leon state government, and President Felipe Calderon (video link in Spanish).

Nuevo Leon authorities said the investigation into the arson blaze is ongoing. On Monday, Gov. Rodrigo Medina announced the arrest of five men suspected of being involved in the attack. The suspects were identified as Zetas, the drug gang that is seeking control over Monterrey in a campaign that has spread fear and violence in the affluent industrial city.

Authorities said they were eager to speak with Raul Rocha Cantu, a Monterrey businessman identified as one of the owners of the casino. One newspaper said the casino owners had not complied with an extortion demand of 130,000 pesos a week, or about $10,000 -- common deals that often lead to brutal attacks against bars and other businesses in Monterrey.

Another report said Rocha has lived in the United States for at least the last two months, but no location was specified (link in Spanish).

In a series of interviews since Friday, the casino owners' lawyer, Juan Gomez Jayme, said attorney-client privilege would not permit him to divulge where Rocha was or whether he would present himself to Nuevo Leon authorities as they have requested (link in Spanish).

Gomez defended the establishment, saying the casino operated lawfully under municipal, state, and federal regulations. Yet questions were raised almost immediately about word of blocked emergency exits, which were reported by the chief of civil protection in Monterrey after firefighters put down the arson blaze.

Casino attack monterrey felipe calderon

Most of the victims, the majority of whom were middle-aged women, died of smoke inhalation after being trapped in the rear of the casino when gunmen burst in and set a fire. Gomez, the lawyer, said on Saturday that his client was not responsible for the deaths because the attack was out of the establishment's control (link in Spanish).

The Casino Royale had been targeted by gunmen twice this year, and was briefly shut down in May over code violations, reports said.

Tensions have also reemerged in recent days between local and federal officials over the authorization of casinos. Gambling houses have proliferated in Mexico in more than 10 years of governments led by the conservative, business-friendly National Action Party, or PAN. The news magazine Proceso reported that in 2000, at the start of the first of two consecutive PAN presidential terms, Mexico had 123 casinos and now has 790, both legal and illegal.

Casinos in Mexico are seen as magnets for organized crime, extortion and money laundering. Proceso reported in July that the number of illegal casinos has actually dropped in the last year because illegal gambling houses are increasingly aligning themselves with those that have proper paperwork. The federal Interior Ministry grants permits for casinos, but the businesses must also comply with local and state codes.

In the political chatter since Thursday, the name of Santiago Creel has emerged as one of the authorities some argue are "responsible" for the rise of casinos in Mexico. As interior secretary under former PAN President Vicente Fox, Creel oversaw the authorization of gambling centers through his office.

Creel, most recently a senator, is a leading contender for the PAN presidential nomination for the 2012 election. Usually active on Twitter, Creel has been silent on the micro-blogging since Thursday, making no public statement so far on the incident.

Late Monday, in another sign of conflict between different levels of government, federal civil protection officials contradicted their local counterparts and said the casino's exits were not blocked. 

In any case, even as the outrage rises and officials promise to tackle the factors that led to last week's tragedy, the Casino Royale episode may ultimately reaffirm that the basic structures of corruption and impunity in Mexico remain intact and largely unchallenged.

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Top photo: A cross is held up during a demonstration on Sunday against violence and insecurity in Monterrey, Mexico, in the wake of the casino attack that left 52 dead. Credit: Reuters / Second photo: Mexican President Felipe Calderon and other top administration officials leave a wreath for the victims of the Casino Royale attack on Friday. Credit: Associated Press

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