Mexican leader asks for one year to reduce violence

Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto urged his countrymen Wednesday to give his anti-crime strategy one year to bear fruit as the wave of violence persisted, with gunfights, police killings and terrorized parents pulling kids from school.

In power for just over 100 days, Pena Nieto has vowed to lower the drug-related violence by tweaking the strategy of the previous administration that was marked by some 70,000 deaths between 2006 and 2012.

"We can take stock in a year," he told reporters in Rome after attending the inauguration of Pope Francis. "In a year we will be able to see, I hope, favorable results, a clear reduction."

Pena Nieto has promised to focus the strategy on reducing the everyday violence plaguing Mexicans, from murders to extortion and kidnappings. Part of his plan includes a nationwide crime prevention program to tackle the root causes of violence.

His predecessor, Felipe Calderon, deployed 50,000 troops across the country to battle drug cartels head on, but analysts say the strategy backfired because captures and killings of capos unleashed more violence between gangs vying for control of the business.

Pena Nieto has kept the soldiers in the streets for now, saying he will withdraw them once the violence comes down and a new paramilitary gendarmerie force is ready to replace them.

Meanwhile, the violence has continued unabated, especially in the northern states where cartels are fighting for control of lucrative drug trafficking routes to the United States.

In Monclova, an industrial city in the state of Coahuila, a shootout between gunmen and federal authorities broke out Tuesday in a hospital and school zone, prompting parents to pull their children out of classes. A federal police officer was killed.

The violence has engulfed the state of Mexico, which surrounds the capital, with the latest incident involving a gunfight between troops and gunmen armed with assault rifles and grenades that left 10 suspects dead on Tuesday.

In Ciudad Juarez, the city at the border with Texas that saw more than 10,500 deaths in the past six years, a commando killed two federal police officers.

"The cartels have thousands of gunmen and have morphed into diversified crime groups that not only traffic drugs, but also conduct mass kidnappings, oversee extortion rackets and steal from the state oil industry," the International Crisis Group think tank said in a report this week.

"The development of cartels into murder squads fighting to control territory with military-grade weapons challenges the Mexican state's monopoly on the use of force in some regions," it said. "Cartels challenge the fundamental nature of the state, therefore, not by threatening to capture it, but by damaging and weakening it."

Javier Ciurlizza, the crisis group's director for Latin America, told AFP that there was "no magic bullet" to reduce the murder rate.

It would be "more realistic to set short-term goals like cleaning up the police, transform the judicial system to combat impunity and create youth programs," he said.

The one-year period requested by Pena Nieto is reasonable in order to draw preliminary conclusions, focusing on "saving citizens in the most heavily hit areas" and reviewing the way cartels react to the strategy, Ciurlizza said.

The interior ministry's top crime prevention official, Roberto Campa Cifrian, told reporters that the social programs to steer young people off the gang life will begin to be launched between April and May.

The first phase of the program will cover 21.7 million people, or 19 of the 32 federal states in the country of 112 million people.

"We share the urgency of starting this program," Campa said. "However, we believe that it is very important to have a firm basis ... so that the program that the president committed to is an efficient program."