MEXICO CITY — In his annual State of the Union address Friday, Mexican President Felipe Calderon pledged to press the fight against organized crime and police corruption during his final year in office.
But he backed off from branding last week’s casino firebombing in Monterrey an act of drug cartel “terrorism,” after the brother of the city’s mayor and a state policeman were taken into custody in a widening investigation.
Calderon also announced the creation of an Office for Victim’s Assistance, an acknowledgment that many of the 40,000 people killed the U.S.-backed drug war were not criminals but innocents caught in a cross fire.
Last Thursday’s arson attack by alleged members of the Zetas gang left 52 people dead, including 42 women, the victims burned to death at bingo tables at the Casino Royale, which had fallen behind on extortion payments, according to Mexican officials.
“Like all Mexicans, I’m outraged at the level of opacity and corruption that the Monterrey tragedy has brought to light,” Calderon said in his speech, warning that if the gangs aren’t checked, organized crime and the government will become “practically the same thing.”
On Thursday, Calderon had blamed “true terrorists” for the casino attack. But he did not use those words during his 90-minute televised address Friday.
Mayor Fernando Larrazabal, who was questioned by investigators and released Thursday in Monterrey, said he had no knowledge of his brother’s activities.
His brother, Jonas Larrazabal, was also interrogated and remains in custody as police investigate possible ties to organized crime.
Jonas Larrazabal has said he did nothing wrong. The payments caught on security cameras were in exchange for cheese and other specialty foods, he said, products he supplied to the Red Casino, a gaming hall just a block away from the burned-out Casino Royale. No formal charges have been filed.
Calderon’s acknowledgment that victims of the drug war include innocent victims appeared to be a reversal of earlier statements in which he said that most of the dead were criminals killed by criminals.
Calderon has repeatedly argued that more than 90 percent of the murders, beheadings and executions were cartel-on-cartel crimes, that 5 percent of the dead were soldiers and police, and that “the very least number” were civilians.
Andres Rozental, a former top Mexican diplomat, said Calderon was reacting to the outrage of the casino fire and the advocacy of the poet-pundit Javier Sicilia, whose son was killed by thugs and who took his outrage into the streets in mass protests and marches.