Photo: Casino Royale
Grieving family members continue to await justice a year after their loved ones were killed in a shocking daytime attack on a casino in the northern Mexican industrial city of Monterrey.
Ten men and 42 women died on Aug. 25, 2011, when members of the Los Zetas drug cartel - generally regarded as Mexico’s most ruthless criminal outfit - doused the inside of Monterrey’s Casino Royale with gasoline and set it ablaze.
Investigators have determined that the criminal gang was trying to intimidate the casino’s owners into making extortion payments and that many more lives were lost than intended in the poorly planned attack.
The gunmen told the people inside the casino to get out before setting fire to the building, but the emergency exits were closed. The majority of the 52 victims died from smoke inhalation, with only seven burning to death.
Some of the suspects have told investigators they were scolded by their bosses for killing so many people at the casino, which was the target of an extortion racket common in several parts of Mexico.
A year later, many of the victims’ children, parents, spouses and other relatives still have not come to terms with their loss and feel frustrated and angry that no suspects have yet been convicted.
Alejandro Morales said he feels he has lost everything since the death of his son, Ruben Noe, telling Efe through tears that his only desire is to die so he can be with him.
“What I want is to die already and follow my son. Many people lost a son, lost a mother; I lost two in one, my son and my best friend. He was my best friend. He was everything to me,” Morales said.
A 19-year-old student, Ruben had begun working at Casino Royale a day before the tragedy in hopes of saving enough money to travel to Spain and pursue a degree in wine stewardship.
“He dreamed of being a sommelier. That was his passion and that’s why he went to work there because he would earn a little more. He was always looking for information on schools in Spain; he already had it all planned,” Morales said.
He said his son could have escaped when the fire broke out but his efforts to carry others to safety cost him his own life.
“He was a healthy, tall, agile boy. He could have gotten out alive, but he helped in the evacuation. He crouched down so people could get on his back and could get out.”
Eduardo Enrique Martinez Cavazos was 54 when he went to the casino for what he thought would be “a little relaxation” with his wife, Patricia Saenz. When the fire broke out, the two became separated amid the confusion and she never saw him again.
“I hear my children crying and this situation’s very difficult, mixed in with rage and powerlessness,” Patricia said, referring to her 18-year-old twin sons Eduardo and Enrique and 14-year-old son Alejandro, who has spinal muscular dystrophy.
They are still waiting for “justice to be done and for the others responsible to be arrested.”
According to authorities, 17 of the 18 suspects in the massacre have been arrested and are currently subject to criminal proceedings.
But Samara Perez Muñiz, spokeswoman for the victims’ families, told Efe that the federal government has not yet fulfilled its promise to prosecute all those responsible for the deaths, especially casino owner Raul Rocha Cantu.
“So far we know absolutely nothing about him ... One year later, it’s ridiculous that we have no idea what’s happened with that man,” Perez, who lost her 18-year-old son Brad Xavier Muraira, in the fire, said.
Rocha Cantu sent a letter to Monterrey’s El Norte daily last September saying he had fled the country because Mexican authorities could not protect him from Los Zetas.
Nuevo Leon’s Security Council said that same month that he had given statements to Mexican prosecutors in the U.S. state of Florida.
President Felipe Calderon “has been unable to or hasn’t wanted to investigate,” Perez Muñiz said, adding that she hopes the Casino Royale case “will be one of the first matters taken up by” Enrique Peña Nieto, who will be inaugurated on Dec. 1 as Mexico’s next head of state if the TEPJF electoral court certifies his victory at the polls.
The victims’ relatives have received financial aid to cover funeral costs and medical and psychological care and some have been awarded scholarships from the Nuevo Leon state government, whose capital is Monterrey.
But some families said they are still waiting to receive monetary compensation that Mexican first lady Margarita Zavala promised them after the tragedy.
On Saturday, Nuevo Leon Gov. Rodrigo Medina reaffirmed his commitment to ensuring that justice is served and that those responsible for the tragedy are punished to the fullest extent of the law.
“Here, before the victims, I confirm my commitment to seeing that justice is served by applying the law with maximum severity; only in that way will we respect the dignity of the victims and (their loved ones),” Medina said in Monterrey on the first of three days of mourning decreed by his administration in memory of the victims.
A mass will be celebrated at the Our Lady of Carmen Parish Church and the Archdiocese of Monterrey announced that all parish churches in the city will dedicate their celebrations and actions to the victims of last year’s tragedy.
A procession will be made to the Casino Royale, where a vigil is to be held from 4:00 p.m. to midnight Saturday with different activities outside the building.
Home to many of Mexico’s industrial giants, Monterrey long seemed immune to the drug war that has claimed more than 50,000 lives nationwide since December 2006, when Calderon took office and militarized the struggle against the Zetas and other drug cartels.
But the metropolis and its suburbs have been battered by a wave of drug-related violence since March 2010.