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Mexican city warily awaits Independence Day celebrations

In Morelia, where eight people died in a grenade attack at the festivities last year, some events are canceled and new security measures are being implemented.

September 15, 2009|Tracy Wilkinson

MEXICO CITY — Mexicans begin celebrating their most cherished national holiday today, Independence Day, but indelible memories of unprecedented violence a year ago will make for a somber affair in some parts of the country.

Children's parades and outdoor parties have been canceled in many cities. Security is tight, with metal detectors set up at public squares where celebrations will take place.

Nowhere is the mood more subdued than in Morelia, capital of the western state of Michoacan and hometown of Mexican President Felipe Calderon. A year ago, it was the site of the first deliberate attack on civilians in an ever-escalating anti-drug war launched by Calderon.

It was just minutes before the traditional grito, a late-night cry for independence that re-creates the 1810 gesture by Mexican hero Miguel Hidalgo, which launched Mexico's rebellion against Spanish rule.

Mexicans everywhere pack into town plazas on the night of Sept. 15 to join in the grito, and then spend Sept. 16 celebrating independence.

In Morelia last year, as bells tolled and Michoacan Gov. Leonel Godoy began to emulate the cry, assailants tossed grenades into the crowded Colonial-era plaza. Eight people were killed and more than 100 wounded.

It was a traumatic affront, both for the target -- innocents uninvolved in the drug war -- and the timing, coming amid the most important tradition uniting Mexicans. Given the site, the attack also seemed a direct challenge to the president's authority and the offensive he has been pressing against cartels since December 2006.

Godoy declared that today will be a statewide day of mourning. But, speaking at a news conference Monday, he also said that the grito from the balcony above Morelia's town square will go ahead as scheduled. And so will a military parade planned for Wednesday.

At the same time, the usual street festival of music, food and dancing was canceled, Godoy's public security office said, and people arriving to join the ceremony in the plaza will for the first time have to pass through metal detectors.

"We have been working . . . to be able to provide the greatest guarantees for these patriotic celebrations," Godoy said.

The scars from the Morelia attack remain raw because the case has yet to be fully resolved.

Three men were arrested and said by authorities to be from one drug cartel -- having been turned in by another, the so-called La Familia organization, an especially ruthless and well-entrenched drug gang that controls much of Michoacan.

The three purportedly confessed and they remain in jail, awaiting sentencing. Their families Monday traveled to Mexico City to protest their treatment, alleging they had been tortured into confessing.

"They are scapegoats," Esperanza Fajardo, the wife of suspect Juan Carlos Castro, said in a telephone interview. The families say they have witnesses who can place the men in another city on Sept. 15 of last year.

Morelia Mayor Fausto Vallejo Figueroa on Monday accused federal officials of failing to keep the public informed about the case and who was really behind the attacks.

"We citizens of Morelia need to know with certainty what exactly happened," he said in comments carried by the official news agency Notimex.

In the year since, Michoacan has become one of the most tumultuous fronts in the drug war. A corruption probe by a secret, top-level team of federal government officials led to the arrests in May of dozens of mayors and other state officials in Michoacan who are accused of aiding La Familia.

In July, suspected members of La Familia launched coordinated attacks on police and security forces across Michoacan. Twelve federal agents were ambushed, tortured and killed, their bodies dumped at the side of a road, in one of the single bloodiest episodes.

Morelia is not the only place where security will be beefed up this week. Local and federal police, along with the army and, in some cases, the Navy, will be deployed in 13 of Mexico's 31 states, Mexican media reported, concentrating forces where the threat of violence is deemed greatest because of recent attacks and ongoing battles over territory among powerful cartels.

Yet in many parts of Mexico, the show will go on. Chilangos, or residents of Mexico City, would sooner jump off the Chapultepec Castle than forgo their grito party. Huge celebrations in Mexico City's vast downtown Zocalo, or central plaza, and in other parts of the sprawling capital promise to continue through the night and into Wednesday's wee hours. Security officials said 10,626 police will be deployed throughout Mexico City.

--

wilkinson@latimes.com

Cecilia Sanchez of The Times' Mexico City Bureau contributed to this report.

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