Unidentified attackers set fire to the Casino Royale in Monterrey, Nuevo Leon state, on Aug. 25. The incident was likely the result of cartel rivalries in the city, rather than an intentional act of terrorism, and it serves as an example of how cartels will attempt to disrupt their rivals' sources of revenue. Moreover, a high death toll of 53 suggests that the removal of cartel leadership with military training is adversely affecting the cartels' operational ability.
An unknown number of attackers set fire Aug. 25 to the Casino Royale in Monterrey, Nuevo Leon state, leaving 53 people dead, according to Nuevo Leon Gov. Rodrigo Medina. Reports indicated that 12 people were injured, and Attorney General Leon Adrian de la Garza said there could be more victims. The Mexican government announced a deployment of 500 soldiers to catch the perpetrators. A video account shows a number of individuals exiting vehicles at approximately 3:30 p.m. before entering the casino, and smoke was seen emanating from the building minutes later. The attackers allegedly ordered everyone out of the building before dousing it in gasoline and setting it on fire, and conflicting reports suggest they used Molotov cocktails, guns and/or hand grenades in the attack. Mexican cartels value casinos as a means to launder money and generate revenue through legal gambling practices. Because of this value, casinos are obvious targets for cartels attempting to disrupt the financial operations of their rivals. STRATFOR believes this is the most likely motive behind the attack, rather than retaliation meant to inflict mass casualties. Moreover, the sloppiness with which the attack was conducted indicates a decreased operational ability in drug cartels whose highly trained leaders have been killed or arrested. Reports that the attackers ordered the building to be evacuated are significant. Such an order suggests the casino itself was the target. If the attackers intended to cause mass casualties, they would not have given the warning and would have used another method to maximize casualties, such as a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device or even small arms fire. Most of the victims had reportedly run upstairs or locked themselves in bathrooms instead of fleeing. The emergency exits were also reportedly locked, meaning those trying to flee through alternative exits were trapped, resulting in the high casualty count. Attacks on infrastructure are common tactics for the Gulf and Zetas cartels, which are actively fighting for territorial control of important hubs for drug- and human-smuggling operations; Monterrey is one such hub. Interestingly, simultaneous grenade attacks took place on casinos in Saltillo, Coahuila state, and Reynosa, Tamaulipas state, on Aug. 24. The attacks are believed to be the work of Los Zetas. According to information obtained by STRATFOR, businessman and former Tijuana Mayor Jorge Hank Rhon and the Caliente Group operate all three of the casinos that have been attacked. Therefore, the possibility that one cartel is conducting a coordinated campaign to disrupt revenue flows for its competitor cannot be ruled out. By instilling fear and lowering the number of patrons that visit these establishments, they could adversely affect the controlling cartel, especially at a time when any disruption to capital is a major problem for them. The attack on the Casino Royale illustrates just how chaotic the situation in Mexico has become. This sort of attack suggests cartel leaders are losing control of their subordinates and supports our assessment that the loss of leaders with military training and experience, especially in the case of Los Zetas, is creating a more unstable and violent environment. If the attackers intended to minimize casualties, this attack shows poor planning by cartel management or poor operational tactics by the gunmen who carried out the attacks. Sophisticated operators would have known that the emergency exits were locked and that people would panic and run away from the attackers, who would have been the most obvious threat. If the attackers were unconcerned about casualties, or if they intended to kill as many innocent people as possible, then this attack could be another step in the devolution of the violence in Mexico. The cartel responsible for the attack can expect blowback from Mexican security forces, the general public and from a rival cartel. If the attackers did not follow the plan laid out by their superiors, they could be killed for the high death toll. If this is the case, the cartel will want to publicize the fact that they have taken care of the perpetrators and let it be known that innocent civilians are not targeted for attack.