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Many Mexicans skeptical as Calderon defends drug war

| June 17, 2010 9:00 PM

MEXICO CITY (AP) - Gunmen slaughter 19 men at a rehab clinic. Sixteen bodies are dumped in a northern city. Twelve police officers die in an ambush. Soldiers kill 15 gunmen outside a tourist town.

All this in less than a week, yet President Felipe Calderon believes Mexico is getting a bad rap and wants to hire a public relations firm to improve its image. He might want to start with convincing his own countrymen, who are frustrated by assurances that the drug war is going well.

"No matter how much the authorities want us to believe that they are winning this fight, the reality and the perception is that, on the contrary, it's a lost battle," said Miguel Jimenez, 21, a student in Morelia, the capital of Calderon's drug-plagued home state of Michoacan. "Day after day, it's demonstrated with the increasing violence."

Calderon passionately defended his military-led offensive against cartels this week, pledging not to withdraw the thousands of soldiers and federal police battling gangs across the country.

He acknowledged violence has surged - often claiming innocent lives - but insisted it was a war worth fighting and that things are going as planned.

"The strategy is advancing in the necessary direction that was established from the start," Calderon wrote in a long essay posted on his office's website this week. "Some analysts say that it was a mistake to fight crime, that we should not have 'provoked' them. I think this perspective is mistaken."

Calderon said cartels are infiltrating every walk of Mexican life, from police and politics to businesses cowered by extortion demands. He insisted there is no choice but to fight them. If there is more violence, he said, it is because drug cartels are reeling and splintered. And his government is embarking on long-term solutions, including U.S.-backed training of thousands of police and prosecutors in modern investigative techniques.

Some Mexicans agree.

The essay "was received with skepticism among commentators in the press and radio, where it has been commonly accepted that the strategy has failed," wrote columnist Hector Aguilar in the Milenio newspaper Wednesday. But "among the critics, there is nobody proposing an alternative to Calderon's strategy."

But others are tired of hearing the same arguments from the president and seeing little difference on the ground.

"How long is Calderon going to believe that this war will be won or lost by sacrificing lives?" wrote Milenio columnist Ciro Gomez. "Or, as he said last night, that things will change in the medium term?"