MEXICO CITY – MEXICO CITY (AP) — President Felipe Calderon tried to rally frustrated Mexicans behind his increasingly bloody drug war Thursday, saying he knows violence has surged under his watch, but arguing that it is the price of confronting powerful and brutal cartels.
Calderon delivered his annual state-of-the-nation address two days after his government brought down the third major kingpin in less than a year. But it also came less than two weeks after the massacre of 72 migrants near the U.S. border, which laid bare how freely drug traffickers operate in pockets of the country, no matter how many capos are captured.
"I am well aware that over the past year, violence has worsened," Calderon said. "But we must battle on."
Calderon has struggled to maintain support for a fight that was hugely popular when he first deployed tens of thousands of soldiers and federal police to drug-cartel strongholds across the country in late 2006.
Since then, gang violence has become more shocking, with beheaded bodies hung from bridges and police discovering pits filled with dozens of slain cartel victims. Gangs have employed warfare tactics previously unseen in Mexico, including car bombs and blockades in front of police stations and army garrisons.
Underscoring the point, a shootout later Thursday between soldiers and suspected cartel gunmen in Tamaulipas state, near Texas, left 25 suspects dead.
The gunbattle began after an airborne patrol over Ciudad Mier spotted gunmen in front of a property. When troops moved in on the ground, suspected gang members opened fire. A military spokesman who was not authorized to be quoted by name said the property was a ranch controlled by the Zetas drug gang. No soldiers were killed, but two were injured.
A debate now rages in Mexico: Critics, especially Mexicans who live in the most violent cities, believe the government is losing control. Calderon and his supporters argue the violence is a sign drug gangs are reeling and fighting with each other as their bosses fall one by one.
"If we want a safe Mexico for the Mexicans of the future, we must take on the cost of achieving it today," Calderon said.
Calderon's supporters include the U.S. government, which backs his fight with millions of dollars in aid.
Although Mexico's violence increasingly worries Washington — President Barack Obama sent more National Guard troops to the border last week, and the State Department pulled the children of American diplomats out of the northern city of Monterrey — U.S. officials say they don't believe drug cartels are growing stronger.
"I don't know that I would characterize it as more powerful, but I would certainly say they are more aggressive," said David Johnson, assistant secretary of state for international narcotics, who was in Mexico City this week.
Calderon got a major boost with the capture Monday of Texas-born Edgar Valdez Villarreal, alias "La Barbie," who is wanted in three U.S. states for cocaine trafficking and had turned central Mexico into a bloody battleground as he fought a rival for control of the Beltran Leyva cartel.
U.S. and Mexican officials hailed the arrest as the product of deeper cooperation between the two countries and the improving intelligence capabilities of Mexican federal security forces.
Authorities have expressed hope that more cartel leaders will be captured with the help of Valdez, who seems to be cooperating with investigators.
Federal police released a video of La Barbie discussing a meeting several years ago in which Mexico's top cartels reached a nonaggression pact. Valdez told police that Sinaloa cartel leader Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman — the world's most powerful drug trafficker by some accounts — was the first to break that pact two years ago when he tried to wrest smuggling routes through the northern state of Chihuahua from the Juarez cartel. That fight — which U.S. law-enforcement officials say El Chapo has largely won — has turned the border city of Ciudad Juarez into one of the world's deadliest.
Authorites say Valdez also told interrogators he worked in drug trafficking and transported cash hidden in trailers. Valdez's attorney, Kent Schaffer, met with his client for the first time Thursday and said Valdez was reading from a script given to him by police.
"The things he said were printed out for him, and he read it," Schaffer told The Associated Press.
He said he will request that Valdez, a U.S. citizen who is in Mexico illegally, be deported for prosecution in the United States.
Two other major capos have been killed in shootouts with the Mexican military since December: La Barbie's boss, Arturo Beltran Leyva, and Ignacio Nacho Coronel, No. 3 in the Sinaloa cartel.
Calderon touted the military's work, and added that Mexican officials also had made 34,515 drug-related arrests over the past year, including more than 700 gang leaders.
And yet the cartel operatives still at large continue to kidnap, extort and kill with impunity.
"No cartel is desperate," said Federico Toto, a school teacher in Monterrey. "Ask those who are going to take La Barbie's place, for example, if they are 'desperate.' The only thing (security forces) are achieving is that the trash at the bottom rises to the top. It's a cycle."
In his speech, Calderon didn't mention how many of the drug suspects arrested this year were convicted — or even charged. According to the report he handed over to Congress, just 12 percent of criminal investigations under his administration have ended in convictions. Government figures obtained by the AP show that three-quarters of the drug suspects arrested have been freed.
Calderon said that he has started to tackle that problem with U.S.-backed training of federal police and a massive reform of Mexico's secretive, inquisitorial justice system.
But until such a reform takes place, criminals "have no fear of the government," said Mexican drug-war expert Jorge Chabat. "They have no fear at all they are ever going to be brought to justice."
The shortcomings of Mexico's criminal-justice system were on full display earlier this week when a cartel suspect's trial ended with his acquittal on kidnapping charges.
During Jose Luis Carrizales' yearslong trial, several police officers, prison guards, a judge and a defense attorney were killed. On Tuesday, authorities transferred Carrizales to a prison in the northern state of Tamaulipas, where he faced murder charges.
He was killed by other prisoners hours after his arrival.
Associated Press Writers E. Eduardo Castillo in Mexico City and Mark Walsh in Monterrey, Mexico, contributed to this report.