Reporting from Mexico City — Mexican President Felipe Calderon on Wednesday delivered an uncommonly blunt and dispiriting assessment of the broad sway held by violent drug traffickers throughout the besieged country.
From the "most modest little towns" to major cities, Calderon said, traffickers attack, intimidate and blackmail Mexican citizens as part of an illegal business that goes far beyond the simple transport of narcotics.
"Their business is no longer just the traffic of drugs. Their business is to dominate everyone else," Calderon said. "This criminal behavior is what has changed and become a defiance to the state, an attempt to replace the state" by exacting war taxes and taking up arms more powerful than those used by outgunned government forces.
Calderon was speaking in what appeared to be unscripted remarks during the last day of a three-day conference on national security held in Mexico City that has included the participation of church leaders, academics, security officials, business and civic groups and journalists.
He said the government would press ahead in its military-led battle against drug cartels. But in the unusually bleak portrait that he offered, he acknowledged the need to significantly alter the drug war strategy to include education as well as addiction and jobs programs and to involve greater segments of society, including religious groups.
More than 28,000 people have been killed in drug cartel-related violence, according to data newly released by the Mexican national intelligence service, since Calderon launched the offensive against drug trafficking shortly after taking office in December 2006.
"If the government were to stop fighting the criminals, there are those who think this would end the violence. I doubt it," Calderon said. "But are you really saying to me, Mr. President, don't mess with the criminals and let them just take away the Mexican people?"
Calderon for the first time said he would welcome a debate on whether drugs should be legalized, a controversial and politically fraught topic. On Tuesday, several participants in the conference urged legalization. Calderon warned that such a measure could endanger Mexican youth by making harmful drugs even more available.
Although Mexico last year decriminalized small amounts of some drugs, government officials, partly in response to U.S. pressure, have resisted further liberalization.
But Calderon's office issued a statement late Tuesday saying that while he remained opposed to legalization, he no longer opposed a debate.
"Drugs no longer taboo," headlined an editorial in El Universal newspaper, praising the president's change of heart as "democratic." Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, one of the main U.S. groups favoring legalization, also hailed Calderon's comments as a "big step forward" toward ending the violence and called on President Obama to join the debate.
At the conference, Calderon came under withering criticism from some participants who said the government had failed miserably in keeping the Mexican public informed about strategy and progress in the drug war.
"This has sowed desperation among the Mexican people," Roman Catholic Cardinal Norberto Rivera said.