- Associated Press - Saturday, August 27, 2011

MONTERREY, Mexico (AP) — Lorena Villareal Elizondo went to meet a friend at the Casino Royale, a popular low-cost lunch spot, when armed men burst through the door shouting: “Get out! Get out! We’re going to burn everything!”

It was only 19-year-old Carla Maria Espinoza Vega’s second day at work at the casino when the intruders sprinkled accelerant around the front door and set the building on fire.

Friends and family mourned Villareal, a 39-year-old mother of three, at a visitation Friday, while Espinoza’s mother filled out paperwork to retrieve her body.

Mexicans have endured plenty of horrific crimes during their country’s bloody five-year war against drug gangs. But the arson in the northern Mexican city that killed 52, mostly women, was a macabre milestone in a conflict that’s claimed more than 35,000 people since 2006, according to government figures. Others put the toll near 40,000.

The victims this time weren’t cartel foot soldiers or migrants resisting forced recruitment by gangs, as were the cases in other attacks. They were workers or customers who liked to lunch or play bingo and slots in the afternoons in an affluent part of town.

“She was my baby,” said Espinoza’s tearful mother, Guadalupe Vega, as she waited at the morgue.

“She was like my sister,” said Villareal’s cousin, Guadalupe Elizondo Gracia, outside a giant funeral home that drew hundreds of mourners to a half-dozen visitations Friday night.

In a nationally televised speech, an angry President Felipe Calderon declared three days of mourning and labeled the attack the worst against civilians in the nation’s recent history.

“We are facing true terrorists who have gone beyond all limits,” said Calderon, who also announced he is sending more federal forces to the city of 1 million people. “Today, Mexico is upset and saddened and we have to transform this sadness and this grief into courage and valor to face … these criminals.”

Hours later, he appeared in front of the burned-out casino and place a large wreath and observe of moment of silence.

A surveillance tape released Friday showed eight or nine men arriving in four cars and carrying canisters into the building, which was engulfed in flames in little more than two minutes as people tried to flee in panic.

Calderon offered a $2.4 million reward for information leading to their capture, the same amount offered for the arrest of top drug lords. Authorities had sketches of three of the men based on interviews with 16 survivors of the fire, said Jorge Domene, Nuevo Leon state security spokesman.

He also said officials had located three of the four vehicles in the video, dumped around various parts of the city. All had been reported stolen.

Authorities said they are still investigating whether the exits were blocked. But many bodies were found in offices and the bathrooms, indicating they were expecting a shootout.

“They sought places to protect themselves from firearms,” said Jorge Camacho Rincon, civil protection director for the state of Nuevo Leon. “They went running to closed areas.”

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