Mexico's Calderón popular, despite massive protests about his drug strategy

Mexican President Felipe Calderón’s approval rating has risen slightly to 54 percent, despite setbacks in the drug war.

Carlos Jasso/Reuters
A balloon is seen as people take part in a march in Mexico City on May 8, Thousands of Mexicans on Sunday marched into the capital city to protest the wave of killing that has claimed 36,000 lives since President Felipe Calderón launched his war on drug gangs in late 2006.

More than half of Mexico approves of Felipe Calderón's presidency, according to a new public opinion poll, despite the appearance otherwise from nationwide protests over the weekend calling for him to end his military-led strategy to the drug war.

Today, a day after tens of thousands protesters marched into the capital demanding peace and a new strategy against crime, the polling firm Buendia & Laredo released a survey showing President Calderón’s approval rating at 54 percent – a bit less than in 2010 but not by much.

Critics of Calderón’s military-led strategy against drug trafficking, which has taken some 36,000 lives since he was inaugurated in December 2006, say their complaints have increasingly fallen on deaf ears.

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But when specifically asked if Calderón’s work toward combating drug trafficking has been good or very good, 50 percent of respondents said it was, up from 46 percent in November of 2010. Commissioned by the Mexican daily El Universal, the poll reveals that the public continues to back Calderón’s emphasis on security even if they disapprove of the way it is being implemented, says firm director Jorge Buendia.

“[One] must differentiate between the ends and the means,” Mr. Buendia says. “For the means, the strategy, people are not very happy or are unhappy with it. It has translated into more violence, but the objective they are very supportive of.”

And that, he says, gives Calderón the room to continue forward amid condemnation of his fight, one most analysts say he is unlikely to back down from as long as he is in office. Indeed, a day before the massive peace march set out from Cuernavaca on Thursday – culminating in Mexico City on Sunday – Calderón went on the airwaves reiterating the need not to change strategy but to redouble efforts. “There is no option to pull out of this fight,” the president said.

At the same time, Buendia adds, the poll does not mean that Calderón can dismiss the weekend peace protests, the growing archive of critical opinion articles and editorials, or the condemnation from academics, politicians, and activists.

Javier Sicilia: Mexico can 'rise from ruin'

The latest display of anger came Sunday at the conclusion of the peace march led by Javier Sicilia, a poet whose son was killed allegedly at the hands of drug traffickers in March.

“If we have walked and arrived here in silence it's because our pain is so great and so profound, and the horror that causes it so immense, that there are no words to describe it," he said in a speech. "We still believe that it is possible for the country to be reborn and rise from ruin and show the agents of death that the sons and daughters of this country are standing up."

Authorities have said the younger Sicilia was not involved in trafficking. While the government has long maintained that the far majority of the tens of thousands of drug-related homicides are drug traffickers themselves, many innocent victims have been killed, kidnapped, and tortured.

Mr. Sicilia also demanded the ouster of Mexican Public Safety Secretary Genaro Garcia Luna, considered the architect of Calderón's strategy of deploying tens of thousands of federal police and military across the country since December 2006. While the government claims many successes, including the arrests or killings of at least 20 drug trafficking leaders since 2009, many say the splintering of groups has in turn led to more violence.

When Calderón took office, beheadings made front page news. In today’s atmosphere of violence, beheadings barely shock any more. Instead, more macabre news has dominated headlines, including bodies being pulled from graves in northern Mexico, many apparently innocent migrants en route to the US.

Protests spark calls for debate

Public security has become the top concern of Mexicans, ahead of the economy – a trend that has been growing since November of last year, according to the new Buendia & Laredo poll.

Even if no one expects Calderón to change his strategy – especially with public support from the US, where he is visiting this week – many hope the march Sunday will provoke more debate.

“The options that Calderón has given have been simplistic: Either you support the strategy, or you are asking for the surrender of the state,” analyst Jose Antonio Crespo wrote in El Universal, which culled opinions about what lies ahead after the peace march. “It is more complicated. I hope that after the march debates, forums, ideas, and more marches continue.”

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