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Calderon defends drug war to skeptics at home

President Felipe Calderon wants to hire a public relations firm to improve his country's image over the drug war. He might want to start with convincing his own countrymen.
Felipe Calderon
In an image taken from television, Mexico's President Felipe Calderon speaks to the nation in Mexico City on Tuesday. Calderon asked Mexicans to support his fight against organized crime. Dario Lopez-Mills / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Gunmen slaughter 19 men at a rehab clinic. Sixteen bodies are dumped in a northern city. Twelve police officers die in an ambush. Soldiers kill 15 gunmen outside a tourist town.

All this in less than a week, yet President Felipe Calderon believes Mexico is getting a bad rap and wants to hire a public relations firm to improve its image. He might want to start with convincing his own countrymen, who are frustrated by assurances that the drug war is going well.

"No matter how much the authorities want us to believe that they are winning this fight, the reality and the perception is that, on the contrary, it's a lost battle," said Miguel Jimenez, 21, a student in Morelia, the capital of Calderon's drug-plagued home state of Michoacan. "Day after day, it's demonstrated with the increasing violence."

Calderon passionately defended his military-led offensive against cartels this week, pledging not to withdraw the thousands of soldiers and federal police battling gangs across the country.

He acknowledged violence has surged — often claiming innocent lives — but insisted it was a war worth fighting and that things are going as planned.

"The strategy is advancing in the necessary direction that was established from the start," Calderon wrote in a long essay posted on his office's website this week. "Some analysts say that it was a mistake to fight crime, that we should not have 'provoked' them." I think this perspective is mistaken."

Calderon said cartels are infiltrating every walk of Mexican life, from police and politics to businesses cowered by extortion demands. He insisted there is no choice but to fight them. If there is more violence, he said, it is because drug cartels are reeling and splintered. And his government is embarking on long-term solutions, including U.S.-backed training of thousands of police and prosecutors in modern investigative techniques.

No alternative?
Some Mexicans agree.

The essay "was received with skepticism among commentators in the press and radio, where it has been commonly accepted that the strategy has failed," wrote columnist Hector Aguilar in the Milenio newspaper Wednesday. But "among the critics, there is nobody proposing an alternative to Calderon's strategy."

But others are tired of hearing the same arguments from the president and seeing little difference on the ground.

"How long is Calderon going to believe that this war will be won or lost by sacrificing lives?" wrote Milenio columnist Ciro Gomez. "Or, as he said last night, that things will change in the medium term?"

The problem is the sacrifice is proving too much for many Mexicans who get caught in the crossfire.

Bloody horror
In the northern border city of Nuevo Laredo on Tuesday, soldiers chased down a group of gunmen who opened fire on their patrol. The gunmen crashed their car into a house where a woman was looking after her three grandchildren. A battle erupted, leaving one soldier and four of the gunmen dead. The grandmother and the children escaped unharmed.

Bernardo Carrizales, the youngsters' father, watched in horror from his house across the street.

"When I saw the crash, I ran to get my children but the soldiers wouldn't let me through and I was screaming because they were shooting at the house," Carrizales said. "Later, they let me through and I saw my mother splattered with (someone else's) blood and my three children behind her."

That wasn't the worst shootout Tuesday. In the picturesque tourist town of Taxco, south of Mexico City, soldiers battled suspected cartel members holed up in a house, leaving 15 of the gunmen dead and forcing residents to cower in their homes.

Farther west in Nayarit state, Gov. Ney Gonzalez ordered schools to close early this year because of rising violence, including shootings that killed 30 people in the Pacific coast state over the weekend. He said children should be home so parents "won't fret and worry about what is happening on the streets while the governor imposes order."

Critics see a disconnect between what's happening on the streets and Calderon's rhetoric.

While soldiers fought in Taxco, Calderon was in Southern Baja California to inaugurate a hotel. He announced a plan to hire a public relations firm "to demonstrate what our country has to offer, which is a lot, to any visitor of the world."

"His political nose has been compromised," said George Grayson, a Mexico expert at the College of William & Mary in Virginia. "They would like to improve their image but it's not within their control."

Part of the problem is that it's hard to keep up with each horrific tragedy.

Last week, Calderon met with the family of two young children killed two months ago in the northern border state of Tamaulipas. The military said they were caught in the crossfire between soldiers and gunmen, a claim disputed by the family and the National Human Rights Commission.

Calderon's office issued a short statement on the meeting with the family, but it was largely ignored.

By that time, Calderon was being criticized for going to South Africa for the World Cup in the midst of a crisis over the shooting death of a 15-year-old Mexican boy by a U.S. Border Patrol agent. Reforma newspaper published a political cartoon of Calderon running up the stairs of a South Africa-bound plane wearing a sombrero and shouting, "There are priorities!"

By the time Calderon arrived in South Africa, Mexico was reeling from two new horrors: a raid on a drug rehab clinic that left 19 people dead in northern Chihuahua City, and the bodies of 16 people found dumped in northeastearn Ciudad Madero. Calderon issued a statement condemning the rehab shooting.

Critics were not impressed.

"Calderon lives 'off side,'" wrote Arnoldo Kraus, using a football reference in a Jornada newspaper editorial Wednesday that criticized the trip.

"The problem is he doesn't know it."