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Drug Violence Continues in Mexico, Public Remains Behind Calderon


This past weekend, gun battles between federal forces and drug cartel gunmen in Mexico claimed more than 20 lives. One of the bloodiest incidents occurred in the resort city of Acapulco, where soldiers killed 16 gunmen. But there are signs that the government is making progress in its war against organized crime.

Saturday night in Acapulco was livelier than usual, with gun shots and grenade blasts echoing through the streets near beachside hotels. The news reports are likely to further crimp Mexican tourism, already in a downturn after the emergence of the swine influenza A-H1N1 virus in Mexico in April.

But many Mexicans are hailing the fire fight in Acapulco as a victory for the cause of law and order since the soldiers defeated the drug gangsters, losing only two of their own, even though the criminals used automatic weapons and lobbed as many as 50 grenades at the soldiers.

Such victories politically benefit President Felipe Calderon, who declared war on the drug cartels shortly after he came to office in December 2006.

One of the top U.S. experts on Mexico, William Grayson at the College of William and Mary in Virginia, says Mexicans strongly support Mr. Calderon's fight against the criminal gangs.

"Calderon's public approval [rating] is now at 69 percent - the highest of his administration because the people perceive that he is a decent man that handled the swine flu outbreak judiciously and that he is doing his level best to combat the narco-traffickers," he said.

Grayson says this bodes well for Mr. Calderon and the ruling National Action Party, or PAN, in the July 5th mid-term elections.

"What Calderon and the PAN have very astutely done is focus attention on his war against drugs. And in so doing, they have diverted people's minds from the incredibly harsh economic conditions that beset the country," he said.

Grayson says Mexico's gross domestic product is likely to drop 5.5 percent this year due to the flu scare, the worldwide recession and declining production from Mexico's oil fields. But he says President Calderon has bolstered the nation's confidence and pride by taking on the criminal gangs and the corrupt officials who have allowed them to flourish.

"I was impressed that last month there was a strike [i.e., a police operation] in [the Mexican state of] Michoacan in which 10 mayors and 17 so-called 'public officials' were arrested, that there was not even the hint of a leak before that operation was carried out," he said.

Grayson says that while Felipe Calderon's campaign against the powerful drug lords is a necessary effort to protect the nation from criminal enterprises, it will not end narcotics trafficking.

"You really cannot win a war against these incredibly powerful, brutal, enormously wealthy cartels - either in the United States or in Mexico. The best you can hope [for] is to manage the hostilities and try to minimize the number of civilians who die," he said.

What Mr. Calderon may be able to accomplish, in Grayson's view, is substantial reform of Mexico's police and judicial system so that the public will have more confidence in its law enforcement system and be more willing to cooperate with authorities. He says drug smugglers will always be around, but that the government may have a chance to substantially reduce their power and their threat to public safety.

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