Monterrey: Masked gunmen killed at least 53 people at a casino in northern Mexico on Thursday, leaving it ablaze with patrons trapped inside in one of the worst attacks in a major Mexican city in years.
Analysts and officials said the brazen assault had all the hallmarks of drug cartels that have plunged Monterrey and other parts of Mexico into a spiral of violence.
A survivor said the armed men burst into the Casino Royale in the prosperous industrial city of Monterrey on Thursday afternoon and threatened gamblers before spraying gasoline on the carpets and setting it on fire.
"My wife came here for a celebration," a weeping man told Milenio TV. "She was having dinner with her friends."
One witness said people stampeded after hearing blasts soon after the attack began. Many patrons ran to hide in the toilets but died from asphyxiation as smoke engulfed the building, a rescue official said.
Rodrigo Medina, governor of Nuevo Leon state, told the Televisa network that 53 people were killed and rescue teams warned the death toll could rise. Media reports said the majority of those killed were women.
Monterrey, 230 km (140 miles) from the Texas border, is a relatively wealthy city of about 4 million people and was for years seen as a model of economic development. But lawlessness has taken its toll as Mexico`s drug war has escalated.
President Felipe Calderon called the attack a "barbaric act of terror" and vowed to keep fighting organised crime.
About 42,000 people have been killed in the drug war across Mexico since Calderon took office in late 2006 and deployed troops against the drug cartels.
Alberto Islas, a security expert at consultancy Risk Evaluation, said Thursday`s carnage showed Calderon`s strategy had failed to curb the power of the cartels.
"The impunity and lack of investigation were the most obvious incentives for the criminals to carry out this act of violence," Islas said. "At the end of the day, they know nothing will be done about it."