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Politician's slaying highlights depth of Mexico's violence

  • Story Highlights
  • Gunmen shoot and kill president of Guerrero state congress in Mexico
  • Officials say they don't know who's responsible or a possible motive
  • "This is a big blow to our congress," one official says
By Arthur Brice
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(CNN) -- Armando Chavarria Barrera became the latest sad note Thursday in a dirge Mexico has been humming bitterly for nearly three years.

Chavarria, president of the Guerrero state congress in southwestern Mexico, was gunned down in his car as he left his house. One bullet hit him in the forehead, another in his chest.

With those two shots, Chavarria joined the more than 11,000 people who have been killed since President Felipe Calderon declared war on drug cartels upon taking office in December 2006. More than 1,000 of those victims have been soldiers, police and other officials, Calderon said recently.

"Things here are pretty much out of control," said John Mill Ackerman, a professor at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. "Things have just been getting worse."

Officials said they did not know who shot Chavarria.

"This is in the context of the general violence that we have throughout the country, but I can't offer a hypothesis as to his cowardly assassination," Carlos Alvarez Reyes, a member of the local congress, told CNN. "We are consternated."

An increasing number of Mexicans say they are beyond consternation. In a poll by the Milenio newspaper last month, only 28 percent of Mexicans said the government is winning the drug war.

"Generally speaking, people are really outraged," said Ana Maria Salazar, a TV and radio political commentator who lives in Mexico City.

"The high level of discontent with the results of the so-called war against organized crime has to do with a couple of things," Salazar said. "First, when Calderon made the decision to have a frontal attack on these organized crime groups, I'm not sure he was fully aware that these organizations would react and that they would attack violently."

The cartels, Salazar said, "went from business mode to survival mode."

Calderon's war also revealed an awful truth, Salazar said.

"Secondly," she said, "because of what the government has been doing, we finally understand how entrenched and powerful these organizations are."

Andrew Selee, director of the Mexico Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars, sees a "disconnect" between what Calderon is trying to achieve and what the public wants -- and fears.

"One of the challenges the Calderon administration faces is that they have defined crime primarily as drug trafficking, but citizens are concerned primarily about kidnappings and other ordinary crimes," Selee said.

Salazar makes the same point, saying that Calderon "has not been paying attention to other crimes in Mexico that impact peoples lives much more, like kidnappings and carjackings."

That's the lawlessness that worries Mexicans much more, she said.

"Every day we wake up in the morning and we are afraid to send our kids to school," she said.

Chavarria's killing came a day before the one-year anniversary of the Accord for Security, Justice and Legality, an effort by social groups and business leaders to force the government to do something about the soaring violence. Federal, state and municipal authorities agreed to 74 principles in the accord, ranging from a promise by Calderon to strengthen police and justice institutions to a pledge by state officials to increase efforts to fight kidnappings.

By most accounts, the government has failed miserably. One of the groups that signed the accord, Mexico United Against Delinquency, says only seven of the principles have been met.

"We don't believe in accords anymore. Even the authorities don't trust each other," said group member Ana Franco, adding that, "We are in a state of national emergency."

That feeling is understandable, Selee says.

"People get frustrated over time when they don't get results," he said.

Calderon and his attorney general went on the offensive this week, saying that Mexico has fewer slayings than some other Latin American countries and that Mexicans should quit complaining.

While acknowledging that violence is a major problem, Attorney General Eduardo Medina Mora Icaza said killings have decreased in the past 15 years. There were 18 murders for every 100,000 Mexicans 15 years ago, he said, but that rate was down to 10.7 in 2008.

And countries like Colombia, which had 33 slayings for every 100,000 citizens last year, are much worse off, Medina said in a speech Monday. Brazil had nearly 40 killings per 100,000 people, he said, and Guatemala and El Salvador more than 50. The murder rate is even higher, Medina said, in Louisiana and Washington, D.C.

Calderon told Mexicans in a speech Wednesday to quit bad-mouthing their country.

"Speaking poorly about the country is for many not just a daily effort, but they live off it, I would say," Calderon said. "Speaking well of Mexico, speaking about the advantages that Mexico has, is an effort that should be recognized,"

Like Medina, Calderon also compared Mexico's murder rates with those of some other countries.

But some groups who signed the 74-principle accords say crime and violence have gotten worse in the past 12 months.

"If, far from improving, security gets worse, that's a result of the lack of concrete commitments by public authorities to defeat impunity and insecurity," said Jose Antonio Ortega of the Citizens' Council for Public Security.

Calderon's argument may not be playing well with the public.

"I'm outraged," Salazar said. "He's saying that some bad Mexicans are trying to promote a bad image about Mexico. ... They are trying to justify what they have done or not done and say things are not that bad."

It's a missed opportunity, Selee said.

"They haven't figured out yet quite how to harness the frustration that people feel about public insecurity," he said.

CNN en Español's Mario Gonzalez contributed to this report.

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