MEXICO CITY Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto has said that organized crime has gained the upper hand in a violent part of the country, in unusually frank comments about the difficulties his government is facing to subdue powerful drug cartels.
Speaking to Mexican media on board his plane late on Thursday after a trip to the Gulf port of Veracruz, Pena Nieto said he was determined to restore order to the western state of Michoacan, where 22 people were killed in clashes on Tuesday.
"There have been areas left, or which unfortunately organized crime has won, which is why we have this operation which began a few weeks ago," Pena Nieto said in comments broadcast on television on Friday.
Pena Nieto took office in December pledging to restore order in Mexico after the previous government spent six years struggling to contain rampant drug-related violence that has claimed well over 70,000 lives since the outset of 2007.
Government figures show the death count has fallen slightly under Pena Nieto, but parts of Mexico remain wracked by fighting between the gangs and their confrontations with security forces.
Roughly 1,000 people are dying every month in bloodletting linked to the cartels, official data show.
Gun fights and bloody stand-offs have plagued Michoacan for years, and it was there that Pena Nieto's predecessor Felipe Calderon first sent the army to try and bring the gangs to heel soon after taking power in December 2006.
Unlike Calderon, who staked his reputation on crushing the gangs and frequently referred to the government's efforts, Pena Nieto has opted for a much more low-key approach and top officials have sought to reduce publicity given to the cartels.
Michoacan has looked particularly vulnerable since Fausto Vallejo became governor last year. Vallejo has been on sick leave for much of his time in office.
Earlier this month, Pena Nieto scored a notable success when the Navy captured Miguel Angel Trevino, boss of the Zetas cartel, arguably Mexico's bloodiest.
Analysts said the operation in northern Mexico in which Trevino was captured without a shot being fired suggested the armed forces may be improving their intelligence gathering. But questions about Pena Nieto's strategy against the gangs remain.
On the campaign trail last year, the president promised to shake up the state's response with a new militarized police force, or national gendarmerie. But hopes that it could quickly relieve the armed forces have been disappointed so far.
Pena Nieto had conceived the gendarmerie as a force of around 40,000 members, but that has been scaled back and the initial contingent is likely to number just 5,000.
(Reporting by Dave Graham and Lizbeth Diaz; Editing by Philip Barbara)