| MEXICO CITY
MEXICO CITY Mexico's presidential candidates on Monday faced the families of people murdered, mutilated, and kidnapped in drug violence in a meeting that was marked by strong condemnations of corrupt police and politicians.
In a stark reminder of the rampant crime facing Mexico's next president, distraught family members burst into tears and shouted at the four candidates sitting at the table opposite them in Mexico City's elegant Chapultepec Castle.
"In your worst nightmares, you couldn't imagine what it is like to lose your child," said Margarita Lopez, whose daughter disappeared in the southern state of Oaxaca. "We are thousands of mothers with disappeared children."
More than 5,000 people have gone missing and around 55,000 have been killed in Mexico's drug war since President Felipe Calderon took power and launched a military offensive against cartels shortly after taking office in December 2006.
Calderon, who is constitutionally barred from running for re-election, also faced the opprobrium of angry relatives of the dead in a meeting last year.
Attacks on the contenders for the July 1 election were led by the Mexican poet Javier Sicilia, who has become a figurehead in the movement to end the drug war since his son was tortured and killed by suspected cartel members last year.
In Monday's encounter in the castle, which is sometimes used for public events, Sicilia scolded all the candidates, calling them "cold," "arrogant," and "superficial."
Addressing Josefina Vazquez Mota, candidate of Calderon's conservative National Action Party (PAN), Sicilia said:
"You represent a party that after 12 years leaves a huge graveyard of a country as an inheritance."
The latest polls show Vazquez Mota running in third place, and the relentless drug violence has hurt the PAN.
Sicilia was equally critical of front-runner Enrique Pena Nieto, who is on track to return the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) to power after a 12-year hiatus.
"How many criminals have gone unpunished and are still in the ranks of your party?" Sicilia asked.
By the time it lost power in 2000, the PRI was widely seen as corrupt, and it has been forced on the defensive after a former PRI state governor and an ex-state treasurer became embroiled in a money laundering probe in the United States.
Pena Nieto responded by reiterating campaign pledges to slash rates of murder, kidnapping and extortion.
The PRI candidate also promised to punish abusive police officers and soldiers and said he had learned to be wary of using force after violent clashes in 2006 between police and demonstrators while he was governor of the State of Mexico.
Pena Nieto faced criticism from some family members over that incident in the town of San Salvador Atenco, after which state police officers were imprisoned for human rights abuses.
Vazquez Mota also went on the defensive, apologizing for the government's failure to find disappeared family members.
"I know there is a lot of pain and I feel this pain not only in this room but in my travels around the country," she said.
Leftist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who is currently in second place in the polls, argued he did not deserve the same condemnation as the other candidates, but he too was taken to task by Sicilia, who said lawmakers on the left had also been charged in drug-related corruption cases.
All the candidates promised to work harder to solve the thousands of unsolved cases of murders and disappearances, which are likely be a major issue during the next administration.
(Reporting By Ioan Grillo; Editing by Paul Simao)