Coatzacoalcos, Veracruz fire
People react outside a bar where 23 people were killed by a fire in Coatzacoalcos, Veracruz, on August 28, 2019. At least 23 people were killed and 13 badly wounded in a fire at Caballo Blanco bar (White Horse bar) in eastern Mexico that is being investigated as an attack according to Mexican authorities. Image Credit: AFP

Highlights

reports said the fire broke out when attackers burst into the bar and threw

Coatzacoalcos, Mexico: At least 25 people were killed and 11 badly wounded when gunmen burst into a strip club in eastern Mexico, doused it with gasoline and ignited a raging fire, officials said Wednesday.

President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador condemned Tuesday night's "shameful" attack in the city of Coatzacoalcos, and said federal authorities would investigate evidence that it may have stemmed from collusion between the state prosecutor's office and organized crime.

The attack is the latest to rock the state of Veracruz, a flashpoint in bloody turf wars between Mexico's rival drug cartels and a hotbed of political corruption.

Survivors said gunmen descended on the bar, the Caballo Blanco (White Horse), in a hail of bullets, blocked the entrances and set the club alight. But because of the loud reggaeton music pounding inside, many patrons and dancers did not even notice the attack until the entire bar was in flames, they said.

"They arrived in several vehicles, with rifles and pistols. They threatened the security guards at the door and took control of the main entrance," one survivor told an AFP reporter, speaking on condition of anonymity, as frantic family members rushed to the bar looking for their loved ones.

Veracruz Governor Cuitlahuac Garcia tweeted that authorities had identified one of the attackers as Ricardo "N" - Mexican law bars the release of suspects' full names - adding that he was a repeat offender known as "La Loca" ("The Crazy One").

The suspect was previously arrested last month, but was released by prosecutors within 48 hours, Garcia said, vowing that "this vile crime... will not go unpunished."

President Lopez Obrador said federal authorities would investigate why the suspect had been released, and whether there was a conspiracy between the state prosecutor's office and organized crime.

"There's a problem there that needs to be investigated regarding the actions of the Veracruz prosecutor's office," he told a press conference.

"There are two things going on here: one is this shameful act by organized crime, the most inhuman thing possible; the other, which is also reprehensible, is a possible conspiracy with the authorities."

"We have to categorically separate organized crime from the government," added Lopez Obrador, a leftist elected last year on a stern anti-corruption platform.

Attackers blocked emergency exits 

Veracruz is one of the most violent states in the country.

Its strategic location on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico makes it a popular route for drug cartels and for human traffickers bringing undocumented migrants to the United States.

Bloody battles between warring cartels and gangs frequently erupt in the state. Coatzacoalcos has been among the cities hardest hit by the violence.

The White Horse was one of the last nightclubs in the once-booming port city of 235,000 people, which has fallen on hard times along with Mexico's oil industry, of which it was a hub.

Survivors said the bar was bustling when the gunmen burst in. The attackers blocked the emergency exits, and many of the victims died of smoke inhalation, authorities said.

The interior of the bar was wrecked and charred, with chairs overturned and debris littering the floor.

The naked body of a woman who had been mid-routine was sprawled on the dance floor next to the striptease poles.

Outside, anguished relatives cried and embraced as they waited for news, while soldiers, police and paramedics worked the scene.

"I just want to know if he's OK," said a mother looking for her son, who was a cleaner at the bar, after searching for him in vain at local hospitals.

"Have you seen my daughter? She was a dancer," said another.

Hit squads, corruption 

Mexico has been hit by a wave of violence since declaring war on drugs and deploying the army to fight its powerful cartels in 2006.

Since then, more than 250,000 people have been murdered, including a record 33,753 last year.

The situation in Veracruz has been particularly grim. Jailed ex-governor Javier Duarte (2010-2016) is accused of presiding over a rash of corruption and human-rights abuses.

Two former state police chiefs and a string of ex-officials have been charged with running hit squads that abducted and presumably killed unwanted individuals during Duarte's administration.