Thursday, September 1, 2011
Casino arson massacre in Mexico may be rooted in corruption
By William Booth and Nick Miroff
When an arson attack killed 52 people at a casino here last week, Mexico President Felipe Calderon called it the work of “true terrorists” and said U.S. drug users and gun dealers were partly responsible for his country’s violence.
Calderon cast the attack as a galvanizing moment in his administration’s battle against the cartels, characterizing the tragedy as a steep escalation of the conflict between security forces and gangsters who increasingly target civilians.
But a video and series of photographs showing the brother of Monterrey’s mayor receiving bundles of cash at a casino days before the massacre suggest its origins might lie in the old, familiar networks of corruption that have long plagued the country and nurtured the rise of organized crime.
It is not immediately clear what the payments were for or whether they were illegal. Nor is it clear whether there is any relationship between the payments taken by the mayor’s brother and the firebombing last Thursday of the Casino Royale.
But the videotape of the Monterrey mayor’s brother receiving wads of money raises in the public mind the possibility that the Zeta gangsters who carried out the attack were not terrorists but extortionists somehow linked to city hall.
Mobbed by reporters, Monterrey Mayor Fernando Larrazabal — a member of Calderon’s National Action Party, or PAN — had no explanation for his brother’s appearance in the casino surveillance footage. His brother’s whereabouts are unknown.
“I am not responsible for what my brother did. I haven’t talked to him. If he’s committed a crime, then he needs to take responsibility before the law,” the mayor said.
An attorney for the mayor’s brother said Wednesday that his client had done nothing wrong and that the payments were for cheese and other food products provided to the casino, along with prize money.
“He’s a businessman, and he likes to have fun in casinos from time to time,” said the attorney, Jesus Martinez Garcia, according to Reforma, one of the newspapers that broke the story. “Some of his customers have asked him to come to the casinos for payment.”
Mexican authorities are operating under the theory that the Casino Royale was the victim of extortion and was torched by gunmen from the fearsome Zeta drug cartel because the owner, who has fled the country, was behind in paying bribes.
The politically explosive images appeared Wednesday morning on the front pages of the two most prominent newspapers in Mexico City and Monterrey and quickly went viral on competing media Web sites and on social media networks. Copies of the images were obtained separately by The Washington Post.
Investigators are focusing on the growth of casino gaming in Mexico operated by well-connected owners. These betting parlors and bingo halls — which operate mainly in cash, many illegally — are established centers of money laundering as well as fat targets for shakedowns, according to Mexico and U.S. law enforcement agents.
When Calderon took office in 2006, there were 198 casinos in Mexico. Today, the number of legal and illegal betting houses has grown to almost 800, according to the muckraking weekly magazine Proceso.