Calderon’s strategy unleashed record levels of crime that helped send his party to a staggering defeat in July’s presidential election, though a majority of Mexicans say in polls that they support the military campaign.
Incoming president Enrique Peña Nieto of the rival Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, will replace Calderon on Saturday, promising to press ahead with the fight and maintain Mexico’s drug war partnership with the United States.
Yet Peña Nieto says he will fight the war differently, measuring success not by bringing down cartel bosses but by bringing down Mexico’s homicide rate. He met with President Obama at the White House on Tuesday.
What is unclear is how Mexico’s new president can deliver security gains in cities and towns, where government troops are often the only bulwark between relative order and total criminal takeover.
Calderon has insisted that his military-led strategy is finally making Mexico safer. Homicides attributed to organized criminal activity fell in the first six months of this year, his administration says, declining for the first time since Calderon took office in December 2006.
The country has gone several months without one of the dramatic mass killings that left corpses dumped along major highways or tortured bodies hanging from bridges a few miles from the U.S. border. And regions popular with tourists and American retirees are mostly free of violence.
Homicide rates have plunged in the once notoriously dangerous border cities of Tijuana and Ciudad Juarez. Businesses have reopened, and citizens praise the relative calm.
Calderon’s approval rating has improved as public perceptions of security tick upward, and in recent speeches he has insisted that “history will be the judge” of his term.
“In these six years, our nation has waged an unprecedented fight for the rule of law, justice and freedom for our families,” Calderon said in a recent address to the Mexican Congress that was careful to characterize the fight as a still-evolving “process.”
It is hard-won progress at an extraordinary price.
Calderon came into office vowing to reduce poverty, increase educational opportunities and open the country to free and competitive enterprise. Modest gains were made, but his center-right government was consumed by the drug war.
Stemming the flow of illegal narcotics from Mexico was one of the drug fight’s top priorities for Washington, which has backed Calderon with nearly $2 billion in security aid. The U.S. government delivered Black Hawk helicopters, night-vision goggles and crime-fighting computer software, and helped train thousands of Mexican federal police at academies supported with American tax dollars.