- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 31, 2008

MEXICO CITY (AP) | More than 150,000 frustrated Mexicans, many carrying pictures of kidnapped loved ones, marched across the country Saturday to demand that authorities act to stop a relentless tide of killings, abductions and shootouts.

The mass 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.

A sea of white-clad demonstrators carrying candles filled the 2 1/2-mile route between Mexico City’s Angel of Independence monument and the main Zocalo Square. The government estimated the crowd at 50,000 shortly after the march began, but thousands continued to pour into the streets. Thousands more marched in other cities across the country.

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

Mr. 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 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.

Kidnappings are up 9.1 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 the 14-year-old son of a wealthy businessman. The case provoked an outcry because prosecutors said a police detective was a key participant in the plot.

This week, another family’s story shook the country. Silvia Escalera revealed that her 18-year-old daughter Silvia Vargas Escalera, whose father headed the National Sports Commission under the previous government, 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,” Mrs. Escalera said before news cameras after hanging a giant banner outside a public park with a phone number and photograph of her daughter.

Having staked his presidency on improving security, Mr. Calderon wasted no time in responding to the rising anger.

“This a cancer that we are going to eradicate,” Mr. Calderon promised during a televised address on Monday.

Last week, he summoned governors and mayors to a national security meeting, drawing up a 74-point anti-crime plan. It included developing better police recruiting and oversight systems within a year and coming up with an anti-kidnapping strategy within six months.

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