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Mexico's Calderon takes popular — and dangerous stand against cartels

MEXICO CITY — Mexicans have lost faith in many of their institutions, recent polls show, but not in President Felipe Calderon, who boosted his shaky presidency by launching a military offensive against drug traffickers.

The results have been mixed — violence is on the rise with the nearly 2,700 killings in eight months, equal to all of the violent deaths in 2007. News of 10 people or more slaughtered in single incident is not unusual.

"Finally one government — the Felipe Calderon government — is doing something about it (the violence)," said Victor Lachica, chief executive of Cushman & Wakefield Mexico, a commercial real-estate firm.

Beyond mobilizing some 40,000 troops, who have confiscated drugs, weapons and destroyed illegal marijuana and poppy plants, Calderon has kept a high profile in the war; attending funerals of fallen law-enforcement agents, visiting troops and warning that the war to regain peace will be long, costly and probably mean a considerable loss of life. He also extradited several well-known drug traffickers to the United States in January 2007 — among them Osiel Cardenas and Hector "El Guero" Palma.

However, the wave of violence has taken a toll, and the traditional 70 percent approval rating for sitting presidents has slipped to 60 percent for Calderon, the conservative National Action Party leader who took office Dec. 1, 2006. Mexicans have criticized the Calderon government for failing to stem kidnappings and extortion, and protests have mounted over human rights abuses by troops.

Calderon has tied his name to a war with no end is in sight. "We are determined to leave the country much more secure," he said in a Sept. 2 radio interview.

Since Calderon's party does not control Congress, the 46-year-old former energy minister increasingly has turned for legislative support from the long-time rulers of Mexico, members of the Institutional Revolutionary Party. But there are signs the PRI backing may waver as the country's three political forces gear up for midterm elections next July.

Senator Manlio Fabio Beltrones, the PRI powerbroker, recently blasted the Calderon government and warned that Mexico was headed for a "perfect storm'' because of economic stagnation, political strife, the extremes of poverty and wealth and the rising bloodshed from the drug war.

Calderon has not accepted responsibility for the problems, Beltrones said in an interview in the daily El Universal. "He is going around looking for someone to blame."

Contending with the violence is only one of the challenges Calderon faces — along with rising inflation, sluggish economic growth, and a national debate over Pemex, the ailing state-run oil corporation.

Washington has embraced Calderon's anti-drug offensive, with Congress approving some $400 million in aid for the counter-narcotics effort under the so-called Plan Merida.

One of the big problems facing Calderon and his predecessor, according to Mexico specialist Pamela Starr, are the vestiges of the PRI's authoritarian rule.

Political changes were enacted not for democracy but to shore up the PRI's hold on power, said Starr, a senior lecturer at the University of Southern California. The reforms backfired on the ruling party, leading to an opposition-controlled Congress in 1997 and the election of the opposition candidate, former President Vicente Fox, in 2000.

"These reforms were never designed to create democracy in Mexico, much less an efficiently operating one," Starr said.

But no one is giving up on democracy yet, especially in a country clouded with the violence of organized crime.

Just days after Calderon was showered with petals in Puebla, his opponent in the bitter 2006 presidential race, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, stood adorned with a garlands of flowers before supporters in Guerrero and — with his eyes on the 2012 presidential contest — called on Mexicans to resolve their differences at the ballot box.

(Bussey reports for the Miami Herald.)


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