By Chris Hawley and Sergio Solache, USA TODAY MEXICO CITY Mexico celebrates its 200th birthday tonight, kicking off a two-day bicentennial extravaganza of laser shows, fireworks and music aimed at lifting citizens' spirits in the midst of a recession and a bloody war against drug cartels. On Tuesday, work crews tested hundreds of lights in Mexico City's main Zócalo Plaza, where hotel rooms were going for $2,600 apiece. Actors rehearsed on floats, portraying historical events. Honor guards from 16 nations, including the United States, drilled for their role in a military parade. Security was tight because of worries that drug cartels might stage an attack during the festivities. Two years ago, attackers hurled grenades during an Independence Day festival in the central city of Morelia, killing seven people and wounding 132. "We're in bad shape as far as violence goes ... but you can't deny people a party if they want to celebrate something," said Francisco Segura, 52, a building contractor. Mexico has spent billions of dollars on public works projects leading up to the bicentennial, including new airports, freeways and parks. Even so, the development has been overshadowed by President Felipe Calderón's military crackdown on the drug cartels, which began in December 2006. Since then, more than 22,000 people have died in drug-related violence, according to an unofficial tally by the Reforma newspaper. Officials in the violence-plagued border city of Ciudad Juárez kept crowds away from the site of the traditional grito, or call-to-arms ceremony, in the city's main plaza. In Mexico City, riot police and armored vehicles practiced crowd-control techniques on Tuesday. Tonight's celebration marks the day in 1810 when Mexico began its war of independence against Spain, an event that triggered similar uprisings across the Western Hemisphere. In September 1810, rebels in the central state of Guanajuato were secretly planning an uprising against the Spanish when their plot was discovered. As Spanish troops moved to arrest conspirators, one of them, priest Miguel Hidalgo, realized the moment for revolution was upon them. Before dawn on Sept. 16, 1810, Hidalgo rang the church bell to gather residents in the town of Dolores, and then delivered a famous call to arms known as the grito, or shout. The war lasted 11 years before Spain finally gave Mexico and Central America its independence. The territory included what is now California, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, New Mexico, Texas and parts of Wyoming and Colorado. Tonight at 11, Calderón will ring a bell in the Zócalo Plaza and recite the names of Hidalgo and other independence heroes. After each name, the crowd shouts Viva! long may he live. The event, which is repeated by mayors and governors across Mexico, has become an annual sign of hope, said Oriel Gómez Mendoza, a historian at Michoacan University. "Mexicans never give up," Gómez Mendoza said. "We're a country that never loses its pride." The ceremony will be followed by fireworks, light shows, parades and concerts across Mexico, organizers say. Mexico's centennial celebration in 1910 also occurred during hard times. Two months after the celebrations, Mexico was torn by a bloody civil war the Mexican Revolution that lasted 10 years. Mexico kicks off bicentennial celebrations - USATODAY.com ---------------------------------------------------------------- How can you feel pride in a country that Mexicans turned into a craphole? You are constantly begging more money from the US. You guys live in a land of dilusions.