Public dismay over Mexico's drug violence mixed with election-season jockeying have put President Felipe Calderon on the defensive amid finger-pointing over the carnage.
Following the slaying of a poet's son and discoveries of hundreds of bodies in mass graves in northern Mexico, critics have stepped up charges that the conservative Calderon is the author of a failed anti-crime strategy. A massive demonstration to protest the country's rampant violence is planned Sunday in Mexico City.
Calderon, in a series of recent comments, has sought to steer blame toward the violent drug gangs, which at times act with the help of police under the control of local authorities. The president has accused detractors of political aims, and vowed to continue his 4 1/2-year-old crackdown on drug cartels.
"The actions of criminals … must not divide us," Calderon said Thursday during a Cinco de Mayo ceremony in the city of Puebla. "Mexicans should put country before party."
The sparring has accelerated as the three main parties, including Calderon's National Action Party, or PAN, prepare for several more gubernatorial votes this year and a presidential election in 2012.
Outrage over the rising death toll, with more than 34,000 people killed since Calderon took office pledging to fight cartels, has already generated sporadic street protests.
In polls, more Mexicans say they believe traffickers, not government forces, are winning the drug war. The Mitofsky polling firm said in February that for the first time in its history, respondents ranked public safety above the economy as Mexico's worst problem.
Big crowds are expected again in Mexico City's main plaza Sunday to urge an end to the bloodshed. Hundreds of marchers set out Thursday from Cuernavaca, 60 miles south of the capital, and were expected to be joined by many more after reaching Mexico City.
The "March for Peace" was organized by Javier Sicilia, a poet whose 24-year-old son was among seven people seized by gunmen outside a Cuernavaca bar and killed in March. Last month, the elder Sicilia, who has written for left-leaning publications, organized protests in Cuernavaca, Mexico City and other cities that took sharp aim at the drug war.
Mexicans' disenchantment rose after authorities found nearly 200 bodies in mass graves in the northern state of Tamaulipas in April. Many victims are thought to have been U.S.-bound migrants kidnapped en masse from buses heading to the border. More than 120 bodies were discovered in a second northern state, Durango.
Leaders of the opposition Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, which hopes to retake the presidency, have raked Calderon on security.
The PRI president, Humberto Moreira, former governor of Coahuila, another northern state where violence has surged, said Calderon should declare himself "incompetent."
Moreira has also mocked the rightist PAN over the fact that drug lord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman remains at large. Guzman, who was captured in 1993, escaped from prison eight years later, after the PAN took power behind Calderon's predecessor, Vicente Fox.
"When the PRI governed, El Chapo was in prison," Moreira said last month. "Now that the PAN governs, El Chapo is on the street."
Leftist critics accuse Calderon of triggering violence by deploying troops for his anticrime drive, which they argue was designed largely to boost his standing after a razor-thin victory over Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador in the disputed 2006 election.
Lopez Obrador, a fiery leftist, appears poised to run again. Calderon is barred by law from seeking reelection.
Calderon administration officials say the arrests or killings by government forces of a number of top drug suspects show they are winning the crime fight, though without much help from state and local authorities. Many of the most violent zones have long been governed by the PRI.
In the town in Tamaulipas where bus passengers were seized, more than a dozen municipal police officers were arrested on suspicion of helping the Zetas gang carry out the killings. Tamaulipas is a PRI stronghold.
"It's unacceptable … that in San Fernando, the … municipal police were protecting and giving information to criminals, instead of protecting the people," Calderon said in a message broadcast Wednesday.
Sicilia and backers stuck with plans for the march even after authorities announced arrests of five suspects in the slaying of his son, Juan Francisco Sicilia, and the six others. Federal police say the younger Sicilia wasn't linked to crime.
The case has stayed in the news for weeks, as have some past incidents in which children of prominent Mexicans have been victims. After two high-profile kidnappings in 2008, hundreds of thousands of protesters took to the streets, but won few tangible results.
"The ones who are losing the war, suffering the war, are not the criminal factions or the government side," Sicilia declared Thursday at the start of the march. "It's us. We are the ones providing the bodies."