CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico (Reuters) - Crowds of protesters slammed President Felipe Calderon’s military crackdown on drug cartels as he flew to Mexico’s most violent city on Tuesday, three days after gunmen killed two Americans and a Mexican linked to the local U.S. consulate.
Hundreds of demonstrators held signs reading “government assassins” as Calderon arrived in this border town with U.S. Ambassador Carlos Pascual to meet officials and try to reassure Mexicans and Washington that his army-led crackdown on drug gangs is the best way to curb their violent turf wars.
“Calderon has no idea what he is talking about. He lives on another planet,” said Susana Molina, one of many activists gathering around the hotel where Calderon was due to speak and which was surrounded by dozens of soldiers and elite police.
Calderon sought to shift some of blame for Mexico’s drug trafficking problem, suggesting Washington should do more to cut Americans’ drug consumption. “It is crucial that the fight against organized crime be tackled with a shared responsibility between both countries,” he said.
Violence has exploded in recent months as ruthless, heavily armed cartels flush with profits from U.S. drug sales battle for control of the desert manufacturing city across the border from El Paso, Texas.
Mexicans generally support Calderon’s military-led drug war but polls suggest a loss of confidence in the offensive. Many Mexicans want a genuine reform of corrupt police forces that aid drug gangs, effective criminal investigations and an end to the culture of impunity that allows cartels to flourish.
In an apparent escalation of tactics, suspected drug hitmen on Saturday killed an American woman working at the city’s U.S. consulate and her U.S. husband as they left a birthday party. A Mexican man married to another consulate employee also was shot dead after he and his wife left the same event.
The bodies of Lesley Enriquez, who worked in documentation for U.S. citizens, and her husband, Arthur Redelfs, were driven into El Paso on Tuesday in black funeral cars under heavy security, saluted by customs officials.
U.S. officials have played down suggestions Enriquez was targeted because of her work but Washington has expressed outrage and authorized the departure from Mexico of families of U.S. government staff at consulates along the border.
U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano offered words of support to Mexico and pledged to make the border a safer place for trade. El Paso is one of the United States’ safest cities, but U.S. authorities fear violent crime is beginning to bleed over the border and take hold in Arizona.
“We’ve been working to strengthen our own defenses along our southwest border to guard against any spillover violence,” Napolitano said in an interview on MSNBC.
Canada warned its citizens on Tuesday against going to Ciudad Juarez, once a freewheeling destination for tourists seeking tequila, sex and cut-rate dentistry but now rated one of the world’s most murderous cities.
Despite thousands of troops and elite police deployed across the country, drug violence has killed nearly 19,000 people since Calderon took office in late 2006.
Calderon already was the target of anger after the slaying of 15 people, mainly teenagers, at a party in Ciudad Juarez in January. The violence has provoked an exodus of people and some U.S. companies have frozen investment in the city’s factories.
Calderon plans to increase spending on schools, jobs and drug rehabilitation clinics to try and lure youths from cartels but few here see that quickly stopping the daily murders of up to a dozen people, often on busy avenues.
Additional reporting by Tabassum Zakaria in Washington, writing by Robin Emmott, editing by Anthony Boadle