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Mexico Wants Violence-Free 200th Birthday

Just one day without massacres, beheadings or shootouts. On its 200th birthday, Mexico wants its citizens — and the world — to forget its vicious drug war and remember the country's epic history, music, whimsical folk art and continuing crusade for wider prosperity and democracy.

All that was on display Wednesday with a $40 million fiesta, two years in the making. It was expected to lure hundreds of thousands of people, starting with a parade of 7,000 people, with floats and dances designed by the country's top artists and ending with a party in the main Zocalo plaza, where President Felipe Calderon delivers the traditional "Grito" — three shouts of "Viva Mexico" — to celebrate the 1810 uprising that resulted a decade later in independence from Spain.

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The celebrations continue on Thursday with a military parade through the capital.

It's all meant to overwhelm the senses and remind everyone how much fun it can be to be Mexican.

"It's like a Carnival of Rio, plus an Olympic ceremony, plus Woodstock all put together in the same day," said artistic director Marco Balich, who produced the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2006 Turin Winter Olympics. "For the cost of a warplane, you can celebrate the birthday of a country."

Several neighboring heads of state and U.S. Labor Secretary Hilda Solis were attending.

But anxiety hovered over the festivities, as Mexico is racked by an escalating drug war that increasingly claims innocent lives.

Military helicopters buzzed overhead, heavily armed federal agents and metal detectors greeted revelers. In some of Mexico's most violent cities, the festivities were canceled for fear of a drug cartel attack.

While drug violence during a grand festival would have been unheard of just a few years ago — even cartel capos celebrate religion and family in Mexico — that changed during independence celebrations in 2008. A grenade attack blamed on a cartel killed eight revelers, including a 14-year-old boy, in Calderon's home state of Michoacan.

Prosecutors in the Caribbean coast resort of Cancun said they were investigating whether six men detained Wednesday with assault rifles and hand grenades had planned an attack during the bicentennial festivities.

There's still hope, though, that the drug war will take a holiday.

"In Mexico, we all live in fear. And the worst part is that we are starting to get used to it," said Eric Limon, 33, a professional dancer who volunteered to wear a jaguar mask and swing a colorful Aztec club and spear for the parade.

"I want to be part of something important," he said. "I know this won't solve our problems, but this is my grain of sand to create a sense of unity. This is what Mexico needs."

Limon was joining the parade down Mexico City's main Reforma Avenue, home to the country's famous Angel of Independence statue. The boulevard created by the short-lived Emperor Maximilian in the 1860s is named after one of Mexico's proudest historical eras: when beloved President Benito Juarez enacted a series of modernizing reforms and toppled Maximilian's foreign-backed regime.

Joy and whimsy kick off the parade: Marchers with green, red and white cacti sprouting from their heads — the colors of the Mexican flag — form a sea surrounding an enormous boat made of newspapers with phrases from the independence era. Children wearing 19th-century clothing will ride the boat, symbolizing the past and the future.

The theme turns somber with a battalion of 13-foot-tall (4-meter-tall) marionettes — soldiers of the 1810 Independence war and the 1910 Mexico Revolution controlled by several operators — marching thunderously as women, children and even dogs run to join the fight.

Then come the Aztec warriors and replicas of the giant Olmec heads and Mayan pyramids, celebrating ancient peoples whose language, dress, food and customs endure in modern Mexico.

A giant, winding serpent — the Mesoamerican deity Quetzalcoatl — introduces Mexico's myths and heroes, from Miguel Hidalgo, the father of independence who cried the first Grito, to revolutionary leader Pancho Villa, and Cantinflas, the beloved 20th-century film comedian.

Seven Mexican divas ride on separate floats singing the same patriotic song to different musical rhythms: cha cha cha, mambo, and ranchero.

It would all be ruined if horror strikes, as it has repeatedly in the past year: The assassination of a gubernatorial candidate. The slaughter of 19 people at a drug rehabilitation center. The massacre of 72 migrants who refused to smuggle drugs for a brutal gang.

Many people were staying home to watch the festivities broadcast on TV and the Internet.

"It's not clear what we have to celebrate. It's 200 years of independence, but there is as much insecurity as freedom in Mexico," said Anita Guerrero, 20.

Guerrero said she would be at the main plaza in the Pacific resort of Acapulco for that city's Grito — but only because she needs to make money selling enchiladas to the crowd.

"You never know if you will make it safely home," she said.

Still, it's hard to keep Mexicans away from a party. More than 70,000 people volunteered to be in the parade — 63,000 more than were needed — and organizers expected 1 million Mexicans to line Reforma and crowd into the Zocalo.

There, the party was continuing with concerts and an acrobatic show inspired by an intricate Mexican folk sculpture known as the tree of life, as well as a satirical soccer match between figures such as Maximilian and revolutionary hero Emiliano Zapata.

"To celebrate the identity of a country, especially in this moment in Mexico, I think is really needed," Balich said. "Especially for the young to be proud of their identity, to make an optimistic statement at a difficult time."

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