The massacre in broad daylight in northern Mexico Thursday, when gunmen burst into a casino, doused it with gasoline, and set it ablaze, is the deadliest act of violence in a public space since Mexican President Felipe Calderon launched a military offensive against organized crime nearly five years ago.
The attack at the Casino Royale in Monterrey left more than 50 people dead.
While investigations are ongoing, officials blamed the arson on feuding drug gangs in the northern city. Rivals could have been inside the casino. Officials also say it could have been an attack on the casino itself for not paying protection money; extortion rackets are common in northern Mexico.
“I think this inaugurates a new era of violence attached to organized crime in Mexico,” says Alejandro Schtulmann, president and head of research at Emerging Markets Political Risk Analysis (EMPRA) in Mexico City. “The fact is once you escalate the level of violence, all groups that see the threshold being removed start using similar attacks.”
He says the only comparable public attack was a grenade hurled in the middle of the main plaza of Morelia, in Michoacan, during independence day celebrations in September 2008. In that incident, eight people were killed.
Shocking acts of violence are carried out at a steady clip in Mexico. A year ago this month, 72 migrants hoping to reach the US, mostly from Central America, were executed in northern Mexico. Bodies with menacing notes are left on highways across the country. Murder victims are found in mass graves. Grenades are hurled at news stations and mayors are executed.
A new fear
Most of the dead – numbering more than 40,000 since President Calderon began this battle upon taking office in 2006 – are members of organized crime, the government has long maintained, even as innocent bystanders are an inevitable part of the toll.
But the mass murder in a public place carried out Thursday has instilled new fear in a public hardened by images of death and savagery in their newspapers and news reels. It comes a week after a firefight broke out during a soccer match in Torreon in northern Mexico, where fans flew under benches after hearing bullets ringing through the air outside the stadium. Last month in Monterrey, 20 people were killed after gunmen stormed a bar and sprayed bullets, reportedly seeking rivals inside.
Already Mexicans have made changes to the ways they live their lives amid new levels of drug violence. Some businessmen have spoken to the media about taking airplanes from Monterrey to northern towns in Mexico and the US, to avoid the nation’s highways where kidnappings have occurred. Some residents, especially in the north, have imposed curfews on themselves. Some refuse to drive at night.
“This is one of the worst expressions of violence against civilians,” says Erubiel Tirado, a security expert at the Iberoamerican University in Mexico City, and could prevent Mexicans from living out their daily lives, especially in conflictive zones.
Javier Camargo, an owner of an Internet security company in Mexico City, agrees. “Sadly, I think this will prevent Mexicans from attending public events,” he says. “It’s been too many after the other. Will people go to the theater in the north? Even here, the marathon is Sunday. Will people be thinking about it? I think so.”
‘An act of terror’
Around 80 people are believed to have been in the casino when gunmen burst in. Witnesses told the local media that patrons apparently heard explosions and fled to the bathrooms, where they were overcome with smoke.
Monterrey, once relatively safe, has been in the crossfire of violence as rivals Zetas and the Gulf Cartel battle one another, causing a surge in murders in the city.
“Sadly, this act is yet another demonstration of the irrationality of organized crime and its disdain for life,” said Interior Minister Jose Francisco Blake Mora in a statement.
Both Calderon and national security spokesperson Alejandro Poire condemned the attack as an act of terror.
“We are not confronting common criminals,” Calderon said in a televised national address Friday. “We are facing true terrorists who have gone beyond all limits.”
The word “terror” has been controversial in Mexico, especially after US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton liked violence in Mexico to an insurgency.
Aside from the attack in Morelia, public attacks against civilians are rare. Gunmen have set off a car bomb in Ciudad Juarez, but these acts are more anomalies than the norm.
Even in this case, Mr. Schtulmann says that there was almost certainly a motive behind the casino attack, whether rivals were inside or it was a message of intimidation to other businesses not willing to pay extortion fees. He does not think criminal groups would randomly shoot up a shopping mall or place a bomb in a metro station. Still, he says, the openness of this attack has raised the stakes. “So far Calderon has been trying to avoid the use of term terrorism because it implies panic, and he did not want people to feel that way,” he says, “but after the events of yesterday, he had to use it.”