Mexican president says poverty now first priority

AP News
Posted: Nov 26, 2009 1:04 AM

Mexican President Felipe Calderon said Wednesday that the top priority in the second half of his term will be reducing poverty, after the war against drug cartels took center stage in the first three years of his administration.

Calderon launched a major offensive against drug cartels shortly after taking office in December 2006, and as recently as June of this year said that "our most important objective as a government is crime, and organized crime."

But with the offensive bogged down amid drug-related violence in some Mexican cities, and government figures showing a significant increase in poverty, Calderon set a new priority in a speech Wednesday.

"This is our conviction, which has led us to make a significant reduction in poverty the first priority for my administration in the three remaining years ... and particularly extreme poverty," Calderon told an anti-poverty conference in Mexico City.

In a previously taped interview aired Wednesday, Calderon said "my objective from here on is to greatly reduce poverty, by taking the Opportunities program to places it doesn't exist," referring to a program that gives cash grants to families for keeping children in school and giving them medical care.

In the interview with the Televisa news network, Calderon said job creation was "my greatest commitment to the public, and will continue to be."

Figures published in July by the government showed that extreme poverty in Mexico _ defined as people who cannot buy enough food _ rose from 13.8 million in 2006 to 19.5 million in 2008, in a country of almost 107 million inhabitants. A broader poverty definition, including families who could not meet housings, transport, education and other normal costs, reached 50.6 million, up from 42.6 million in 2006.

Analysts and observers said that with the drug war showing mixed results and the cartels continuing to recruit impoverished or unemployed youths as gunmen, a change in course may have been needed.

"I see this as something positive in a way, given that the offensive against organized crime is not going to yield results," said Samuel Gonzalez, Mexico's former top anti-drug prosecutor. "Given the country's situation, they have to focus on trying to solve the problem of poverty."

Calderon's two biggest problem _ drug cartel conflicts and poverty _ are related, Gonzalez noted. "The cannon fodder comes from the poorest sectors of society, and so I think it is very important to focus on that issue."

Javier Oliva, a political scientist at Mexico's National Autonomous University, said Calderon may have changed tack because the war on drug trafficking has not had the results he hoped for."

Oliva said the change of course suggest the administration is improvising. "They lack a defined strategy," he said.

In the interview aired Wednesday, Calderon made it clear he wasn't dropping the offensive against drug cartels.

"Here the choice cannot be between combatting organized crime, as we are doing, or watching it take over Mexico, the way it was taking over Mexico before we acted," Calderon said.

"The only alternative is to combat and destroy" organized crime, he said, "and we are going to destroy it."

By law Calderon cannot run for re-election. He is the second consecutive president from the right-center National Action Party.

The Mexican government says it remains committed to fighting organized crime, and that the increase in poverty rates is largely due to the international financial crisis and the economic downturn in the United States, Mexico's largest trading partner.

In the speech Wednesday, Calderon acknowledged that funds for anti-poverty programs would be tight, in part because of a steady drop in oil revenues.

"One thing we must do, in the face of scarce resources, is to use those (anti-poverty) programs that have been scientifically demonstrated to be effective."