MONTERREY, Mexico (AP) - Mexican President Felipe Calderon declared three days of mourning Friday following the arson of a casino by presumed drug traffickers that killed 52, calling those responsible "true terrorists."
Armed assailants burst into the casino Thursday afternoon, swearing and shouting for customers and employees to get out. But many of the terrified victims fled farther inside the building, where they died trapped amid the flames and thick smoke that soon billowed out of the building.
Calderon described the incident as the worst attack on innocent civilians in recent memory. "We are not talking about an accident," he said in a televised nationwide address. "We are talking about true terrorists who have gone beyond all limits."
Surveillance video shows at least eight assailants arriving to the Casino Royale in four cars and heading to the main entrance. They are also seen carrying three large bottles, which Gov. Rodrigo Medina said probably contained gasoline.
Family members arrived at the morgue all through the night in Monterrey, a modern metropolis and one of Mexico's most important business centers that has been the scene of a ferocious turf battle between the Gulf and Zetas drug cartels.
Medina lowered the death toll to 52 early Friday. He had said late Thursday 53 people had died in the fire at the Casino Royale.
Santiago Loera, 53, went to the morgue looking for his brother, Miguel
Angel, a cook at another casino who had gone to the Casino Royale to
sign a new contract.
"We think he's here," Loera said.
Loera said authorities have asked him for a DNA sample.
Calderon tweeted that the attack was "an abhorrent act of terror and barbarism" that requires "all of us to persevere in the fight against these unscrupulous criminal bands."
Attorney General Leon Adrian de la Garza said a drug cartel was apparently responsible for the attack, though he didn't name which one. Cartels often extort casinos and other businesses, threatening to attack them or burn them to the ground if they refuse to pay.
It was the second time in three months that the Casino Royale was targeted. Gunmen struck it and three other casinos on May 25, spraying the building with bullets, but no was reported injured in that attack.
The fire in the two-story casino, which advertised sports book and bingo, was reported just before 4 p.m. local time (5 p.m. EDT; 2100 GMT), a slow time of day when normally about 80 people played the tables and slots, said former security guard Alberto Martinez Alvarado, 30. Martinez, who was on his way home from work Thursday when he saw the fire, said the casino could hold hundreds, perhaps 1,000 people.
"We're lucky we weren't there," he said. "Why couldn't the people who did this do some honest work instead?"
State police officials quoted survivors as saying armed men burst into the casino, apparently to rob it, and began dousing the premises with fuel from tanks they brought with them. The officials were not authorized to be quoted by name for security reasons. De la Garza said the liquid appeared to be gasoline.
Monterrey Mayor Fernando Larrazabal said many of the bodies were found inside the casino's bathrooms, where employees and customers had locked themselves to escape the gunmen.
Authorities commandeered backhoes from a nearby construction site and made a brief attempt to break into the casino's walls as smoke billowed from the main entrance, hindering firefighters.
Maria Tomas Navarro, 42, stood weeping at the edge of the police tape stretched in front of the smoke-stained casino building. She was hoping for word of her brother, 25-year-old Genaro Navarro Vega, who had worked in the casino's bingo area.
Navarro said she tried calling her brother's cell phone. "But he doesn't answer. I don't know what is happening," she said. "There is nobody to ask."
Monterrey has seen bloody turf battles between the Zetas and Gulf cartels in recent months. Once Mexico's symbol of development and prosperity, the city is seeing this year's drug-related murders on a pace to double last year's and triple those of the year before.
Last month, gunmen killed 20 people at a bar in Monterrey. The attackers sprayed the bar with rounds from assault rifles, and police later found bags of drugs at the bar.
State police officials initially said witnesses reported hearing three explosions before Thursday's fire started, but later said a flammable material was used. The officials were not authorized to be quoted by name for security reasons.
The reports of explosions may have been the sound of the ignition of the liquid.
Norma Reyes, 45, was one of the people who received good news Thursday. Her son called her before she even heard about the fire to say he was all right. Jonathan Reyes, 25, who worked as an area supervisor, told his mother he was at the hospital trying to find out what happened to his co-workers.
"God took care of us today," she said.