In a state-of-the nation speech overshadowed by the death of 52 people in a casino fire, Mexican President Felipe Calderon said Friday that he will fight to the last day of his term to defeat the drug cartels that have taken over towns, police forces and institutions in parts of Mexico.
Calderon also announced the creation of a federal prosecutor dedicated entirely to victims of violence after much criticism that his government had downplayed as "collateral damage" the innocents caught up in wars among cartels and in his crackdown on organized crime.
The prosecutor's job will be to identify all victims so far, as the government has been asked to do, and find people who have disappeared at the hands of criminal groups, he said, "a major step to close the wounds that have opened in the country."
The president said he regretted that the insecurity gripping the country has overshadowed the progress he says his government has made in other areas, including economic stability, universal health coverage and access to primary education.
He promised to clean up corruption among police and federal attorneys by the time he leaves office in December 2012, and challenged the governors of Mexico's 31 states to do the same by next May. By that time, he said, they should have vetted all of their mid- and upper-level police commanders and prosecutors, and at least half of the rank and file.
"My commitment is to end my term with federal institutions of police and prosecutors completely renovated, trustworthy, honest and well trained," he said. "It worries me that at the rate we're going, only four states have concluded the vetting of all of their police forces."
Deadly casino fire
Mexico has tried many times in the past to clean up corruption among police and political ranks, with little result. A state police officer was arrested in connection with last week's fire in the northern city of Monterrey, along with five others who authorities say confessed to being members of the Zetas drug cartel.
The majority of the victims were middle-aged women who had gone to the Casino Royale to gamble or eat lunch and became trapped in the back of the building as they tried to flee their armed assailants, who spread gasoline at the front door, setting the building on fire. Authorities are investigating the crime as a presumed extortion attack by the Zetas.
Monterrey Mayor Fernando Larrazabal's brother, Jonas, also has been questioned in a casino-related corruption probe after videotapes became public earlier this week showing him in several casinos taking wads of cash, including one lot worth 400,000 pesos ($32,000).
Larrazabal's lawyer said his client was collecting money because he sold Oaxacan cheese and other products, setting off an epidemic of jokes in social media networks in which Mexicans coined the word "quesoborno," a combination of the word "cheese" and "bribe" in Spanish.
Despite it being his second-to-last year in office, Calderon gave what many considered an anticlimatic speech that repeated his standard stump delivery on the successes and failures of his government.
Among his standard points: Mexico will not regain peace by negotiating with or tolerating cartels. Less than a year before the next presidential election, violence-weary voters are giving the lead in early polls to the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, which ruled Mexico for 71 years and generally kept a lid on drug violence.
Many say it did so by negotiating ground rules with the traffickers that they not let their activities interrupt civilian life. Some Mexicans see returning the PRI to power as a way to stop the violence.
Calderon said that would not be the case.
"It's absurd to suppose that if the government backed out, the only result would be the utopian tranquility that some imagine," Calderon said. "The country would be totally dominated by cartels ... to the point of having state institutions at their service."
Calderon cut the usual fanfare around the delivery of his annual report to Congress out of respect for those who died last week, calling the attack "one of the saddest events for Mexico."
He declared three days of national mourning after the Aug. 25 fire and on Friday asked for a moment of silence for all victims of drug violence.