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Survivors recall casino slaughter: 'We're going to kill all of you'

From Nick Valencia, CNN
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Five arrested in casino fire
  • NEW: Witnesses recount gunmen shooting patrons, hurling grenades
  • Authorities say suspects told them civilians were not their target
  • The casino fire left 52 dead and shocked Mexico
  • Mexican officials showed off five suspects to reporters Tuesday

(CNN) -- Two survivors of the casino fire that killed 52 people in the Mexican city of Monterrey last week cast doubt on authorities' description of what happened, saying gunmen opened fire on gamblers inside before setting the building ablaze.

Police have arrested five suspected members of the Zetas drug cartel in connection with Thursday's torching of the Casino Royale in Monterrey. The men told investigators they carried out the attack because the owners of the casino had not complied with their extortion demands, according to Adrian de la Garza, the attorney general of the Mexican state of Nuevo Leon.

"The people were not the target, it was the casino," de la Garza said Tuesday. "It was a chaotic situation that got out of control." He said the alleged arsonists shouted at patrons to leave the casino as they set it on fire.

But two women who escaped the inferno told CNN the gunmen who stormed the gambling hall targeted patrons with guns and grenades before the fire started. One of the men told them, "We're going to kill all of you," one of the women recounted.

"They didn't come asking for anyone. They came in harassing the people, shouting nasty things at us," she said. "At that point, my girlfriend said, 'Let's run, let's get out of here or they're going to kill us.' Everything was out of control."

Both women asked to remain anonymous out of fear for their safety. But they said the attackers shot people and slot machines alike when they entered, and said the ordeal lasted for several minutes before police arrived.

The second woman said the men wore ski masks, and that a different group set the blaze. (in Spanish): Surveillance video released

"I didn't see the guys outside who poured the gasoline," she said. "That happened after the shooting inside. That was the last thing that happened. The guys outside were not the same ones who threw grenades inside."

The women had gone to the casino to celebrate a friend's 26th birthday, they said. They ended up fleeing out an emergency exit after finding some of the emergency doors locked. One said there were five or six gunmen, another put the number at eight or nine.

Authorities originally reported the deaths as a grenade attack, but later said the attackers had poured gasoline on the building and set it ablaze.

Authorities are looking for seven additional people who were involved, de la Garza said. Police are also searching for the majority owner of the Casino Royale, Raul Rocha Cantu, who is believed to have fled to the United States, de la Garza said.

The five men in custody were paraded in front of the media on Tuesday, each wearing a red vest emblazoned with the word "detainee." They were identified as Luis Carlos Carrazco Espinosa, 25; Javier Alonso Martinez Morales, alias "el Javo," 37; Jonathan Jahir Reyna Gutierrez, 18; Juan Angel Leal Flores, 20; and Julio Tadeo Berrones, 28, alias "El Julio Rayas."

Some of the suspects were directly involved in the fire, while others were accomplices, Nuevo Leon Gov. Rodrigo Medina said. The cartel members had backgrounds that included kidnapping and homicide, he said.

Dozens dead in Mexico casino fire
  • Monterrey
  • Mexico

"We're talking about unscrupulous people who had already committed crimes of high damage to society," he said.

Video from a gas station and the casino provided evidence that the suspects used gasoline as an accelerant at the casino, the officials said. The version of events was corroborated through phone conversations the suspects had and their own confessions, they said.

Police identified the suspects as being from Monterrey, but one of the survivors said at least some of them had a distinct accent from Sinaloa, on the Pacific coast. She said she does not trust local or state police, and while federal authorities promise to investigate, "nothing ever happens."

"I adore my state. I love my country," she said. But she added, "This is not the city I grew up in.

"You learn not to live here, but how to survive," she said.

The massive fire and number of deaths shook the core of Monterrey, Mexico's wealthiest city and a key industrial hub. The city has been no stranger to the drug violence that has plagued northern Mexico, but the toll of the casino attack drew national attention in a country where headlines routinely describe brutal crimes.

"It's urgent to punish the guilty and avoid more attacks," the city's Business Coordination Council said. The council provided a list of steps the city could take, including strengthening police and passing national security laws that go after money laundering,

"We cannot wait any longer, even if it is election season," the group said.

Another citizens' group in Monterrey, the National Citizen Security, Justice and Legality Observatory, called on the federal government "to combat crime at all levels."

"We repudiate violence. We want peace and justice," the group said.

Since 2008, the government has stepped up the military's presence in Nuevo Leon as it tries to crack down on crime. It sent more troops to the state last November.

On Saturday, 300 soldiers from the Mexican Army and Air Force boarded planes in the nation's capital, bound for Monterrey as part of President Felipe Calderon's plan to help local authorities fight drug trafficking and organized crime, Mexico's defense department said.

More than 34,600 people have died since Calderon announced a crackdown on cartels in December 2006, according to government statistics. Other reports have listed higher tolls. The latest Mexican government tally was released in January.