President Felipe Calderon's pick for attorney general faced questioning in Congress on Monday amid criticism by human rights groups that he failed as a state prosecutor to solve the killings of hundreds of women in Ciudad Juarez in the 1990s.
Calderon has named Arturo Chavez Chavez to be the nation's top law enforcement officer at a moment when the government is locked in a bloody war against drug-trafficking cartels and the public's confidence in the justice system is low.
Chavez, 49, who belongs to Calderon's conservative National Action Party, or PAN, would take over for Eduardo Medina Mora, who resigned this month as part of a Cabinet shake-up. Medina Mora had come under attack for what political foes called the faltering drug war.
Chavez, a private attorney and onetime federal prosecutor, testified Monday before the Senate's 13-member justice committee, which will recommend whether he should be confirmed by the full Senate.
He said he focused his agency's efforts on solving the Juarez killings and that suspects responsible for 32 of the deaths were convicted during his tenure. But he also acknowledged failures by agents under his supervision.
The PAN holds a numerical advantage in the 128-seat Senate, but it lacks an outright majority. Chavez needs votes from the main opposition force, the Institutional Revolutionary Party, to win confirmation, but it is unclear whether he'll get them. Members of the leftist Democratic Revolution Party are expected to vote against him.
Rights advocates have lobbied the Senate to reject Chavez, taking aim at his tenure as attorney general in the northern state of Chihuahua, where more than 350 women have been killed in the border city of Ciudad Juarez since 1993.
Critics say Chavez, who held the prosecutor's job from 1996 to 1998, mishandled investigations. Despite some arrests, the grisly slayings remain largely unsolved. Advocates also accused Chihuahuan authorities of torturing suspects and manufacturing evidence.
A 1998 report by the National Human Rights Commission cited Chavez in noting failings in the state's handling of the cases, which former President Vicente Fox later put under the supervision of federal authorities.
Last week, demonstrators painted black crosses on the walls of the federal attorney general's office in Ciudad Juarez to protest Chavez's nomination.
Calderon has stuck by Chavez, an unknown in national politics, saying he had a good record in Chihuahua and would be a successful attorney general.
Interior Minister Fernando Gomez Mont told reporters that Chavez had improved the state prosecutor's office during his term. "He is a man respectful of the law, a calm man, a brave man," Gomez Mont said.
Mexico's attorney general plays a key role in the drug war, which was launched by Calderon shortly after he took office in December 2006. Government forces have made high-profile arrests and seized large amounts of drugs, guns and money. But critics say that effort has done little to corral the violent trafficking groups, which smuggle billions of dollars' worth of drugs into the U.S.
More than 13,000 people have died in drug-related violence in Mexico since 2006, largely the result of battles between rival gangs over coveted smuggling routes and drug sales. The most violent spot is Ciudad Juarez.