The Mexican government is offering a $2.4 million reward for information leading to the arrest of armed men who torched a casino, leaving 52 people dead in what President Felipe Calderon condemned as an "abhorrent and barbaric" assault on men and women left to burn and choke to death in a blazing inferno.
The attack Thursday on the Casino Royale in Monterrey also was condemned by President Obama, who described the assault as "brutal and reprehensible."
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said she was "shocked and saddened" by the bombing.
Addressing the Mexican nation, Mr. Calderon declared three days of national mourning and vowed that warring drug gangs in that country would never win.
He also criticized the United States, saying American law enforcement authorities need to do more to stop a seemingly endless U.S. appetite for drugs that is destroying much of South and Central America.
Mexican authorities said armed men emptied cans of gasoline inside the casino and set fire to the facility, trapping numerous patrons as they tried to flee while others hid in bathrooms and offices instead of heading to emergency exits.
"It is evident that we are not faced with ordinary delinquents but by actual terrorists who know no boundaries," said Mr. Calderon. "The gunmen are not and cannot be the masters of our streets. We must confront them and stop them."
Most of those killed in the attack were women.
Because of its brutality, law enforcement experts on both sides of the border described the attack as the work of Los Zetas, a violent drug gang originally trained as an elite band of Mexican anti-drug commandos who evolved into mercenaries for the infamous Gulf Cartel, bringing a new wave of brutality to Mexico's escalating drug wars.
Bolstered by an influx of assassins, bandits, thieves, thugs and corrupt federal, state and local police officers, the Zetas have since evolved into a well-financed and heavily armed drug-smuggling force of their own.
Known for mounting the severed heads of their rivals on poles or hanging their dismembered bodies from bridges in cities throughout Mexico, the Zetas have easily become the most feared criminal gang in Mexico - where nearly 40,000 people have been killed in a continuing drug war.
"The strike reeks of Los Zetas because of its military precision - six or so men armed with long-arms and three containers of gasoline accomplished the fire-bombing of the Casino Royale in two minutes," said George W. Grayson, professor of government at the College of William and Mary and an expert on Mexican drug gangs.
Mr. Grayson said three vehicles used in the attack were dark and inconspicuous, including a gray Equinox, a black Chevrolet S-10 and a black and white Mini-Cooper.
Mr. Grayson said there are two major theories for the vicious attack. The owner of the business had either refused to pay extortion money or was late in making his payment or the Gulf Cartel owned the casino, he said.
Casinos have particularly been targeted as owners refuse to pay protection money demanded by criminal gangs.
"Los Zetas, who have a major presence in Monterrey, are moving from criminal activities that target police, soldiers, judges, politicians - with 'collateral damage' to civilians- to acts of terrorism, the purposeful, indiscriminate killing of civilians," he said.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Agent Jaime Zapata, 32, was fatally shot Feb. 15 during an ambush on Mexico's major highway between Mexico City and Monterrey. Several Zetas have been arrested in that shooting.
Mexican police have arrested five reputed members of the Zetas in connection with the attack, all of whom reportedly have confessed.
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