Felipe Calderon, the Mexican president, has apologised to victims of the country’s war with drug cartels during an emotional meeting with bereaved families, but said that far from regretting his decision to use the army, he felt he should have ordered them to act sooner.
Speaking during the event, which was broadcast live on television for several hours on Thursday, Calderon listened to accusations from people who had lost relatives in the violence that his government’s strategy had failed the Mexican people.
About 40,000 people have died since Calderon ordered the army to engage in a crackdown on drug cartels in 2006.
“As a father, as a Mexican and as president, I am deeply aggrieved by Mexico’s pain,” he said in a hall inside
Chapultepec Castle in central Mexico City.
“All those who work for the state are responsible, and I agree we must ask forgiveness for the people who died at the hands of these criminals, for not having acted against these criminals.”
Calderon’s ruling National Action Party has faced harsh criticism over its handling of the drug war, and polls suggest that the centre-right grouping will likely be displaced from power in the July 2012 presidential poll.
‘Ravages of war’
Thousands have marched in the streets against Calderon’s strategy of employing the army in the crackdown, and more than 200 groups signed a June 10 document calling for an end to the military offensive.
At the meeting, however, Calderon refused to apologise for that aspect of his government’s plan.
“If there’s anything I regret, it’s not having sent [the army] sooner,” he said, as the interior minister, attorney general, public security minister and other top officials looked on.
He said that the issue had now gone beyond drug trafficking, and was now “about organised crime and violence”.
Members of the grieving families, however, appeared to be unconvinced by Calderon’s arguments.
“I’m here representing the pain of all the Mexican mothers and all the people without support who suffer the ravages of this war,” said Maria Elena Herrera, a middle-aged woman whose four sons have gone missing, with tears streaming down her face.
“My sons are honest workers who were victims of this war. There are thousands of cases like this.
“Mr Calderon, this all demonstrates the government cannot safeguard justice. The only option the government leaves our sons is to condemn them to die because of this war.” Herrera said.
Also present at the meeting was Javier Sicilia, a well-known poet whose son was killed in drug-related violence.
Sicilia told the president that he was “obligated to apologise to the nation and in particular to the victims”.
Calderon, however, maintained that he would not apologise “for having acted against the criminals that are acting against the victims”.
“In that sense, Javier, you are wrong,” he said.
Though unusual, this was not the first time Calderon had met with victims of crime and drug-related violence, having organised a similar meeting last year in Ciudad Juarez, the city that has been the focal point of violence.
The violence in that city, meanwhile, continues, with Lieutenant Colonel Julian Leyzaola, the local chief of police, targetted in a failed assassination attempt on Thursday.
Leyzaola’s convoy was attacked by a group of gunmen. His bodyguards opened retaliatory fire, injuring one of the assailants, who was subsequently detained.
Following the incident, security forces cordoned off the area in the La Chavena neighbourhood of the city.
About 230,000 people have fled Ciudad Juarez over the last two years, as a war between drug cartels had led to a spiral of killings.