By Dave Graham and Miguel Angel Gutierrez
MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - President Felipe Calderon apologized to victims of Mexico's war on drugs in an emotional meeting with bereaved families on Thursday that sought to try and quell rising anger over violence sweeping the nation.
In a live television broadcast lasting several hours, Calderon sat in silence listening to accusations from grieving parents that his government was killing Mexico's youth and allowing criminals to run rampant across the country.
Some 40,000 lives have been lost since his army-led crackdown on drug cartels began at the end of 2006, and Calderon said he regretted the loss of life the violence had caused.
"As a father, as a Mexican and as president, I am deeply aggrieved by Mexico's pain," he said in a hall inside Chapultepec Castle in central Mexico City. "We must ask forgiveness for the people who died at the hands of these criminals, for not having acted against these criminals."
The drug war has hit support for Calderon's ruling National Action Party and polls suggest the center-right grouping will be ousted in a presidential election due in July, 2012.
Thousands of people have joined peace marches organized by poet Javier Sicilia, whose son was killed by gunmen in March and who urged Calderon at the meeting to renounce his strategy.
But the president refused to apologize for taking on the heavily-armed cartels with the armed forces.
"If there's anything I regret, it's not having sent them sooner," he said as the interior minister, attorney general, public security minister and other top officials looked on.
However, he conceded that the war was no longer only about drug cartels in Latin America's second biggest economy.
"It all started with drug trafficking, but the problem for me isn't about drug trafficking, it's about organized crime and violence," Calderon said in an often impassioned address.
Members of the bereaved families were not won over, and one by one they took turns to attack Calderon for failing to address rampant corruption and impunity afflicting Mexico.
RAVAGES OF WAR
By the time Interior Minister Francisco Blake invited Maria Elena Herrera to speak, the middle-aged woman could barely contain herself as she told Calderon and his aides how the state had done nothing to find her four missing sons.
"I'm here representing the pain of all the Mexican mothers and all the people without support who suffer the ravages of this war. My sons are honest workers who were victims of this war," she said with tears streaming down her face.
Alongside the thousands killed in the drug war, many more are missing after being kidnapped by the gangs.
"There are thousands of cases like this. Mr. Calderon, this all demonstrates the government cannot safeguard justice. The only option the government leaves our sons is to condemn them to die because of this war," Herrera said, her voice breaking.
Calderon rose to console Herrera after she spoke, putting an arm around her as she continued to cry.
Though unusual, the event was not the first time Calderon has met with victims of crime and drug war violence.
The 2008 kidnapping and murder of Fernando Marti, 14, son of a well-known businessman, sparked an outcry that prompted Calderon to hold a national, televised meeting with ministers and state governors in which he pledged to stop the violence.
Calderon staged a similar event last year in Ciudad Juarez, the city that has suffered the most violence in the drug war.
Javier Oliva, a security expert at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), said it was risky for Calderon to have taken the step and it showed him in a favorable light.
"But if there's no change in strategy, it's going to be a major problem for the Mexican state, not the government. The social, institutional and media damage that they're exposing the armed forces to is very serious," he said. "They are one of the few institutions which most Mexicans still respect."
(Additional reporting by Robin Emmott; Editing by Paul Simao)