MONTERREY, Mexico (The Blaze/AP) -- Two dozen gunmen burst into a casino in northern Mexico on Thursday, doused it with a flammable liquid and started a fire that trapped gamblers inside, killing at least 53 people and injuring many more, authorities said.
The fire at the Casino Royale in Monterrey, which has seen a surge in drug cartel-related violence, represented one of the deadliest attacks against an entertainment center in Mexico since President Felipe Calderon launched an offensive against drug cartels in late 2006.
State police officials quoted survivors as saying that about two dozen 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.
With shouts and profanities, the attackers told the customers and employees to get out. But many terrified customers and employees fled further inside the building, where they died trapped amid the flames and thick smoke that soon billowed out of the building.
Angel Flores, a commander of the Monterrey Green Cross rescue service, said 28 bodies had been recovered from the casino, and that more were likely to be recovered. He said most died of asphyxiation.
Monterrey Mayor Fernando Larrazabal said that many of the bodies were found inside the casino's bathrooms, where employees and customers had locked themselves to escape the armed commando.
While there was no immediate information linking the attack to drug cartels, Monterrey has seen bloody turf battles between the Zetas and Gulf cartels in recent months. Once Mexico's symbol of development and prosperity, drug-related murders here this year are on pace to double last year's and triple those of the year before.
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."
Larrazabal said the casino, in a well-off part of Monterrey, had been closed by authorities in May for building an expansion without a permit, but a judge later granted the owner an injunction to continue operating.
Initial reports said 11 people had been, but the death toll climbed as emergency personnel and firefighters continued to find bodies in the casino building. Medics treated the victims for smoke inhalation.
State police officials initially said witnesses reported hearing three explosions before the fire started, but later said that 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.
The Casino Royale had been attacked by gunmen before; along with three other casinos, gunmen attacked the Royale on May 25.