COATZACOALCOS, Mexico (AP) — Anger is mounting among relatives of 26 people who died horrendously when gang members set a bar on fire after blocking its exits. The families complained that criminals are out of control and making life impossible in this southern Mexico oil town.
Thousands have been kidnapped and disappeared in surrounding Veracruz state, and in April gunmen broke into a family party and opened fire, killing 13 people and wounding at least four others.
Businessmen say gangs in Coatzacoalcos demand protection money from business owners, and at least two bars were burned down in Coatzacoalcos in July to enforce such demands.
Suspects in the arson attacks were caught — charged with other crimes — but were released, and went on to burst into the White Horse nightclub late Tuesday, taking over the entrance at gunpoint and dousing it with gasoline and setting the bar afire.
Relatives of those killed at the White Horse bar said Wednesday they have lost trust in authorities. President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said the attack was directed by a man who had been recently arrested but released. The attack was apparently carried out by the Jalisco cartel, in retaliation over the owner of the White Horse nightclub not paying extortion demands.
The disaster flew in the face of some of Lopez Obrador’s own slogans about addressing Mexico’s crime problems, such as “Hugs, not bullets” and his insistence that Mexicans are “happy, happy, happy.”
“We don’t want a war, but we do want more firm action,” said Miguel Angel Ortiz, son of the cleaning woman at the bar, who was still waiting for confirmation that his mother, Rocio Gonzalez Ramos, 53, was among the dead.
“The justice system is upside-down in Mexico,” Ortiz said. “Those who carry illegal weapons go free.”
Alicia Sierra, whose nephew Habib Ojeda Sierra, a 23-year-old grocery store worker and father of two, was among those killed, said she doesn’t want his death “to go unpunished, as have so many other crimes,” referring to the April killings.
“They should turn these suspects over to the people” so justice can be done, Sierra said, “because they (authorities) are just going to set them free.”
Lopez Obrador has said “violence cannot be fought with more violence,” and has praised soldiers who have held fire even as they were disarmed by mobs. He says his programs of scholarships and apprenticeships will eventually attack the root causes of crime.
Officials of his administration have even begun talks with vigilante groups, many of which are linked to drug cartels, though Lopez Obrador says he disapproved of those talks
But patience in Coatzacoalcos was thin among the families preparing for funeral services for those who died of burns and smoke inhalation at the bar.
Lenit Enriquez Orozco, who has led a group of relatives of the disappeared in Coatzacoalcos, after her own brother vanished in 2015, said drug cartels “are feeling very empowered.”
“Lopez Obrador says the people are happy, but this is not what you would call being happy,” she said, motioning toward the grieving families of the nightclub victims.
Anti-crime activist and businessman Raul Ojeda said the attack had all the hallmarks of an unmet demand for extortion payments. He said the Zetas and Jalisco New Generation cartels and local gangs are currently fighting over control of the city
“They have been threatening all the businesses like that,” Ojeda said. “The ones that don’t pay close down or pay the consequences, as in this case.”
In the attack, gang members burst into the bar, blocked all the exits and then started the fire, officials said.
“The criminals went in, closed the doors, the emergency exits, and set fire to the place,” López Obrador said at his daily morning news conference. “This is the most inhuman thing possible.”
Among the dead were two Filipino sailors. Ramón Guzman, the agent for the ship Caribe Lisa, said the two men had gone on shore leave after their ship arrived from Houston and did not return. They were among those confirmed dead at the bar.
“It is regrettable that organized crime acts in this manner,” he said, adding, “It is more regrettable that there may be collusion with authorities.”
López Obrador said local prosecutors should be investigated because “the alleged perpetrators had been arrested, but they were freed.”
Veracruz Gov. Cuitláhuac García identified the chief suspect as a man known as “La Loca” and gave his name as Ricardo “N’’ because officials no longer give the full names of suspects.
García said the man had been detained by marines in July, but was released after being turned over to the state prosecutor’s office.