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Calderon tries to cut crime in Mexican drug war city

CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico (Reuters) - President Felipe Calderon flew to Mexico’s most violent drug war city of Ciudad Juarez on Tuesday as authorities sought to halt unrelenting bloodshed that threatens investment in border factories.

Calderon has pledged to crush drug gangs that have killed more than 6,800 people in the manufacturing city across from El Paso, Texas, since early 2008.

But Ciudad Juarez is proving to be the president’s toughest test, threatening public support for his army-led drug war.

Hundreds of soldiers and federal police lined highways and helicopters flew overhead as Calderon went to inaugurate parks and hospitals as part of the government’s plan to increase social spending and rebuild the depressed city.

But many in Ciudad Juarez say the military campaign against cartels has only provoked violence, while the government says surging violence reflects the cartels’ desperation.

“Calderon is coming to open a psychiatric center when he is the creator of our psychosis. How does he dare to show his face?,” said Rubi Guzman, a 23-year-old design student protesting with dozens of others in a city where many residents are too scared to venture out of their homes.

Calderon has staked his presidency on beating back the cartels, deploying more than 7,500 soldiers and federal police to Ciudad Juarez, but the military and federal police have yet to stop gangs fighting over smuggling routes into the United States and the city’s lucrative drug market.

Across Mexico, more than 29,000 people have died in drug killings since Calderon took office in December 2006.

The severed head of a Mexican policeman investigating the killing of an American tourist on the Mexico-Texas border was delivered in a suitcase to Mexico’s army on Tuesday, Aaron Pena, a state lawmaker in Texas, told Reuters. Mexican state authorities declined to comment.

In one of the latest attacks in Ciudad Juarez, drug hitmen shot dead two injured rivals outside a hospital as they tried to reach the emergency room on Sunday.

“It is very clear that there is no law in Juarez. The politicians live on another planet,” said Blanca Martinez, the widow of local journalist Armando Rodriguez, who was killed by hitmen outside his home in November 2008.

Some U.S. companies are holding off increased investment in Ciudad Juarez because of the violence, and middle-class residents are fleeing, threatening to leave the city of 1.5 million people without the skilled workforce it needs.

In an earlier stop in Chihuahua, the state capital to the south of Ciudad Juarez, Calderon urged state officials to redouble efforts to flush out corrupt police working for drug gangs and help stop young people being sucked into crime.

“We need opportunities ... for the thousands of young people who are targets of organized crime, who seek to make them life-long submissive clients as well as to hire them as hitmen,” Calderon told a meeting of new governors starting their terms from across Mexico who gathered in Chihuahua.

The federal government says that since February in Ciudad Juarez, it has handed out thousands of education grants, added hospital beds and given almost 140,000 more people access to free medical care. It has also renovated schools and increased university funding.

Writing by Robin Emmott; editing by Missy Ryan and Todd Eastham