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Mexico killings: President Calderón visits Juarez to tout new social programs

President Felipe Calderón visits Ciudad Juarez today, just days after the Mexico killings of two Americans. He will tout new social programs aimed at improving life in the violence-wracked city.

By Staff writer / March 16, 2010

Military personnel inspect drivers at the US border crossing in the Mexican city of Juarez Monday. President Felipe Calderón heads to this border city on Tuesday to try to contain spiraling violence.

Alejandro Bringas/Reuters

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Ciudad Juarez, Mexico

If any place has spiraled downward in Mexico's bloody fight against organized crime, it is Ciudad Juarez, the grim border town where two Americans were shot dead in this weekend's Mexico killings. Here businesses get burned down if owners do not pay traffickers monthly “protection money” and residents live with the daily menace of kidnappings and daylight shootouts.

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Ciudad Juarez also epitomizes Mexican President Felipe Calderón's solution to the escalating drug war that has dominated domestic politics, partnership with the US, and media parley over the past three years.

Mr. Calderón sent a surge of military troops and federal police to Juarez in 2008 to reclaim this once bustling industrial city that has always drawn poor Mexicans from across the country and from where thousands are today fleeing. But, as the government has gotten tougher against crime, crime has only increased.

IN PICTURES: Mexico's drug war

Over the weekend, an American consular employee and her husband were shot dead in their car in broad daylight with their baby, unharmed, in the back seat. Almost simultaneously, in another location, the husband of another employee affiliated with the consulate was also gunned down and killed.

'Rock bottom' moment

The attacks, which will add to the pressure Mexico faces to solve its public safety problem, come after the city's – and the nation's – “rock bottom” moment in January, when 15 people were killed at a teen's birthday party. Most were young students without any apparent ties to drug gangs.

Residents took to the streets, demanding a change in tactic in a city where cars are forced past military checkpoints and masked federal officers in pickup trucks roll down the streets. Many demanded they all leave.

'We Are All Juarez'

While Calderón is not about to back down from his military strategy – still supported by many here who see the military as the only hope for order – he has responded to public anger with the acknowledgment that force alone will not solve the problem. Last month, he launched an ambitious new project dubbed “We are all Juarez” to create jobs, boost addiction programs, and build schools, parks, and galleries.

As Calderón visits Ciudad Juarez today to discuss the strategy, his third visit since the massacre, he will face many skeptics who say that the strategy is motivated by elections in the state this summer, not by a new way of thinking. So far it has been more promise than action. But officials call it a turning point that could be replicated elsewhere in Mexico.

Abelardo Prieto Escobar, the agrarian reform secretary who is overseeing the new strategy, says that the social element is key moving forward.

“We are not just fighting violence, but the origins of violence,” he says.

Fed up with the drug war

Mexico roundly supported Calderon's decision to dispatch some 45,000 federal forces across the country, but three years later over 18,000 people have been killed and impatience has mounted. In a recent poll by the Mexico City-based firm Buendia & Laredo, just over half the nation says the president’s fight has made the country more dangerous.

Nowhere is the population more rattled than in Juarez, across from El Paso, where cartels are battling for control over the US market. Of all the drug-related homicides in 2009, about a third of them played out here.

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