MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Im Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And Im Melissa Block.

In Mexico, 23,000 people have been killed in drug-related violence since President Felipe Calderon took office three and half years ago. Over the last two weeks alone, hundreds of people have been gunned down as drug violence there continues to escalate.

Calderon is ramping up efforts to win more public support for whats come to be known as Calderon's Drug War. The Mexican president said this week that the bloody offensive against the cartels isn't just his war, but an effort to make Mexico safe for all law-abiding citizens.

NPR's Jason Beaubien reports from Tepic, in the Pacific Coast state of Nayarit.

JASON BEAUBIEN: The Plaza Cigarrera in Tepic looks like a rather boring strip mall. But a few days ago, it was the scene of an intense firefight between cartel gunmen, the police and the Mexican military.

(Soundbite of a whistle)

BEAUBIEN: Jose Garcia works at the taxi stand out front, hailing cabs and helping people with their shopping bags.

Mr. JOSE GARCIA: (Foreign language spoken)

BEAUBIEN: Garcia says people heard the shots and started running. People were yelling: They're shooting, they're shooting. The gun battle went on for at least 20 minutes. Garcia, along with dozens of other people, took refuge in a low-end clothing store, where people can buy $10 soccer jerseys on credit.

Mr. GARCIA: (Foreign language spoken)

BEAUBIEN: All the businesses locked their doors, Garcia says. Some people were locked in the supermarket for more than an hour. Bullets ripped through the playland at the adjacent Burger King.

Ulyses Ramirez, who's a cook at the fast-food outlet, says eight windows shattered, but no customers were hurt.

Mr. ULYSES RAMIREZ (Employee, Burger King): (Foreign language spoken)

BEAUBIEN: There was a lot of panic. There were children, Ramirez says. The bullets were entering the restaurant. He says everyone threw themselves to the floor and eventually, the staff herded all the customers into the kitchen. The shootout left eight presumed drug cartel members and one policeman dead.

Tepic is a small city of just 300,000 people. It's the capital of the Pacific Coast state of Nayarit. If this had been a lone shootout, maybe residents would have written it off as a fluke and moved on. But shootings like this have become common as the Sinaloa cartel fights members of the Beltran-Leyva organization for control of Tepic.

After 30 people were gunned down last weekend, the governor seized control of the local police, called on President Calderon to send in more federal cops, and shut the public schools statewide.

Mr. RAMON PEREZ (Retired Teacher): (Foreign language spoken)

BEAUBIEN: Ramon Perez, who's a retired teacher, says the governor did the right thing in closing the schools. He's making sure that none of the bullets hit any of the students, Perez says. The governor basically is sending the kids out on summer vacation three weeks early.

There had been several shootings near schools. Last week, the assistant director of the local prison was gunned down, along with his wife and bodyguard, as he dropped his kids off at school.

This violence is happening all across Mexico. According to the national newspaper El Universal, 96 people were assassinated in drug-related violence on Monday alone, the highest daily death toll since President Calderon declared war on the cartels in December of 2006.

(Soundbite of gunfire)

BEAUBIEN: And the next day, the killing continued. In the tourist town of Taxco, south of Mexico City, soldiers fought a 40-minute gun battle with alleged cartel hit men. The confrontation was captured by a Televisa cameraman. It left 15 people dead.

As frustration with the drug war grows, President Felipe Calderon this week tried to rally the Mexican people behind the effort. On Monday, he published a 5,000-word defense of the strategy in several newspapers. Then on Tuesday, he gave a passionate televised address to the nation, calling on Mexicans to join in the fight against organized crime - although he acknowledged that this fight will not be easy.

President FELIPE CALDERON (Mexico): (Foreign language spoken)

BEAUBIEN: It's worth the effort to continue on with this fight, Calderon said. It's worthwhile in order to build a free and safe country. And he said: To give up in the drug war would be to abandon Mexico, and leave it in the hands of organized criminals.

More than halfway through his term and with violence reaching new peaks, Calderon said the drug war won't be quick. But he said it's a war that quote: We will win.

Jason Beaubien, NPR News, Tepic, Nayarit.

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