MEXICO CITY — Mexicans protesting the country's rising tide of violence set off for the capital Thursday in preparation for a massive rally scheduled for this weekend that could be a measure of whether Mexico's next government will continue President Felipe Calderon's crackdown on drug cartels.
On the eve of the protest, Calderon issued a passionate plea for support and said he'd never back down against organized crime.
"It is not an option to retreat from this struggle. To the contrary, we must redouble our efforts because if we stop fighting they will kidnap, extort and kill all over the country," Calderon said in a message aired nationwide Wednesday night.
Calderon, who leaves office in 2012, called on disheartened Mexicans to overcome their fears, despite the recent discovery of mass graves and the bloody violence that has claimed more than 35,000 lives since he came to office in late 2006. Most of the fighting has been between crime groups, but the violence has left Mexicans with a sickly feeling about the future of their country.
April alone brought more than 1,400 murders, according to one tally.
A civic movement against the drug war, sparked by a poet whose son was murdered by alleged gangsters in March, is the latest sign that many Mexicans see the conflict as "Calderon's war" rather than a national campaign.
Behind a banner that said, "We have had it! Stop the war!", hundreds of marchers set off toward the capital from Cuernavaca, a weekend resort city 50 miles away. The silent march blocked one of the nation's busiest highways.
How many people attend the Sunday rally scheduled for Mexico City's main square will be a crucial gauge of support for halting the drug war. Other marches and rallies are planned in 25 of the country's 31 states as well as in a dozen cities in Europe, Canada, the U.S. and Brazil, organizers said.
Poet Javier Sicilia, carrying a large green-white-and-red Mexican flag, told hundreds of followers that Calderon still isn't heeding a surging sentiment demanding a change in policies against drug gangs.
The bodies of Sicilia's 24-year-old son and six other people were found on March 28 crammed inside a vehicle near Cuernavaca. The victims were wrapped in masking tape. Police say members of Mexico's Pacifico Sur cartel were responsible.
The personal drama of Sicilia, a bespectacled poet and intellectual, has made him the most outspoken voice against Mexico's surge of drug-related violence.
Following his son's death, Sicilia said he'd abandon poetry and dedicate himself to stopping the violence wracking Mexico.
"The world is no longer worthy of words," he wrote in his last poem.
In a video message before the march set off, Sicilia said he was leading the civic campaign "because I don't want any other family to suffer the loss of a son as we are suffering due to a poorly planned, poorly executed, and poorly led war."
Calderon's message underscores that he's worried about falling support for his policies and the surging civic peace movement. He told his countrymen that he empathizes with their anxiety.
"I know that Mexicans feel disheartened and even fear over what is occurring. All of us feel saddened and offended by the aggression of the criminals," he said.
But he added that no government could turn a blind eye to criminal activity.
"Retreating would mean allowing things to grow worse," Calderon said. "If we retreat, we would let gangs of criminals roam through Mexican streets attacking people with impunity, and no one would stop them."
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