Gang members burst into a bar, blocked all the exits and then started a fire that killed 26 people and injured about a dozen others, Mexican officials said Wednesday.
Authorities said the attack in the Gulf coast city of Coatzacoalcos late Tuesday apparently was 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 Andrés Manuel López Obrador said at his daily morning news conference.
Veracruz state police said the attack targeted the "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 is located just off a busy commercial street in Coatzacoalcos, a city whose main industry has long been oil and oil refining.
On Wednesday afternoon, relatives of the victims gathered anxiously outside state prosecutors' offices with photos that could be used to identify their loved ones.
Those who had confirmation sat weeping in plastic chairs.
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Vanessa Galindo Blas, 32, said her husband died in the fire. She sat shouting: "He didn't deserve this. Why did they do this to me? I don't to be here. I want to be with you."
She said her 29-year-old husband, Erick Hernández Enriquez, worked as the DJ in the bar and left behind three children aged 4, 5 and 10.
"I don't know how to tell my children," Galindo Blas wept, as her sister-in-law, Vanesa Hernandez, held her and sobbed. "He worked honorably for his children — that was the only reason he was in that place."
Another victim at the ill-fated bar was Habib Ojeda Sierra, 23, a grocery store worker who left two children behind.
His aunt, Alicia Sierra, expressed the same disbelief that anyone could have sealed her nephew, who was asthmatic, inside a burning building.
"They are cowards who don't value human lives. Why didn't they let them out?" Sierra said outside the office where identifications of the bodies were being confirmed. "If they had some problem with the owner, why didn't they go after him?"
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.
"This is the most inhuman thing possible," López 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."
López Obrador said local prosecutors should be investigated because "the alleged perpetrators had been arrested, but they were freed."
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.
"In Veracruz, criminal gangs are no longer tolerated," García wrote of the attack, adding that police, the armed forces and newly formed National Guard are searching for the attackers.
In an interview with Milenio TV, García said 23 people had died at the bar and three more had succumbed to their injuries afterward. He said some of the remaining injured were in "very serious" condition and he left open the possibility that the death 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, charges 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 local gangs are currently fighting for control of the city.
Photos of the scene showed tables and chairs jumbled around, with the bodies of semi-nude women lying amid the debris.
Veracruz prosecutors said the dead were 10 women and 16 men. There was no immediate word on the condition 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, have also been active in Coatzacoalcos. The Jalisco New Generation cartel also has a presence in the area and local journalists said "La Loca" is believed to be linked to that group.
Veracruz has suffered from high levels of organized crime for years. It was one of the first states where López Obrador deployed the country's new National Guard in April after 13 people were killed during a party in Minatitlan, 12 miles (20 kilometers) 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.
The attack, along with the killing of 19 people in the western city of Uruapan earlier this month, is likely to renew fears that the rampant violence of the 2006-2012 drug war has returned.
To the north in neighboring Tamaulipas state, 12 presumed criminals were killed in two clashes in the border city of Nuevo Laredo, across from Laredo, Texas.
A state official who was not authorized to discuss open investigations and spoke on condition of anonymity said seven died Tuesday after attacking state police and five more were killed after shooting at a military barracks.
Associated Press writer María Verza contributed to this report.
CORRECTION (Aug. 28, 2019, 8:08 p.m.): This story has been corrected to show that the name of the deceased DJ was Erick Hernández Enriquez. An earlier version said his name was Erick Hernández Galindo.