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MEXICO UNDER SIEGE

Calderon presents Mexico's annual report in written form

A new law allows President Felipe Calderon to give his state of the nation report without having to appear before Congress, a move that avoids disturbances.

By Ken Ellingwood

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

September 2, 2008

MEXICO CITY

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There were no shoving matches at the door, no showdowns at the dais. Not a catcall was uttered.

Instead, Mexican President Felipe Calderon on Monday delivered the annual state of the union report to Congress only in written form, skirting the sort of pandemonium that had broken out the previous two years.

Mexican presidents traditionally address Congress on Sept. 1 to open its session. But a change in the law allows them, for the first time since the Mexican Revolution nearly a century ago, to present the annual informe in writing to avoid the circus-like drama that was becoming a yearly ritual.

Calderon's interior minister, Juan Camilo Mouriño, delivered the document to Congress. A copy in Spanish is also available on the Internet at www.informe.gob.mx.

In the 524-page report, Calderon said his government had chalked up successes in its 21-month-old campaign against drug traffickers, citing some high-profile arrests and record cocaine seizures.

Crime, especially kidnapping but also the drug violence that has killed more than 2,600 people this year, is Mexico's hottest issue. In the report, Calderon said public safety was his top priority.

"The federal government has acted firmly and decisively to strengthen the rule of law and guarantee public security," said Calderon, of the conservative National Action Party.

He claimed solid stewardship over the economy in the face of a global downturn and rising food prices. Though the nation's annualized inflation rate has climbed to 5.39%, its highest level in 3 1/2 years, Calderon said it was among the lowest in Latin America.

The president said his administration had worked to keep food prices down despite worldwide increases. He has removed import restrictions and worked with the country's food industry to freeze prices on 150 pantry staples. Still, food inflation has soared to nearly 10%.

The orderly delivery of this year's report was a far cry from last year, when Calderon made it no farther than the top step of the congressional dais amid protest by leftist lawmakers who charged that his 2006 election victory was fraudulent. He ended up delivering the report in writing.

Nine months before that, rival lawmakers had come to blows over control of the dais when Calderon was inaugurated in December 2006.

His predecessor, Vicente Fox, was halted at the front door when he showed up to present his final informe in September 2006 amid protests over the disputed Calderon victory two months earlier.

Some commentators have recently lamented the change, saying that avoiding the rough-and-tumble of direct debate wasn't necessarily good for Mexican democracy.

"The informe will prevail only in the sense of the start of the legislative session," columnist Liebano Saenz wrote Saturday in the Milenio newspaper. "Society loses, and the republic too."

Calderon enjoys relatively high approval ratings despite economic problems that have cut Mexicans' buying power and a crime wave that prompted a huge protest march over the weekend.

The Reforma newspaper published a poll Monday showing that Calderon's public approval had slipped slightly to 62%, from 65% a year earlier. That is roughly in line with other recent polls.

The president has succeeded in winning passage of several initiatives, including a judicial reform package that will bring U.S.-style oral court trials to Mexico for the first time.

But two big challenges lie ahead: overhauling the state-owned oil company, Pemex, and defeating drug traffickers in the offensive Calderon launched upon taking office.

Mexico's Senate held weeks of hearings this summer on Calderon's plan to grant the private sector a bigger role in modernizing Pemex. He argues that Mexico needs outside help to boost its dwindling reserves.

Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, defeated in the disputed 2006 presidential race, and lawmakers from his leftist Democratic Revolution Party say Calderon wants to privatize the oil giant, viewed by many Mexicans as a national symbol.

The crime issue may be even more fraught. Public ire is high over persistent kidnappings, and the government has yet to show it has gained the upper hand over drug traffickers.

News of the drug war daily carries fresh horrors, such as the discoveries Thursday of 12 decapitated bodies in the Yucatan peninsula.

ken.ellingwood@latimes.com