Posted on Wed, Aug. 31, 2011
last updated: March 15, 2013 11:57:56 AM
MONTERREY, Mexico — A probe into the deadly firebombing of a casino took a dramatic twist Wednesday with evidence the brother of the city's mayor may be entangled in shakedowns at gambling parlors suspected of being at the root of the attack that claimed 52 lives.
The newspaper El Norte, considered one of Mexico's best, posted videos of Mayor Fernando Larrazabal's brother, Jonas, entering local casinos, sitting down at tables, meeting employees and receiving wads of cash.
In the most recent video, which El Norte said was taken Aug. 19, the brother received what the newspaper estimated was the equivalent of $33,000 in cash.
The release of the videos jolted this industrial hub, coming just six days after gunmen stormed the Casino Royale, poured gasoline inside and set the crowded facility ablaze. Most of the people who died were middle-aged women wiling away the afternoon.
In a hastily called news conference, Larrazabal said he had no knowledge of the payoffs even as he conceded that his brother was the man shown in the videos.
"My brother will have to clear up questions that have arisen about this," the mayor said. "None of my brother's activities have, or have had, anything to do with this city administration."
The videos immediately raised questions whether gangsters from a transnational crime syndicate accused of shaking down casinos are in collusion with politicians.
Gov. Rodrigo Medina of Nuevo Leon, the state that surrounds Monterrey, immediately called for an investigation, saying prosecutors should arrest those behind the casino payoffs. "Let fall who may," he said.
Medina reiterated Wednesday that gangsters from Los Zetas, a gang involved in narcotics smuggling, extortion and a gamut of other criminal activity in Mexico and abroad, were behind the Aug. 25 attack.
Five of the alleged assailants were arrested over the weekend.
El Norte said the videos show Jonas Larrazabal entering other casinos in the Monterrey area on May 30, June 20 and Aug. 19 to collect packets or wads of cash.
In the most recent video, Jonas Larrazabal, wearing a blue shirt unbuttoned to his mid-chest, and with folded sunglasses hanging from a gold chain, arrives at a casino at 4:27 in the afternoon.
Five minutes after sitting down at a blackjack table, another man appears and fans bills on the table in the style of a card dealer. The video shows Jonas Larrazabal putting the cash in a red-and-black case and walking out of the casino a minute later.
El Norte said he climbed into a gray Nissan Sentra with license plates registered in his name.
The earliest video taken May 30 came just five days after armed commandos burst into four Monterrey casinos and caused destruction, apparently retaliation for the casino operators not making extortion payments.
It remained unclear on whose behalf — politicians or gangsters — Jonas Larrazabal was collecting cash at the casinos, and the blurring of lines only underscored disgust at the spread of corruption in the region.
One local activist predicted that Larrazabal, who a member of President Felipe Calderon's National Action Party, would be forced to step down.
"Monterrey's mayor will fall very soon," said Miguel Trevino de Hoyos, head of the Civic Council of Nuevo Leon Institutions, an activist group. "If the mayor isn't capable of knowing that his own brother is extorting casinos, he shouldn't be mayor."
Since the lethal firebombing last week, politicians in the state have traded charges over who was responsible for irregularities at Casino Royale, including locked exits, and at other casinos, many of which lack permits but have been allowed by elected officials to operate anyway.
According to the Proceso newsweekly, some 550 casinos operate in Mexico, nearly all of them opened within the past decade and as few as 126 operating legally. Gangsters are believed to control some casinos for laundering illicit streams of money while subjecting others to extortion.
Monterrey's mayor isn't the only one on a hot seat from videos.
Two other videos taken by people driving near the Casino Royale when it was firebombed show police in nearby cruisers not responding to the crime. The videos were posted earlier this week by another newspaper, Excelsior.
The state security chief for Nuevo Leon, Jorge Domene, told Milenio Television that the mid-level Zetas gangster behind the firebombing remains at large in the metropolitan area.
Domene also said one of the main owners of Casino Royale, Raul Rocha Cantu, had fled the country.
"We think that he is in the United States," Domene said.
Rocha Cantu owns property in Texas and has multiple business partnerships established in Texas, Florida and Maryland.
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McClatchy Newspapers 2011