Mexico's president addresses nation

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Mexico's President Felipe Calderon gave his annual 'state of the nation' speech today. He acknowledged that drug-related violence is on the rise despite his government's crackdown but urged Mexicans to stick with him. Correspondent Franc Contreras has more.

MARCO WERMAN: I'm Marco Werman and this is The World, a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH Boston. Mexico's President Felipe Calderon gave his annual ?state of the nation? speech today. He delivered a written version to the Mexican Congress yesterday. Both versions touted his government's progress in the fight against drug trafficking cartels. Today, Calderon acknowledged that drug-related violence is on the rise. But he said the violence is a sign that his crackdown on the cartels is working. And he urged Mexicans to stick with him.


FELIPE CALDERON: This fight is worth it. If only because the safety of our citizens is at stake. And if we want Mexicans in the future to inherit a safer Mexico, we have to take on the cost of achieving that goal today.

WERMAN: Reporter Franc Contreras is in Mexico City. Franc, meantime Mexico's death toll continues to rise in the wake of the battle on the cartels. How does Mr. Calderon's message go over with Mexicans?

FRANC CONTRERAS: Well, the president urged his countrymen to really support this fight. On a number of occasions during this speech, he said on live national television, Marco, that this is the most important issue facing Mexicans. But when you go on to the streets, out into the countryside, and you talk to the people, I've been told personally that actually no, they're not as worried about drug trafficking violence. That's because the vast majority of Mexicans aren't feeling it directly. They're mostly worried here about the economy, their pocketbooks, their ability to make a living. And right now that's still a very difficult thing.

WERMAN: So are you saying that a lot of Mexicans are not focused at all on this war on the cartels?

CONTRERAS: Well, Marco, people here watch it on a daily basis because that's about all you see on the television news here. On a day to day basis, as I say, decapitations, bodies hanging from public places, bridges and this sort, murders. You keep hearing about the story about last week's murder, the massacre of immigrants here, and so people are sort of inundated with this. But when you talk to them on a personal level, there are really other problems, kind of how to find a job, things like that. I mean unemployment here remains fairly high.

WERMAN: It seems almost Orwellian for Calderon to suggest that the spike in violence shows the crackdown on the cartels is working. Do Mexicans buy that?

CONTRERAS: An increasing number of Mexicans do not buy that. They believe that the president's efforts to use the full force of the state is just only going to lead to more violence. And a growing number of those people, Marco, are innocent bystanders. Children, we have a horrible story here of a mother who was driving her SUV through a military checkpoint and suddenly the soldiers decided to open fire and they killed her children. You know, growing number of Mexicans are doubting is this really the way forward? And you hear people talking in the streets here, at least in the capital, about the possibility of legalizing. It's not really something that will fly politically, but people are looking for other solutions. They're not convinced that the war on drugs, taking it to the front lines, is the way forward.

WERMAN: Now, I've got to ask you about a curious side to President Calderon's state of the nation address in Mexico City. He delivered, as I indicated, a written copy of it to Congress yesterday, but did not, as Mexican presidents traditionally do, deliver the speech in front of Congress. Where did he give it and why didn't he do it traditionally in Congress?

CONTRERAS: Well, President Felipe Calderon broke entirely with this country's tradition on delivering that annual state of the nation address, called the [SOUND LIKE] Informate. This time he delivered it to a very safe and placid crowd in the national palace, that's in the main plaza here in the capital, far away from the Congress where he would face tremendous heckling. If he decided to do it before the Congress, you could imagine, Marco, he would probably have been heckled out of his suit. And so he decides to take a safer route and do it here in front of governors, diplomats, and even some of Mexico's most important business leaders like Carlos Slim, one of the richest men in the world. And the reason is partly because Felipe Calderon when he took office, a good number of his countrymen believed that he entered illegitimately. There was a tremendous debate at the time in 2006 over that year's presidential election and there were many people who believe that Calderon may have gotten into office on the basis of fraud. And so the Congressmen on the left and the center-left of this country are still fighting him over that point. For that reason, he won't confront them directly.

WERMAN: Reporter Franc Contreras in Mexico City. Always good to speak, Franc. Thanks a lot.

CONTRERAS: Thanks. I'm glad to be with you.