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story.lead_photo.caption Relatives of one of the victims of the bar attack grieve Wednesday outside the Veracruz state prosecutors’ office in Coatzacoalcos, Mexico. One anti-crime activist said the attack had hallmarks of an unmet demand for extortion payments.

COATZACOALCOS, Mexico -- An attack on a bar in Mexico's Gulf Coast city of Coatzacoalcos killed 26 people and wounded about a dozen, officials said Wednesday, and they said the attack was apparently overseen by a man who had been recently arrested but released.

"The criminals went in, closed the doors, the emergency exits, and set fire to the place," President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said at his daily morning news conference.

Veracruz state police said the Tuesday night attack targeted Bar Caballo Blanco, or "White Horse Bar." It advertised "quality, security and service," private rooms for $7.50 "all night," "sexy girls" and a pole dance contest.

It sits just off a busy commercial street in Coatzacoalcos, a city whose main industry has long been oil and oil refining.

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"This is the most inhuman thing possible," Lopez Obrador said.

"It is regrettable that organized crime acts in this manner," he said, adding, "It is more regrettable that there may be collusion with authorities."

Lopez Obrador said local prosecutors should be investigated because "the alleged perpetrators had been arrested, but they were freed."

Gov. Cuitlahuac Garcia 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.

Garcia said the man had been detained by marines in July, but was released after being turned over to the state prosecutor's office.

"In Veracruz, criminal gangs are no longer tolerated," Garcia wrote of the attack, adding that police, the armed forces and newly formed National Guard were searching for the attackers.

In an interview with Milenio TV, Garcia said that 23 people had died in the bar and three more had died from injuries afterward. He said some of the remaining injured were in "very serious" condition and he left open the possibility that the toll could rise.

"It was a planned, cunning attack against that bar and the people who were inside," he said. He added that businesses in the city have suffered similar fires. He said arrests were made in previous cases, but state prosecutors didn't act.

In a statement, Veracruz prosecutors denied having released anyone, saying La Loca had indeed been arrested on two occasions but then handed over to federal prosecutors.

"A tragedy should not be used to distort the facts nor confuse public opinion," the statement said.

The executive branch in Veracruz and the prosecutor's office have long been at odds, leading to complaints against prosecutor Jorge Winckler alleging omissions and obstruction, accusations he has always denied.

Anti-crime activist and businessman Raul Ojeda said the attack had all the hallmarks of an unmet demand for extortion payments.

"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."

He said the Zetas, Jalisco New Generation cartel and other gangs are currently fighting for control of the city.

Photos of the scene showed tables and chairs jumbled around, with the bodies of seminude women lying in the debris.

Veracruz prosecutors said the dead were 10 women and 16 men. There was no immediate word on the conditions of the 11 wounded.

The attack came almost eight years to the day after a fire at a casino in the northern city of Monterrey killed 52 people. The Zetas drug cartel staged that 2011 attack to enforce demands for protection payments.

The Zetas, now splintered, also have been active in Coatzacoalcos. The Jalisco New Generation cartel also has a presence in the area and journalists said La Loca is believed to be linked to that group.

Veracruz has suffered from high levels of organized-crime attacks for years. It was one of the first states where Lopez Obrador deployed the country's new National Guard in April after 13 people were killed during a party in Minatitlan, 12 miles from Coatzalcoalcos.

More recently, in early August, nine dismembered bodies were found in bags in the town of Maltrata.

According to the most recent government data, there are 2,500 guardsmen patrolling the state. They are among some 13,500 federal forces in Veracruz.

Information for this article was contributed by Maria Verza of The Associated Press.

Photo by AP/FELIX MARQUEZ
A police officer stands guard Wednesday outside a bar in Mexico’s Gulf coast city of Coatzacoalcos where 26 people died in an overnight attack and fire reportedly planned by a man who had been recently arrested and then released. “The criminals went in, closed the doors, the emergency exits, and set fire to the place,” President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said.

A Section on 08/29/2019

Print Headline: Mexico bar locked down, set afire

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