MEXICO CITY – Facing wide public indignation over Mexico’s crime epidemic, President Felipe Calderon on Thursday proposed new steps to fight kidnapping and other violent offenses.
He called for anti-abduction squads, special high-security prisons with separate areas for kidnappers, closer tracking of cell phones and more aid for local authorities.
Calderon summoned governors and police officials from across Mexico to chart a way out of a crisis that has dominated the news and put the nation’s leaders on the defensive.
Government officials, representing all three main political parties, and activists filled an ornate hall in the National Palace with resolute-sounding talk that was often long on generalities.
The gathering, formally known as the National Public Safety Council, endorsed Calderon’s proposals, which carried target dates for completion and calls for watchdog panels to monitor progress.
Calderon said a “cancer of criminality” developed in Mexico over decades of impunity, official corruption and societal neglect.
“This is not about looking to the past to find those to blame for our current ills,” he said. “The reality is we are all to blame.”
The crime issue has dominated the Mexican agenda since the killing this month of a 14-year-old kidnapping victim, Fernando Marti. The kidnapping, which appeared to involve at least two Mexico City police officers, tapped deep resentment over impunity and corruption.
The boy’s father, Alejandro Marti, a wealthy businessman, fought back tears as he urged policymakers at the forum to make substantive changes and said they should quit if they were unable. “Today is our opportunity,” he said.
New polls show wide public support for tougher criminal sentences, including the long-unused death penalty, which was formally barred three years ago.
The crime issue has touched off political jousting months before next year’s midterm congressional elections. Calderon, a conservative from the National Action Party, has traded jabs with the leftist mayor of Mexico City, Marcelo Ebrard, over whose government was more to blame for the fatal outcome in the Marti case.
The once-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, has stepped up its criticism of Calderon’s crime policies. Manlio Fabio Beltrones, a PRI senator, this week attacked the strategy as simplistic and ineffective.
Calderon said he hoped the crime summit would improve coordination between federal authorities and state and local officials who have jurisdiction over many serious offenses, including murders and most kidnappings.
But many Mexican commentators had already dismissed the gathering as an exercise in damage control.
Calderon has made the crackdown against drug traffickers and organized crime a centerpiece of his 20-month-old administration, sending 40,000 troops and 5,000 federal agents into the streets.
That campaign has yielded arrests of some important traffickers and significant drug seizures. But it has also produced frightening violence across much of the country as drug gangs fight government forces and battle each other for control of smuggling routes.
At least 2,500 people have been killed in drug-related violence this year, according to unofficial tallies by the Mexican media.