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Can Mexico's Calderón stop the killings?

Tens of thousands protested drug violence this weekend. Many blame the president.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 2, 2008

Enough! Demonstrators in Mexico City held candles Saturday night during a protest against the rising rate of drug-related killings and kidnappings sweeping the country.

Eduardo Verdugo/AP


Mexico City

In August alone, the teenage son of a Mexican businessman was found dead in the trunk of a car, after being kidnapped at a fake police checkpoint; a dozen decapitated bodies were discovered in the southern state of Yucatán; and in northern Chihuahua state, gunmen fired on a dance hall, killing 13 people, including a baby.

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Mexicans have long been fed up with the escalating violence. But 20 months after conservative President Felipe Calderón launched a massive military effort against drug violence, the bloodshed has only gotten worse.

Mr. Calderón has scrambled to assuage public outrage, signing a national pact this month with the country's leaders to improve anticorruption measures for cops and form new antikidnapping squads. But the pressure is on.

Over the weekend, tens of thousands of Mexicans participated in peace marches across Mexico, voicing mounting frustration over the insecurity and impunity that they say is reigning. Calderón responded by meeting Sunday with 14 civic leaders who staged the protests, saying he'd set up citizens' panels to monitor government progress, recruit better police, and equip officers with more powerful weapons. Yet if violence is not reduced, it could backfire for the president who has made security a cornerstone of his leadership.

"Calderón, who was on shaky ground after the closeness of the [2006] election, increased his public opinion approval by militarizing the [fight against] drug-trafficking violence in Mexico," says Bruce Bagley, a Latin America expert at the University of Miami. "Many people were won over to him.... I think Calderón has begun to lose the confidence of the Mexican people."

Tens of thousands demand change

In Mexico City, which saw the largest protests over the weekend, tens of thousands of residents filled the main square, the Zocalo, dressed in all white and holding candles and daisies. "Security," they chanted. "If you can't [do it], resign!"

Since taking over the presidency, Calderón has dispatched some 25,000 military and federal officers across the country where violence is at its worse.

His administration has repeatedly said it is their success in breaking down gang structures and stemming money flows that has spawned more violence, but the message is being muffled by gruesome headlines of beheadings and kidnappings.

"The marches are a manifestation of that frustration," says Jorge Chabat, a security analyst in Mexico City.

The daily newspaper Reforma has tallied 2,950 murders linked to drug violence this year alone; they say their tally of 167 murders last week marks the deadliest week since Calderón took office in December 2006.

Last year, there were 438 reported kidnappings, up from 325 the year before, according to government numbers. It was the recent kidnapping of Fernando Martí, the teenage son of a wealthy Mexican family, that propelled the public to the streets over the weekend. The teenager's body was found on Aug. 1 after he had been abducted two months earlier and after his family reportedly paid millions in ransom.