In Mexico, little to cheer for during bicentennial

MEXICO CITY, Mexico — The yellow skulls and bones of the 14 heroes sit in glass crypts decorated in gold engravings and red ribbons in the national palace, a testament to old glory.

These remains of leaders who fought for Mexican independence from Spain in 1810 or in the revolution against dictatorship in 1910 were put on public display to celebrate two centuries of the Mexican nation — a moment to be rejoiced tonight.

But rather than inviting cheer, staring at the dead reminds many Mexicans of the security crisis engulfing their country today, in which images of corpses are also displayed daily in newspapers and television screens.

“It is sad that while these men fought for us to have a country, people today are now destroying it with so much killing and massacres and kidnapping,” said Roberto Salazar, a teacher visiting the exhibit in the historic center.

Such sentiments are heard widely across Mexico in the final days before the 200th independence day.

“What is there to celebrate?” asks a columnist in Mexico City’s best selling El Universal newspaper, before summing up a dismal state of affairs — rampant murder, a struggling economy and mass emigration to the United States.

Since President Felipe Calderon took power in 2006 there have been more than 28,000 drug-related homicides, making it the worst wave of violence in eight decades. The fighting between rival armed bands and federal troops also reminds people of the revolutionary and independence wars — although those conflicts killed hundreds of thousands.

This year, attacks have increasingly targeted politicians, including assassinations of three mayors in the last month, prompting U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to say the violence resembles an insurgency.

The bloodshed has even physically impeded celebrations. Several towns and cities have canceled festivities altogether in fear of attacks.

Among them is Ciudad Juarez, the city that has the highest murder rate on the planet and was the recent scene of a car bomb that killed three people.

“First comes the safety of the population,” said Juarez Mayor Jose Reyes Ferriz. “Because of threats, because of criminal activities that exist in Juarez, we don't want to take any risks.”

Two years ago, assailants tossed grenades into a crowd celebrating Independence Day in the central city of Morelia, killing eight revelers.

Festivities in Mexico City will be going ahead this year, with the government trumpeting an out-of-this-world firework display, light show and procession.

Calderon himself plans to lead these events, ringing a bell in the capital’s central square, known as the Zocalo, and shouting the immortal phrase “Viva Mexico.” This tradition dates back to founding father Miguel Hidalgo who rang the church bells to call for revolution against Spain in 1810.

But critics say that while Calderon has lined up these festivities his administration has generally done a poor job of organizing the “Bicentenario” celebrations.

The government had promised the party of the century and set aside $250 million to bring it on.

However, major construction projects planned for the day, including a bicentennial monument, a bicentennial park and a refurbishment of the Palace of Fine Arts are all half finished.

Furthermore, Calderon has failed to capitalize on the day with better cultural projects and campaigns to raise people’s hopes, critics say.

“This could have been an opportunity to wake up the nation, to give people some optimism,” said journalist Carlos Loret de Mola on a TV debate. “But Calderon has let this opportunity pass.”

In their defense, administration officials say they have been too busy to spend time organizing a party.

Federal police last week nabbed one of the most wanted drug traffickers, Edgar Valdez, known as The Barbie Doll, because of his light brown hair and blue eyes. Born in Laredo, Texas, Valdez was allegedly behind mass graves, snuff videos and the traffic of tons of drugs into the United States.

Mexican officials also had to deal with the massacre of 72 Central and South American migrants on Aug. 22 by gangsters apparently trying to extort them.

Following that horrific incident — which is considered to be the worst atrocity in Mexico in recent decades — Calderon had to calm anger in the migrants’ home countries of Honduras, El Salvador, Ecuador and Brazil.

Mexican poet Homero Aridjis writes that such incidents close to independence day call for a deep reflection about where Mexican society is headed. As he penned:

“Two hundred years after Mexican independence and 100 years after the revolution, when we ask ourselves if were better off under the domination of the Spanish, the French or the United States, a phrase of the Argentine Arturo Jauretche comes to mind, 'You can change the collar, but it doesn’t stop being a dog.'”