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Felipe Calderón's Legacy in Mexico

Jaime Daremblum

When Mexican president Felipe Calderón leaves office on December 1, his successor, Enrique Peña Nieto, will inherit a country with rampant corruption and high levels of drug-related violence. Of course, when Calderón entered the presidency six years ago, he himself inherited a country with rampant corruption and high levels of drug-related violence.

To appreciate his legacy, we must recall that Mexico was not enjoying peace in December 2006. Powerful drug cartels were already at war with each other, and the government was already fighting back. Security analyst Viridiana Ríos of Harvard has shown that the violence began to increase as early as 2004.

If anyone doubts that, consider these Mexican news items from late 2004 and early 2005:

  • In December 2004, U.S. consul Michael Yoder told Reuters that at least 22 American citizens had either disappeared or been kidnapped in Nuevo Laredo over the previous four months.
  • On January 21, 2005, after six prison workers were executed by drug traffickers in the city of Matamoros (which sits next door to Brownsville, Texas), President Fox vowed to wage the “mother of all battles” against those responsible for the killings.
  • On January 26, the U.S. State Department warned American travelers that “increased violence among drug traffickers” had created a “deteriorating security situation” on the Mexican side of the border. That same day, U.S. ambassador Tony Garza sent a letter to Mexican officials explaining the public announcement: “The escalating fighting among drug-cartel elements has meant sharp increases in murders and kidnappings,” he wrote, adding that “the inability of local law enforcement to come to grips with rising drug warfare, kidnappings, and random street violence will have a chilling effect on the cross-border exchange, tourism, and commerce so vital to the region’s prosperity.”
  • A few days later, the New York Times reported on the growing violence: “While new criminals have emerged along the border and begun a new fight for control, kingpins fight back from their prison cells, ordering killings and running their operations with the help of corrupt guards and prison administrators.”

Rio estimates that drug-related murders increased by almost 9 percent in 2005 and by almost 11 percent in 2006. By December 2006, when Calderón was sworn into office, a Reuters/AP dispatch from Mexico City said that the country was “struggling with rampant drug trafficking and crime.”

The new president, a member of the conservative National Action Party (PAN), basically had four options: 1.) Confront the drug cartels with federal, state, and local police forces. 2.) Confront them with the military. 3.) Try to cut a deal with the cartels that would allow them to continue most of their criminal activities, provided they kept the violence to a minimum. 4.) Ignore them and hope for the best.

For obvious reasons, option 4.) was not a serious plan. Option 3.) was what the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) did during the 1980s, when it ruled Mexico as a “perfect dictatorship.” But in December 2006, Mexico was a true democracy, the PRI was in opposition, and the drug cartels were much stronger than they had been 20 years earlier, so the old PRI strategy was no longer logistically feasible or morally acceptable. Option (1) sounded appealing only if you knew nothing about the extent of Mexican police corruption. Indeed, as former Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) chief Robert Bonner has written, the local police were more corrupt than the state police, who were more corrupt than the federal police, who themselves were hopelessly compromised. In short, relying on the cops was a prescription for failure.

That left option 2.)deploying the Mexican military. The armed forces were hardly immune to corruption, but they were far cleaner and far more professional than any Mexican police force. So Calderón sent them into Chihuahua, Michoacán, and other states struggling to deal with an unprecedented security challenge.

Since then, approximately 60,000 people have died in drug-related violence, and the military has been accused of human-rights violations. Yet in a 2012 Pew Research Center poll, 80 percent of Mexicans still supported Calderón’s decision to use the armed forces against the cartels.

Critics of the U.S.-led war on drugs have been especially harsh in their denunciations of his strategy. Yet the outgoing Mexican president could not control U.S. drug policy or U.S. drug consumption, nor could he control shifting alliances and rivalries among the cartels. “After he deployed thousands of troops,” notes Economist correspondent Tom Wainwright, “the cartels seemed to reach a truce of sorts in 2007. But then violence erupted in the north-west as the Sinaloans fell out with their allies in Juárez, Tijuana, and Culiacán.”

The latest government data suggest that the violence is finally start to drop: There were 15 percent fewer drug-related murders in the first half of 2012 compared with the first six months of 2011. Meanwhile, 25 of the 37 “most wanted” Mexican drug barons are now either dead or in jail. (Within a four-week span in September and October, Mexican marines captured Jorge Costilla of the Gulf Cartel and Iván Velázquez of the Zetas Cartel, and they killed Zeta leader Heriberto Lazcano.) Calderón has created a new federal police force to replace the corrupt and ineffective Federal Investigative Agency. He has also enacted a judicial reform that, when fully implemented, will vastly improve the Mexican legal system.

A stronger legal system will help the Mexican economy, which has increasingly bright long-term prospects. After suffering a bad recession in 2009, Mexico grew faster than Brazil last year and will probably grow more than twice as fast as Brazil this year. According to a Bloomberg News analysis, Brazil was home to 15 of the world’s 500 most-valuable companies in 2010 but only 10 in 2012, while Mexico went from having five to having nine. “The one-company differential [between Brazil and Mexico] is the smallest since 1998,” reports Bloomberg correspondent Ney Hayashi. Mexico is now the fourth-largest global exporter of automobiles; the Chinese-Mexican wage gap has almost disappeared; the country is attracting significant foreign investment; and the national legislature recently passed a labor-market reform that will further boost Mexican competitiveness.

The drug war remains a terrible menace to Mexican security and prosperity. But as Robert Bonner, the former DEA administrator, points out, Calderón “will bequeath to his successor major successes against the cartels, newly invigorated institutions, and a sound strategy.”

Indeed, he bravely tackled a crisis that had emerged long before his presidency, and he took big steps toward transforming Mexico into a country where the rule of law reigns supreme. The job isn’t nearly finished, but Calderón can take real pride in his achievements, despite the continuing violence.

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