Mexico’s Calderon defends war on drug cartels

MEXICO CITY, (Reuters) – Mexican President Felipe  Calderon yesterday mounted a forceful defense of his crackdown  on drug cartels, saying the conflict that has cost thousands of  lives was the only way to beat the “cancer” attacking Mexico.

Calderon is under growing pressure to end the violence that  has killed more than 42,000 people in less than five years, and  he devoted nearly half of his annual state of the nation  address to rebuffing critics of his army-backed offensive.

Felipe Calderon

In an impassioned speech a week after 52 people died in an  arson attack on a Monterrey casino by suspected drug gang  members, Calderon said only by standing up to criminals could  Mexico end what he called the “slavery of criminality.”

“The only way to really put an end to this cancer is to  persevere with this strategy,” he said in his address that  lasted 1-1/2 hours. “We will defeat them.”

“If we had done nothing … the country would be completely  dominated by the cartels, crime would have grown to the extent  that the institutions of state would have ceased to work,  putting them at their disposal.”

The surge in violence under his presidency has rattled  foreign investors and hurt support for his conservative  National Action Party (PAN), which faces an uphill struggle to  secure re-election in a presidential vote next July.

Calderon said he had ordered a review of all casinos, which  analysts say have become targets for extortion by drug gangs.  This could lead to the closure of some gaming halls.

Holding one minute’s silence for victims of crime, he  announced plans for a new federal agency to help those  affected, which would aim to identify the dead, find the  missing and provide support to their families.

Latest polls suggest the main opposition Institutional  Revolutionary Party, whose 71 years of authoritarian and often  corrupt rule were ended by the PAN’s candidate Vicente Fox in  2000, will win the 2012 presidential elections.

The PRI is expected to field the popular outgoing governor  of the State of Mexico, Enrique Pena Nieto, who called for more  resources in tackling crime and security after the speech.

The country’s police forces needed to be more professional  and better-trained, Pena Nieto said, vowing to speed up the  building of new training centers for police and officials.

“At the end of the day the most important things are  coordination, clearly identifying the objectives and more  resources for issues like public security,” he told reporters.

CASINO ATTACK    
Security forces have captured or killed many senior  traffickers and Calderon says the violence is a sign of the  cartels’ weakness. But critics say his policy of using force to  bring down the cartels has made a bad situation worse.

Locals in the prosperous northern city of Monterrey were  appalled by the death toll after suspected members of the Zetas  drug cartel attacked the Casino Royale last Thursday.

Hitmen, local traffickers and police initially made up the  bulk of the drug war dead, but most of the largely female  victims in the Monterrey casino were middle class, the kind of  people who have made the city a PAN stronghold.

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