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MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - Tens of thousands of Mexicans thronged into the streets on Wednesday to celebrate the bicentenary of Mexico's fight for independence from Spain, even as mounting drug violence took a toll on national pride.
Planes painted the sky with the national colors of green, white and red as thousands of Mexico City residents watched a huge parade down the main Reforma avenue heading to a nighttime fireworks display at the huge Zocalo central square.
Hundreds of smaller celebrations took place across the country to the sounds of mariachi music, fireworks and with streets lined with Mexican flags.
Some revelers wore straw sombreros and stick-on mustaches, poking fun at a national stereotype, while the government sought to promote a more serious side with an open-air philharmonic orchestra.
Shortly before midnight, President Felipe Calderon gave the famous cry of the call to arms, known as "El Grito," in Mexico City, echoed by state governors and mayors in desert and jungle towns and cities across Mexico.
"Viva Mexico!" is a current-day twist on rebel priest Miguel Hidalgo's original call to arms in 1810. Mexicans eventually achieved their independence from Spain in 1821.
Despite a slow recovery from last year's deep recession, many cities organized dazzling celebrations, with eight metric tons of fireworks for Mexico City alone, which lit up the city center. Mexican media put the party's cost at $40 million.
Among the first marchers were nearly 250 teenagers carrying replicas of native, paddle-shaped nopal cacti on their heads.
Marchers also carried helium-filled depictions of Mayan gods behind the replica of a rebel soldier hauled piece by piece to the Zocalo, assembled into a towering statue.
But some party-goers expressed disappointment that their country, an oil exporter and among the world's largest economies, still suffered from deep corruption and poverty.
"I'm proud of Mexico for its culture and diversity, but since independence the country has never been right and it never will be until we have an honest government," said Citlali Peniche, a public sector mortgage advisor.
Invasion, civil war and the current fight to subdue drug cartels have all been part of Mexico's two centuries of history. An uneven record of peace and progress has not sapped a national effort for united celebration for a diverse people.
The government's bloody war against drug traffickers has cast a shadow over parts of the country, particularly the northern border with the United States, where 14 municipalities have had to call off celebrations due to safety concerns.
Some people in northern states riven by drug wars, such as Tamaulipas and Chihuahua, did not dare to party in the streets as in previous years, preferring to follow the celebrations on television.
"The circumstances which Mexico faces, this year in particular, certainly aren't peachy and rosy," Mexico's ambassador in Washington, Arturo Sarukhan, told PBS NewsHour on Wednesday night. "What we have in Mexico is very sophisticated, very brutal organized crime," he added.
Even as Mexico shut down for the festivities, soldiers killed eight drug hitmen in the northern state of Nuevo Leon, of which Mexico's business center Monterrey is the capital.
Mexicans' traditional verve has been dampened by the more than 28,000 drug killings across the country since Calderon launched his army-led war against drug cartels in late 2006. Those killed are mostly drug hitmen and corrupt police, but many young teenagers have been sucked into the drug fight and civilian deaths have tarnished Mexico's self-image.
"We don't have anything to celebrate, and so much to cry and shout about. The country is full of tears and silence," said Perla de la Rosa, an actress in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico's most violent city with 6,500 drug killings since early 2008.
Many were nonetheless proud to mark the anniversary of such a diverse nation famed internationally for its food, Mayan ruins, music, history and white-sand beaches.
Additional reporting by Julian Cardona in Ciudad Juarez, Anahi Rama in Mexico City and Robin Emmott in Monterrey; Writing by Robin Emmott; Editing by Bill Trott