August 31, 2008 in Nation/World

Tens of thousands rally against violence in Mexico

Trafficking-related carnage prompts nationwide protests
By ALEXANDRA OLSON Associated Press
Associated Press photo

Demonstrators hold candles at Zocalo square in Mexico City. A coalition of anti-crime groups organized protest marches in all 32 Mexican states on Saturday.
(Full-size photo)

A deadly year

More than 2,600 people have died in drug-related violence in Mexico so far this year, according to unofficial counts by Mexican news outlets.

MEXICO CITY – More than 100,000 frustrated Mexicans, many carrying pictures of kidnapped loved ones, marched across the country Saturday to demand government action against a relentless tide of killings, abductions and shootouts.

The mass candlelight protests were a challenge to the government of President Felipe Calderon, who has made fighting crime a priority, and deployed more than 25,000 soldiers and federal police to wrest territory from powerful drug cartels.

Cries of “enough” and “long live Mexico” rose up from a sea of white-clad demonstrators filling Mexico City’s enormous Zocalo square. Protesters held candles as they sang the national anthem before dispersing.

“We can no longer live, we can’t be safe anywhere,” said Enrique Contreras, a 42-year-old salesman who said he has been robbed several times, most recently last week. “I hope those in government do their jobs. Otherwise, they should resign.”

City officials refused to give a crowd estimate, but the Zocalo can hold nearly 100,000 people. Tens of thousands overflowed into surrounding streets, unable to squeeze into the square. Thousands more protested in cities across the country.

In the capital, Romana Quintera, 72, wore a T-shirt with a photograph of her baby grandson, who was kidnapped for ransom five years ago when gunmen burst into her home and killed her niece. Two people imprisoned for the attack have refused to reveal the boy’s fate, and Quintera said investigators have given up on the case.

“We’re desperate,” she said, holding back tears. “We ask authorities with all our heart to be more sensitive. Maybe nothing like this has happened to them, or they would be more sensitive.”

Despite the arrest of several drug kingpins, little has improved on the ground since the Calderon government began its crackdown.

Homicides have surged as drug cartels battle for control of trafficking routes and stage vicious attacks against police nearly every day. In the gang-plagued border state of Chihuahua alone, there have been more than 800 killings this year, double the number during the same period last year.

Last week a dozen headless bodies were found in the Yucatan Peninsula, home to Mexico’s most popular beach resort, Cancun.

While impoverished Mexicans stage almost daily strikes and protests, Saturday’s marches brought out thousands of middle-class citizens who are often the targets of kidnappings. The protest was inspired by the abduction and murder of the 14-year-old son of a wealthy businessman – a case that provoked an outcry when prosecutors said a police detective was a key participant in the abduction for ransom.

Having staked his presidency on improving security, Calderon responded to the rising anger by summoning governors and mayors to a national security meeting, drawing up a 74-point anti-crime plan.

It included plans for better police recruiting and oversight systems, as well as an anti-kidnapping strategy within six months. The Defense Department promised to equip police with more powerful automatic weapons.

Calderon has urged patience, warning that rooting out drug gangs and bringing security to the streets would not happen by decree.

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