CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico (Reuters) - Seeking to ease public anger at gruesome drug violence on the U.S. border, Mexican President Felipe Calderon announced aid for the area on Thursday but was short on detail as he struggles to reinvigorate his war on drug gangs.
The murders of a group of teenagers by gunmen at a high school party in Ciudad Juarez last month provoked outrage across Mexico, forcing Calderon into a new strategy of social spending to combat drug gangs.
“If those deaths ... mean anything it is that we need to change after that absurd sacrifice,” Calderon told a tense meeting flanked by cabinet ministers where he heard the emotional pleas of community leaders in the city across from El Paso, Texas.
Army helicopters flew overhead as federal police in riot gear dispersed dozens of students and activists who protested outside the convention center in Ciudad Juarez holding signs saying “army and police, leave!”
Calderon sought to reassure Ciudad Juarez residents, who deal with daily shootouts and have to witness murdered drug traffickers hung from bridges, with a promise of more schools, parks, clinics and welfare for the poor in the long-neglected city surrounded by shantytowns and garbage dumps.
Many were angry the president did not go to the neighborhood where the unprecedented high school shooting took place. Despite heavy security, one woman confronted him and told him “you are not welcome here”.
Thirteen teenagers and two adults died in the shooting, which police blamed on drug hitmen seeking rivals. Victims’ families deny the youths had any involvement with traffickers.
Since thousands of soldiers were first deployed in Ciudad Juarez almost two years ago, hitmen have killed more than 4,300 people in the city, making it one of the world’s most violent.
“Calderon’s afraid ... We want justice, we want him to resign,” said Luz Davila, whose two teenage children were killed in the January 31 shooting.
Calderon is still popular in Mexico but escalating violence threatens to undermine the middle-class support crucial for his army-led fight against drug gangs.
Ciudad Juarez is a major manufacturing center for exports to the United States and some U.S. companies have held off increasing their investment because of the violence.
The governor of Chihuahua state, where Ciudad Juarez is located, has asked Calderon for at least 3 billion pesos ($230 million) for the manufacturing city, which lacks paved roads and public transport.
More pledges could come over the longer term as Calderon focuses on creating jobs and building schools, while also keeping soldiers and police on city streets.
“Calderon is realizing you need a multidimensional strategy. You cannot just treat the drug gangs as a threat, send in the military to pound the city and expect everything to go back to normal,” said Tony Payan, a drug trade expert at the University of Texas at El Paso.
Officials in Ciudad Juarez say Calderon is hoping to emulate Colombia’s Medellin, which slashed murder rates of up to 6,000 deaths a year in the 1990s by creating jobs, enticing youngsters out of drug gangs and regenerating the city’s most dangerous shanty towns with museums and libraries.
Writing and additional reporting by Robin Emmott, editing by Jackie Frank