Mexicans hold mass protests against wave of crime

Other News Materials 30 August 2008 21:14 (UTC +04:00)

President Felipe Calderon faced one of his biggest challenges Saturday as Mexicans prepared for mass protests against the tide of killings, kidnappings and shootouts sweeping the country, AP reported.

More than 13 anti-crime groups planned for tens of thousands of people to join marches in all 32 Mexican states Saturday evening, urging people to walk in silence with candles or lanterns. A similar march four years ago drew a quarter of a million people, and if anything, frustration with crime has only grown.

This week, a dozen headless bodies were found in the Yucatan Peninsula, home to Mexico's most popular beach resort, Cancun. Federal lawmakers responded by calling Public Safety Secretary Genaro Garcia Luna to testify before Congress on Wednesday.

Calderon raised hopes when he made fighting crime a priority after taking office in 2006, deploying more than 25,000 soldiers and federal police to wrest territory from powerful drug cartels that smuggle the vast majority of cocaine, marijuana and methamphetamines into the United States.

Despite the arrest of top drug kingpins, little has improved on the ground. Homicides have surged as drug cartels battle each other for control of trafficking routes and stage vicious attacks against police nearly each 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.

Reported kidnappings are up 9 percent, averaging 65 a day. Many more go unreported because victims fear police involvement.

Saturday's protests were inspired by the abduction and murder of a 14-year-old son of a wealthy businessman. The case provoked an outcry because prosecutors said a police detective was a key participant.

This week, another family's story shook the country. Silvia Escalera revealed that her 18-year-old daughter Silvia Vargas Escalera, whose father once headed the National Sports Commission, was kidnapped 11 months ago. The family agreed to pay a ransom but then lost contact with the kidnappers.

"I beg you to have mercy and return my daughter," Escalera said before news cameras after hanging a giant banner outside a public park with a phone number and photograph of her smiling daughter.

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 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.

Mexicans want swift results. At the meeting, Alejandro Marti, the father of the 14-year-old kidnap victim, demanded that Mexico's top law enforcement officers resign if the bloodshed does not subside.

"This a cancer that we are going to eradicate," Calderon promised during a televised address Monday. But he urged patience, warning that rooting out drug gangs and bringing security to the streets would not happen by decree.

Neither will cleaning up and bolstering Mexico's police.

In some northern towns, officers complain of having to share guns, and many have quit in terror after seeing colleagues killed in front of their homes.

More than half of Mexico's state and municipal police officers have only a primary education, making it difficult for them to aspire for the highest ranks and salaries. Many are tempted to join the payrolls of criminal gangs.

Police are "illiterate, sick, fat, old and corrupt," said Herberto Ortega, public safety secretary in Aguascalientes, a small state north of Mexico City. "That's why their response time during operations are slow."