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Monterrey casino massacre shocks Mexico

A daylight attack on Thursday that left more than 50 people dead and a Monterrey casino in flames has shocked and frightened a Mexican public already hardened to drug violence.

By Staff writer / August 26, 2011

Smoke billows from the Casino Royale in Monterrey, Mexico, Thursday. Two dozen gunmen burst into the casino, doused it with a flammable liquid, and started a fire that trapped gamblers inside, killing at least 50 people.

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Mexico City

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.

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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.

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