Twitter was on fire last night with various reports of an attack on the Casino Royale in Monterrey, Nuevo Leon, that killed over 50 people and injured many more. Here's a recent report in The Wall Street Journal:
"In what Mexican officials have called an "act of terror," a half dozen gunmen burst into a casino in Mexico's industrial capital of Monterrey Thursday, sprayed the place with gasoline, and started a fire in the bingo section, killing at least 53 people. Speaking to Monterrey's leading newspaper El Norte, Nuevo León Gov. Rodrigo Medina said that at least 53 people had been killed in the attack... Officials said they expected the death toll to continue to climb in what appeared to be an attack linked to warring drug cartels, although there was no immediate information linking the massacre to drug traffickers. Up to 80 people were in the casino when it was attacked.'Six hooded gunmen came in, shouting obscenities and firing their guns,' said a person at the scene who asked not to be named. 'They drenched the place with gasoline. People were running as the place went up in flames. Those who stayed behind burned to death.'... 'An act of terrorism has been committed," said Alejandro Poiré, the federal government's spokesman for security affairs. "This act of terror will not remain unpunished.' The mention of 'terror' has been a controversial one in Mexico's drug wars, where officials have argued hard against terminology suggesting an insurgency." Link to Full Article
However, this wasn't the only casino attack this week. The Caliente casino in Saltillo, owned by controversial former Tijuana mayor Jorge Hank Rhon, was attacked on Wednesday. A grenade attack near a Reynosa, Tamaulipas casino also occurred on Wednesday, and the Sun City casino in Saltillo) was attacked on August 15th. These other attacks involved mostly gunment (with the exception of the Reynosa incident), and few lives were lost - especially in comparison to the Casino Royale attack.
Analysis: I'm very concerned about the references Calderon and Poire are making to the Casino Royal attack as an "act of terror." I've always written/said that TCOs often behave like terrorists, and engage in terrorist-type activity. However, this doesn't necessarily make them terrorists, and to label them as such would open up a huge diplomatic and political Pandora's Box. Many of my readers and Twitter followers have already commented that the box was opened when he came into office.
The problem with that is that we don't fully understand yet the motivation behind the Casino Royal attack. But because of the string of other casino attacks (and other factors), we can start doing some intelligent speculation. Casinos are frequently owned by TCOs, or allies of TCOs who do extensive money laundering for them. Monterrey, Saltillo, and Reynosa are currently battlegrounds for the war between Los Zetas and the Gulf cartel. These attacks could be rival hits. Or, the owners of the casinos may not be following up on their end of a bargain with one of the two TCOs, and now they're paying the price. I'm more inclined to go with the first explanation; it would be too much of a coincidence that four casino owners would all be screwing their bosses over at the same time. Don't forget; according to the news reports, we don't even know if TCOs were involved, although it's a reasonable assumption.
Taking a look specifically at the Casino Royale attack, spreading gasoline around and starting a fire is a poor way to carry out a true terrorist attack. There are multiple factors here that led to the death of so many people. First, it sounds like it was a small place; only 80 people were in it at the time of the attack, and there are definitely more than 80 people in any Vegas casino in the middle of a Thursday. Second, something was wrong with the emergency exits; either there weren't enough of them, they were poorly lit/indicated, or they weren't opening. Third, many people fled to the bathrooms to escape the attackers, and they subsequently got trapped - and killed - in there by the smoke and flames.
Initial reports claimed this was a robbery attempt, and the attackers were yelling at people to get out of the casino after they started the fire. This is looking less and less like a robbery and more like a simple attempt to burn the place down. Honestly, I don't believe the attackers' intent was to kill everyone inside the casino. This is incredibly important when major political figures are throwing around sound bytes like "act of terror." Were the people in the casino terrorized? Absolutely. Are the Mexican people throughout the country terrorized by the news of what happened yesterday in Monterrey? I have no doubt. But people living in certain parts of Los Angeles and Detroit and Washington, DC (and many other US cities) are terrorized every day by gang violence that rips their children away in drive-by shootings. Does this make gang members terrorists? No.
The bottom line is, unless those men wanted to and planned to kill innocent people in the casino in order to send a message to Calderon's government, the attack wasn't a true act of terrorism.
Yesterday's attack on the Casino Royale was one of the biggest tragedies we've seen in Mexico's drug war. Whenever innocent people are caught in the crossfire of TCO violence, it has a huge impact on the morale of the Mexican people, and the viability of Calderon's strategy. How will the Mexican people choose to view this attack? As a true "act of terror" and an indiscriminate killing? As a severely botched attempt by a TCO to send a message to a rival, or uncooperative casino owner? Or yet another example of a failed drug war strategy?
Sadly, it's unlikely this will be the last tragedy of its kind in Mexico. The question is, how will Calderon's administration play future incidents in the press? By calling the Casino Royale attack an "act of terror," he and Poire may be trying to open an avenue for increased US or international assistance that would help save the face of Mexican sovereignty. He may also be pursuing a political agenda that includes pushing for passage of legislation allowing the government expanded powers to monitor TCO activity.
I'm sure more information will roll in over the next few days and weeks regarding who was responsible for the attack, and why it was committed. However, we're going to see the political fall out from this for many months - perhaps years - to come.