MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - Mexican President Felipe Calderon is launching a global public relations campaign to try to improve his country's image and neutralise coverage of the violent drug war scaring away tourists and foreign investors.
Calderon declared all-out war on drug cartels on taking office in late 2006, sending thousands of troops and federal police across Mexico to take on the heavily armed gangs running a multibillion dollar business.
The strategy has so far failed to curb violence and more than 23,000 people have died in drug violence over the past 3-1/2 years. Daily images of gruesome decapitations, charred and tortured bodies hung from bridges and brazen daytime shootouts are commonplace on the front pages of newspapers and evening news broadcasts.
Calderon, a strong-willed conservative, says he is turning to private advertising firms to launch an international image improvement campaign to show the world another, less violent side of Mexico, a country that depends on some 20 million tourists a year to boost its public finances.
"We are promoting a comprehensive advertising project in my government, primarily public relations, and we are hiring the best agencies in the world promote Mexico's image," Calderon said this week during a speech in the northern state of Baja California Sur.
"Yes, we will explain the problems we have, but also how we are facing them. Above all we want to show what our country has to offer, which is a lot," Calderon said.
The campaign, whose cost and other details were not disclosed, will be run out of Mexico's tourism ministry.
The timing of the charm offensive comes as Mexico is heading into local elections on July 4 in almost half of Mexican states and follows one of the worst spikes in violence as drug killings continue to escalate.
Nineteen drug addicts were pulled out of a clinic in northern Mexico, lined up and shot execution style last week. Earlier this week, 10 federal policemen were killed in an ambush in central Michoacan state, with drug traffickers barricading the road with buses to prevent their rescue. That same day 28 prisoners died in a gun battle inside a prison.
Many others have followed, including the killing of five police officers in wealthy Monterrey, once one of Mexico's safest cities, and 15 dead in a shootout with the army in the quaint, colonial town of Taxco in central Mexico.
In response to the killings, Calderon gave a televised address to the nation on Tuesday saying he will not give up. The attacks show cartels are weakened and fighting among themselves for shrinking smuggling routes, he said.
But public opinion polls say the majority of Mexicans think the drug traffickers are winning the drug war.
Ciudad Juarez, a major manufacturing centre near the border with Texas, has become one of the world's most violent cities with 5,500 drug-related killings in just 2-1/2 years. Factories are freezing investment as murders surge.
Analysts say a media campaign is not going to convince serious investors that Mexico is safe for doing business if the country fails to strengthen its institutions.
"The president is convinced that foreign investment is dropping off because of the security situation ... he wants to show a safer Mexico, a more advanced Mexico," Edgardo Buscaglia, a drug trade expert at Mexico City's private ITAM University, told Reuters.
"But the reality is, businessmen are still seeing people decapitated every day, ambushes ... that can't be solved by an advertising campaign," Buscaglia said.
Editing by Cynthia Osterman