MEXICO CITY - An attack on a bar in Mexico's Gulf coast city of Coatzacoalcos killed 26 people and injured about a dozen, officials said Wednesday, and they said it 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 Andrés Manuel López Obrador said at his daily morning news conference.
Veracruz state police said the Tuesday night 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.
"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 that 23 people had died in 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 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.
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.
Prosecutors initially said the fire killed eight women and 15 men and injured 13 people. López Obrador said the death toll had risen to 25, but did not specify the gender of the victims or the number of injured. There was no immediate information on their condition.
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.