Monterrey casino tragedy worsened by lax safety regulations

The Casino Royale fire in Mexico may have been sparked by organized crime, but if proper safety regulations had been in place, the tragedy could have been minimized.

Carlos Jasso/Reuters
A man holds up a white cross during a protest against violence in Monterrey Sunday. President Felipe Calderon declared three days of mourning after armed men torched a casino on Thursday, killing at least 52 people, in Monterrey, a wealthy city that increasingly has fallen prey to the ravages of drug cartels.

The tragic casino attack in Monterrey has raised all sorts of interesting questions and commentary about Mexican President Felipe Calderon's security policies, US drugs and weapons policies, the role of casinos in organized crime, and whether such an attack constitutes "terrorism." All those interesting topics will overshadow a more boring but important debate that Mexico should be having over building regulations and safety inspections.

Whether by arson, cigarettes, kitchen fire, or lightning strike, fires happen. There is no reason that a casino in a major metropolitan area like Monterrey should go up in flames so quickly while the majority of those inside cannot escape. What sort of materials were used in its construction? Where were the fire extinguishers and sprinkler systems? If this building wasn't up to code, then the question is why was it allowed to be open and who in the government failed in their duty to check on it? If it was up to code, then Monterrey and the federal government need to start revisiting those codes and updating them.

Why couldn't the fire department get to the building on time to rescue those inside? Did they lack equipment? Are they understaffed? Did someone fail in their duty? That investigation needs to happen.

Most importantly, why were the emergency exits blocked? It's not just Mexico. In too many cases around the region, emergency doors are locked or blocked by items that make them impassible. A few years ago, hundreds died in a market fire in Paraguay because emergency doors were locked and trapped people inside a burning death trap.

There are supposed to be government inspectors, likely at the municipal level, who regularly look in on these issues and shut down businesses until their buildings meet basic safety requirements.

Sadly, when government safety inspectors do come around to businesses like this, corruption is a regular occurrence. In much of Latin America, those government inspectors actually have the expectation of a bribe from the business as a perk of the job and will threaten to shut businesses down that don't provide that bribe. If that's the case here, then the arson at the Casino Royale was actually the victim of two extortions, one run by organized crime and another run by the government building inspectors.

It's important to understand that these problems with government institutions failing at basic regulation and safety tasks are directly related to the failure of government institutions to combat organized crime. A government that can't check to make sure fire extinguishers work and emergency exits are usable in commercial buildings cannot hope to solve more than 5 percent of the murders in the country. A government where building inspectors expect to be bribed should not be surprised that federal police and intelligence officials are on the payroll of criminal organizations.

Regulations requiring buildings to have emergency exits don't matter if the municipal safety inspector is bribed. The questions of whether casinos or drugs or guns are legal or prohibited do not matter if the government's police and judicial institutions are so weak that they cannot enforce the laws and regulations on the books and prosecute crimes when they occur.

Many of us call for institutional strengthening and reform in Mexico as part of fighting organized crime. What does that look like? Well, let's start here. Following this tragedy, every commercial building in Monterrey including the other casinos should be inspected to make sure they meet the building safety regulations. Emergency exits must be usable. The inspectors should not expect a bribe nor should they take a bribe if one is offered. Until Mexico can manage that simple task, it should not expect progress on the bigger picture.

--- James Bosworth is a freelance writer and consultant based in Managua, Nicaragua, who runs Bloggings by Boz.

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