Mexico ups security amid concerns that cartels could attack bicentennial celebrations

MEXICO CITY (AP) — Mexico's capital will stage its grand bicentennial celebration Wednesday with military helicopters buzzing overhead, heavily armed federal agents and metal detectors. In some cities, the traditional festivities highlighted by shouts of "Viva Mexico!" won't happen at all because of fears of what the drug cartels might do.

The 200th anniversary of Mexico's 1810 independence uprising comes at a time when drug gangs have adopted increasingly brutal and seemingly indiscriminate tactics, including the massacre of 72 migrants last month.

The possibility that they might target bicentennial events is taken seriously enough that a half-dozen cities and towns have canceled celebrations for security reasons, others have scaled them back drastically, and most are taking extra security precautions or urging people to stay at home and watch the ceremonies on television.

"There is psychosis among people here because of what has happened, there is fear, the parents don't want to participate, the students don't want to participate," said Mayor Victor Luque Clemente, whose town of Guadalupe Distrito Bravos has canceled its "grito," the traditional celebration, in which a local leader shouts a series of "vivas!" to the country's founding fathers.

In areas with less drug violence where cities have decided to hold public events, the celebrations are expected to be bigger than usual because of the bicentennial. The turnout in Mexico City alone is expected to be well over 100,000.

Guadalupe is located in the Valle de Juarez, a valley east of the border city of Ciudad Juarez, where nearly 5,000 people have been killed in drug-related violence since 2009. Ciudad Juarez has also canceled public festivities, citing fears of attacks, and will hold a "virtual" grito via television.

Nationwide, more than 28,000 people have died in drug-related violence since President Felipe Calderon launched an offensive against drug cartels soon after taking office in 2006.

At least three other towns in northern Chihuahua state have also canceled Independence Day events. About five towns each in other drug-plagued states, Tamaulipas in the north and Guerrero in the south, have canceled festivities, but officials there say it was for economic or other reasons.

In cities where events are held, federal police and in some cases the army will assist in security work that is normally left to local police.

In Morelia — the capital of Calderon's home state of Michoacan — the central square on Independence Day would normally host a carnival of food and candy vendors, musical groups and fair rides. This year, the square will be closed off by police and soldiers for much of the day, and opened only for a few hours so residents can listen to a brief grito — after they are searched for weapons.

In 2008, assailants tossed grenades into Independence Day crowds in Morelia, killing eight people and wounding 106. That has been the only attack to date on an Independence Day celebration, and a drug cartel was implicated in it, though some of those arrested in the attack claim they are innocent and were forced to confess.

Authorities an experts differ on whether, or why, drug cartels would attack civilians on the bicentennial.

Earlier this month, Navy Secretary Adm. Mariano Saynez said, "I hope these people would have the sense not to do this," but noted "they (drug cartels) are no longer necessarily fighting us, the government, they are fighting directly against society."

Such attacks could be "a signal to the government to stop attacking" drug gangs," said Raul Benitez, a professor at Mexico's National Autonomous University who studies security issues. "It would be like saying, 'I have power, and I can destabilize the country.

"But it seems that that it might be ill-advised, because the more criminal or terrorist attacks they commit, the more power the government would have to move against them, because society would see it as justified."

Concerns that drug violence could hit Independence Day celebrations increased after cartels began using car bombs in northern Mexico and tossed grenades in public areas in recent months.

Such apparently mindless violence was on display in August, when gunmen believed linked to the Zetas gang massacred 72 mainly Central American migrants. While a survivor reported the gang killed the migrants after they refused an offer to work for the traffickers, authorities are still trying to understand what the Zetas could have possibly gained but have yet to find a logical answer.

Arrests and deaths have decimated the ranks of older, long-standing drug bosses. Those capos often tried to keep an appearance of peace, acting with a certain rationality and preferring bribes to bullets, Benitez said.

Mexican drug-war expert Jorge Chabat said the cartels "now have become very fragmented, and for that reason, they do not have a long-term vision and do things that do not immediately appear to have any logic."

Adm. Saynez suggested it may be a different breed of violence. "You can't talk about terrorism in the traditional sense ... but there are acts by drug cartels in which you can say they are using terrorist-type methods to spread alarm among the people," he said.


Associated Press Writer Olivia Torres contributed to this report.