First lady consoles families of drug war victims

MEXICO CITY — When Margarita Zavala, the wife of Mexico's president, is reminded that newspapers here all ran front-page photographs of her attending a recent memorial service for two university students killed in drug violence, she frowns just slightly.

In the past few months, this discreet first lady has taken on a public role consoling the families of victims as Mexico's drug war claims a growing number of innocent lives. But she had not planned for her expressions of solidarity, as she called them — the phone calls, the unpublicized visits — to become so visible.

''I don't like to do it in a very public way because it is something very personal," she said Wednesday in an interview in her study. "I think it's really important, for somebody, for a mother to feel that she is not alone."

Zavala got even more exposure last week when she hosted Michelle Obama, who made a lightning trip here on her first solo foreign visit.

Speaking to high school and university students, Obama departed only once from her prepared text — to praise Zavala. "She is smart, she is tough, she is passionate," Obama said of her host.


Before she became Mexico's first lady more than three years ago, Zavala, 42, had a career as a lawyer and then as a member of Mexico's Congress. The daughter of lawyers, educated at a Catholic school and then one of the country's most prestigious law schools, she was a rising figure in the conservative National Action Party, where she met her husband, Felipe Calderon.

But when he became president more than three years ago, she slipped quietly into her new role, one that she said she had to make up as she went along.

While she has worked to raise the profile of women in her party and is an advocate for women's rights in the workplace, one traditionally feminist argument has never swayed her: She opposes abortion. Her only political declaration since Calderon has taken office has been to condemn the legalization of abortion in Mexico City.

Other than that stance, Zavala has pursued her signature themes, supporting organizations that fight drug addiction and others that care for migrant children who are returned alone from the United States.

Whether Zavala has had a role in persuading Calderon to pay more attention to the social causes of Mexico's violence is unclear, but she has been at his side as he has begun to change some of the combative statements that characterized the first years of the battle he waged against drug cartels.

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