Mexico looked beyond its drug war and looming Atlantic storms today to throw a 200th birthday bash celebrating a proud history, whimsical culture and resilience embodied in the traditional independence cry: “Viva Mexico!”
Across the capital, hundreds of thousands of people flooded the streets despite their fears, blowing horns and dancing alongside a parade of serpent floats, marching cacti and 13ft warrior marionettes, staying late into the night at open-air concerts.
President Felipe Calderon capped the evening by ringing the original independence bell from a balcony in Zocalo square and delivering “El Grito”, patterned on founding father Miguel Hidalgo’s 1810 call to arms against Spain: “Long live independence. Love live the bicentennial. Long live Mexico!”
Thousands echoed his cry as fireworks exploded in the square and at the iconic Angel of Independence about two miles down the city’s crowded main promenade.
In cities where drug violence is heaviest, festivities were more subdued. The grito was cancelled in Ciudad Juarez for the first time in its history. People still showed their patriotism in the border city – Mexico’s most violent – by hanging Mexican flags from their roofs and hosting family dinners.
In the western city of Morelia, the scene of a cartel-related grenade attack that killed eight during the 2008 independence celebration, barely 2,000 showed up at the main plaza for a grito that once drew tens of thousands.
But in Mexico City, a 40 million dollar (£25 million) fiesta, two years in the making, drew people from across the country to the main Reforma Avenue and Zocalo. Moments before Mr Calderon emerged on the balcony of the National Palace, a voice boomed from loudspeakers: “Let’s show the world that Mexico is strong and standing.”
Several neighbouring heads of state and US Labour Secretary Hilda Solis attended.
Still, anxiety hovered over the festivities in a country that most recently has seen car bombs, the assassination of a gubernatorial candidate, and the massacre of 72 migrants who refused to smuggle drugs for a brutal gang.
Military helicopters buzzed overhead in the capital, heavily armed federal agents and metal detectors greeted revellers. A crowd of 20,000 people was patrolled by 120,000 police and 100 soldiers in the north-eastern city of Monterrey, where two cartels openly fight for control.
The Interior Department said there were no attacks against the celebrations. Prosecutors in the Caribbean coast resort of Cancun said they were investigating whether six men detained with assault rifles and hand grenades had planned an assault on bicentennial festivities. In northern Nuevo Leon state, eight gunmen were killed in a shootout with soldiers, authorities said.
Those who stayed away from the city centre celebrated from their rooftops and staged their own neighbourhood fireworks displays. All night long, rockets whistled and boomed skyward, blanketing the yards and streets with smoke.