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Bullet-dodging mayor fights Mexican drug cartels

Three days after he was inaugurated Mayor of Garcia, a working class suburb of Monterrey, Mexico, 10 truck loads from the Zeta drug cartel showed up at Jaime Rodriguez Calderon's house planning to kill him. They didn't get him, but they did gun down his chief of security and four body guards who tried to intervene.

That was just the beginning.

Since taking office in November of 2009, Mr. Rodriguez has survived two more assassination attempts, including one last March that involved about 40 Zetas carrying machine guns and riding in a convoy of 15 trucks. The gang members opened fire on Mr. Rodriguez's bullet-proof sport utility vehicle while he was driving along a busy street. Miraculously, none of the bullets hit him, although one of his bodyguards died during the shootout. Four weeks earlier, five people – some believed to be ex-police officers – blasted Mr. Rodriguez's SUV as he headed to a meeting in Monterrey. Three gunmen died, two were apprehended and once again the mayor emerged unscathed.

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Mr. Rodriguez's remarkable survival and his determination to stand up to the cartels and clean up the city's corrupt police force has struck a chord with many Mexicans. He has been dubbed "El Bronco," or the unbroken one, and has become so popular he has his own corrido, a type of Mexican folk song. Some local sports teams have changed their names to the Broncos in his honour and there's even a video game based on one of the shootings. When Mr. Rodriguez attended a recent meeting of more than 100 teachers, each requested a photo with the Mayor.

Sitting in an upscale restaurant in Monterrey's trendy San Pedro neighbourhood, Mr. Rodriguez brushed off suggestions he's a hero, saying he is only doing his job. "No, no," he said shaking his head when asked about his status. Then he looked skyward and added: "It's the saints, the angels."

But even as he spoke, an elderly woman stopped by his table, grabbed his hands and said: "I love you."

Mr. Rodriguez, 53, spent 20 years in public service before becoming Mayor, including one stint as a federal member of parliament. But none of that prepared him for being Mayor of Garcia, a suburb of about 150,000 northwest of Monterrey. The city is one of the poorer parts of Monterrey and home mainly to people who work in the region's sprawling factories, sometimes earning less than $20 a day.

One of Mr. Rodriguez's first moves upon taking office was to fire nearly the entire police force because the officers were so corrupt. "We cleaned them out," he said with the wave of his hand.

He replaced them with 166 new officers, including about 40 ex-military men who act as a kind of elite anti-gang division. While popular with the public, the move irritated the Zetas and likely prompted the assassination attempts as well as an attack last February on some of the new officers by a group of ex-policemen working for the cartel.

Mr. Rodriguez has no regrets and no plans to back down. "We have to face them. We can't let them take over," he said. He added that he regularly hands out cards with his phone number and the number of the new police to encourage people to start reporting cartel movements.

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He's not only hitting back at the cartels. Mr. Rodriguez Calderón has also launched a program to cover the educational costs for every child in Garcia, from elementary school through university. The program is funded by a special tax on houses and businesses and Mr. Rodriguez believes it's the only way to keep unemployed young people out of the hands of the Zetas. "We are the only city in the country doing this," he said.

The measures appear to be working. Steve Weller, a Canadian who runs a factory in Garcia for Windsor, Ont.-based Advantage Engineering Inc., said he has had no problems operating in the city. "We don't have any special security and we haven't had any trouble," Mr. Weller said. "I love it here." He added that the company is considering expanding its operations, which employ about 80 people.

Mr. Rodriguez takes the threats to his life seriously. He has been shaken deeply by the attacks and the deaths of several body guards. His wife worries about him and his two small children are struggling to understand what's going on. But he is convinced the people support what he is doing and that his work is making a difference.

Just what he will do next isn't clear. Mayors can only serve one term at a time, meaning Mr. Rodriguez will be finished next year. He has been inundated with requests by other cities to run for office. For now, though, he greets questions about his future with a shrug. "I'll do whatever the people want me to do," he said. "For me this is all very emotional."

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About the Author
European Correspondent

Paul Waldie has been an award-winning journalist with The Globe and Mail for more than 10 years. He has won three National Newspaper Awards for business coverage and been nominated for a Michener Award for meritorious public service journalism. He has also won a Sports Media Canada award for sports writing and authored a best-selling biography of the McCain family. More

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