MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - President Felipe Calderon declared three days of mourning on Friday and demanded a crackdown on drugs in the United States after armed men torched a casino in northern Mexico, killing at least 52 people.
Under intense pressure as violence soars, Calderon said he would send more federal security forces to the city of Monterrey, where gunmen set fire to an upmarket casino on Thursday in one of the worst attacks of Mexico’s drug war.
Lashing out at corrupt officials in Mexico and “insatiable” U.S. demand for drugs for fomenting the violence, Calderon urged the U.S. Congress to stamp out drug consumption and stop illegal trafficking of weapons across the border into Mexico.
“We’re neighbors, we’re allies, we’re friends, but you are also responsible,” a somber and angry Calderon said to the United States in a speech after meeting his security advisers.
President Barack Obama called the attack “barbaric” and said his government stood shoulder to shoulder with Mexico in the battle against the gangs.
Washington provides money and resources to Mexico in the drug war, but joint cooperation has been damaged by mistrust, a botched U.S. plan to track down weapons smugglers and the killing by suspected hitmen of a U.S. customs agent in Mexico this year.
Pledging to step up the fight on organized crime, Calderon said Mexico was under attack from “true terrorists,” and told all Mexicans to come forward and denounce those responsible.
But the drug war is becoming increasingly unpopular as more citizens are caught in the crossfire of sparring cartels.
Mexicans took to social networks to call for a candle-lit protest for peace outside the casino in Monterrey, as well as a gathering at Mexico City’s Angel of Independence monument.
More than 375 people had joined a Facebook page “Casino Royale Monterrey everyone united against terrorism” by late on Friday, writing a string of comments denouncing the violence.
Still, only a handful of people with candles were outside the gutted casino on Thursday evening, reported a Reuters photographer.
Calderon first ordered a crackdown against the cartels when he took office in late 2006 and several senior traffickers have been arrested. However, turf wars between rival cartels have killed about 42,000 people, battering Mexico’s reputation.
The president insists his campaign has weakened the cartels but critics say it simply brought a surge in violence and has done little or nothing to slow the flow of cocaine, marijuana and other drugs into the United States.
The carnage has hurt support for Calderon’s conservative National Action Party (PAN), which already faces an uphill battle to retain the presidency in elections next July.
The casino attack is particularly bitter for Calderon because the victims were mainly well-to-do civilians with no link to the conflict, in an area that has traditionally been a electoral stronghold for the business-friendly PAN.
Monterrey, which lies about 230 km (140 miles) from the Texas border, is a relatively wealthy city of about 4 million people and is home to some of Mexico’s biggest companies. It was for many years seen as a model of economic development but it has been ravaged by the drug war over the past two years.
The chief executive of Monterrey-based cement giant Cemex, who has pledged to stay in the city even as the violence has spiraled, denounced the attack.
“As a society, we are fed up of seeing how the violence and the level of impunity we’re living has escalated,” said Lorenzo Zambrano, via his Twitter account.
The president was unrepentant on Friday and sought to pin blame for the violence on corrupt judges and politicians in “certain parts” of the country. It appeared to be an attack on the main opposition Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which controls the majority of Mexico’s states.
With a big lead in opinion polls, the PRI is on track to oust the PAN from power next year.
Survivors of Thursday afternoon’s attack said armed men burst into the Casino Royale and threatened gamblers before dousing gasoline on the carpets and setting it on fire.
“My wife came here for a celebration,” a weeping man told Milenio TV. “She was having dinner with her friends.”
Media reports said the majority of the dead were women.
Security camera footage showed four vehicles pulling up outside the front of the casino and waiting while the assailants went into the gambling hall.
Within three minutes, black smoke was billowing from the front doors and people could be seen fleeing in panic.
Additional reporting by Dave Graham, Victor Hugo Valdivia, Michael O'Boyle, Carlos Jasso and Elinor Comlay in Mexico and Laura MacInnis in the United States; Editing by Kieran Murray and Eric Beech