Coming to Terms with Calderón’s Crackdown on Cartels

felipe calderon president mexico war drugs

Some claim that Mexico must choose between acquiescence to drug cartles and a continuation the “tough hand” militarism of Mexican president Felipe Calderón (left). Photo: Agencia Brasilia / Creative Commons

This article was originally published by Dissent magazine on May 11, 2012.

With Mexico’s presidential elections just around the corner, questions about the country’s future—and its bloody war on drugs—hang heavy in the air. The new issue of Foreign Affairs features a brief argument from Robert Bonner addressing this uncertainty, and offers a spirited defense of Mexican President Felipe Calderón’s fight against the country’s narcotraffickers. Bonner, former administrator of the Drug Enforcement Agency and commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, is hardly a stranger to the drug-fueled violence and corruption ravaging Mexico. The effects have been devastating: anywhere between 45,000 and 67,000 people have been murdered since Calderón’s efforts began; the country’s alphabet soup of local, state, and federal security and judicial organs have been largely crippled by graft; and the power of the so-called “Mexican cartels” seems to have metastasized within and beyond Mexico’s borders.

The Argument for the “Tough Hand”

Yet, “despite all the negative headlines,” Bonner argues, “the next president will find that the government has made huge gains in the last five years…By using force and launching large-scale reforms of Mexico’s law enforcement institutions, [Calderón] has already destroyed some of the cartels and weakened several others.”

Calderón has made security the central focus of his presidency. As Bonner writes, “Calderón set about reforming Mexico’s law enforcement institutions using a three-part strategy: creating a new, professional federal police force; rebuilding each of the thirty-two state forces and giving them the responsibilities of the discredited municipal police; and overhauling the judicial and penal systems.” These efforts have not been lost on the Mexican public. “As a result of Calderón’s determination and success against the cartels,” notes Bonner, “his approval rating now stands at 52 percent.”

Rising Violence and the Loss of Human Rights Protections

Mexico under Calderón has pursued a far more heavy-handed approach to destroying the cartel networks than the anemic administration of Vincente Fox. Calderón’s government has relied on the military as the primary tool to fight the cartels. To a degree this makes sense: trafficking networks have penetrated Mexico’s various law enforcement bodies so thoroughly that the government can’t depend on the police to keep basic order, much less to go after organized crime. The military, by contrast, has been largely buffered from organized crime’s corrupting influence. But the results have been grim: violence has spiraled out of control as the military takes control of state and local law enforcement bodies, assuming responsibilities for which it is not properly trained or funded. According to government statistics, the first nine months of 2011 left over 12,000 dead, and the violence shows no sign of abating. The first quarter of 2012 witnessed steady fighting between traffickers and the military, as well as attacks on the civilian population. In a particularly chilling incident, four teens in the northern city of Cuernavaca were abducted, cut to pieces, and dumped in the street with a warning note from a local gang. Just this week, nine people were found hanging from a bridge in the border city of Nuevo Laredo, while another fourteen heads without bodies were discovered near its town hall.

On top of the staggering body counts, many human rights protections have become casualties of Mexico’s militarization. As Alejandro Anaya Muñoz has shown, judicial reforms pursued by Calderón have reduced due-process guarantees in the name of fighting the war on drugs. The number of charges of human rights violations against the ministry of defense has risen precipitously during the Calderón era, especially in those areas of the country where military action has been focused. According to Human Rights Watch, “An important reason [military] abuses continue is that they go unpunished. And they go unpunished in significant part because most cases end up being investigated by the military itself.” International calls for reform on this front have been consistently rebuffed by the Calderón administration.

Worse still, there’s little evidence to suggest that Calderón’s “kingpin” strategy—modeled after the Colombian anti-cartel operations a decade earlier—will even succeed. Bonner, pointing to the alleged successes in Colombia, argues, “In the last three years alone, the Mexican government has captured or killed over forty major cartel members…dismantled the Tijuana cartel and severely weakened the Gulf, the Juarez and La Familia Michoacana cartels.” But there are several reasons to be wary of analogies to the Colombian case. There, the government’s victories over insurgent groups came at the cost of increasing authoritarianism, and through political pacts with conservative paramilitary groups—themselves responsible for a significant amount of Colombia’s drug trade—which have now consolidated considerable political power in northern Colombia. Moreover, it is hardly clear that killing kingpins leads to a reduction in violence, as Calderón has claimed. Indeed, it may be quite the reverse, as recent episodes in Tijuana and Cuernavaca suggest.

A Middle Ground?

Bonner is certainly correct to point out that Mexico’s next president will meet with unrelenting, brutal opposition from the country’s drug traffickers. And whoever wins this summer’s electoral contest should continue to make security a priority, as Bonner argues. But to claim that Mexico faces a stark choice between acquiescence, on the one hand, and a continuation of Calderón’s mano dura (“tough hand”) militarism, on the other, is wrong.

The next president should make efforts to temper, if not outright reject, Calderón’s profligate use of the military, and should make protection of human rights a cornerstone of any policy aimed at rolling back the power of traffickers. Calderón’s successor ought, too, to push back harder against American pressure that privileges supply-side answers to the drug problem (which has the effect of flooding Mexico with weapons) while doing comparatively little to address demand for drugs in the United States. Doing so will demand tremendous creativity and the courage to weather possible public disapproval from citizens exhausted by fear and insecurity.

Still, there’s reason for hope, as the 2008 constitutional reform fight makes clear. Faced with a bill from the president, the Mexican congress—including members of the Calderón’s own party—forcefully argued that Calderón’s proposals violated human rights protections guaranteed by the constitution and forced the president to back off some of the more severe elements of his original proposal. Military brass would also certainly welcome relief from the rising casualties and overstretch that Calderón’s policies have engendered.

Any solution, finally, must revitalize and hold accountable Mexico’s institutions of criminal justice, however great the challenge. The alternative is more years of bloodshed and further backsliding into the legacy of authoritarianism the country has so desperately fought to escape. – Michael Busch

Michael Busch is program coordinator for the Colin Powell Program in Leadership and Public Service. Read more about him and our other contributors here.

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