Mexico’s drug war is at a stalemate as Calderon’s presidency ends

President Felipe Calderon, who sent battalions of poorly trained soldiers into the streets to fight powerful transnational crime organizations, leaves the battlefield this week after six years with at least 60,000 dead in drug violence and the war essentially a stalemate.

Although Calderon’s security forces have captured or killed more than two dozen of Mexico’s most-wanted drug cartel leaders, many of those vacancies have been filled. And while some cartels have been diminished, others have thrived, and there has been no measurable decrease in the quantity of drugs smuggled into the United States.

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.

Timeline - Six years after it began, the U.S.-backed drug war rages on in Mexico.

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.


In Mexico, homicides soar under Calderon. (The Washington Post)

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.

But six years into the fight, Mexican marijuana, methamphetamine and heroin remain cheap and more plentiful than ever in the United States, according to U.S. government data. U.N. surveys indicate that the per-gram price of cocaine on American streets is roughly the same as it was a decade ago.

Calderon was not the first Mexican president to send soldiers against drug traffickers. But the deployment of more than 50,000 heavily armed, masked troops to patrol city streets became his signature security strategy as Mexico’s police floundered in corruption scandals and the dysfunctional criminal justice system was overwhelmed, critics say.

Violence by the numbers

According to tallies of government homicide data by Mexican media organizations, about 60,000 people have been killed in cartel-related violence since Calderon took office. An unknown number have gone missing — unknown because the government has refused to release its internal tallies.

Calculating the drug war dead is a guessing game. This year, the Calderon government announced that it would no longer update its running count of drug killings, saying the true cause of death could not be reliably ascertained in a country where fewer than 10 percent of all crimes are investigated.

But Mexico’s raw crime statistics are sobering.

All homicides, whether resulting from a barroom brawl or a cartel feud, have gone up every year under Calderon, from fewer than 9,000 in 2007 to more than 27,000 last year, according to Mexico’s national statistics institute. It is likely that there will be more than 100,000 homicides in Mexico during Calderon’s term, far more than in the United States — which has almost three times the population — during the same period.

Kidnappings, robberies and extortion have soared as well, symptoms of a broader breakdown in public security unleashed by the cartel violence, analysts say. In one especially grim gauge of the mayhem, Mexican prosecutors revealed this year that more than 1,300 people were beheaded in the country between 2007 and 2011.

In May, three top Mexican generals, one a former undersecretary of defense, were arrested and later charged with working for the Beltran Leyva drug cartel.

“You can say the war has been a failure because Calderon said violence needed to stop, and now there’s three times more violence,” said Ruben Aguilar, a popular commentator in Mexico who served as a spokesman for Calderon’s predecessor, President Vicente Fox. “He said he had to diminish the cartels. But the cartels are still here, bigger and more violent than ever.”

Unconvicted kingpins

Although many drug lords have fallen, a glaring exception is Sinaloa cartel boss Joaquin “El Chapo (Shorty)” Guzman, Mexico’s most powerful trafficker, who under Calderon has expanded control over the most lucrative smuggling routes.

Forbes magazine listed Guzman as one the world’s richest men. In private, U.S. narcotics agents grumble that his web of bribery reaches deep into the Mexican government, helping him elude capture again and again.

But the Obama administration has avoided criticizing Calderon or his strategy on the record.

Calderon “has had significant success in clearly recognizing the problem and working to find a way to address it,” said David T. Johnson, a former U.S. assistant secretary of state who was in charge of the drug war partnership with Mexico and American assistance for judicial reform. “It is much to his credit that he has reached out to the United States as a partner, working with us to build the capacity of the criminal justice system.”

Yet not one of the dozen top cartel leaders captured alive has been put on trial and convicted in Mexico using police-gathered evidence or witness testimony — a sign that the institution-building and judicial reform that were supposed to be hallmarks of Calderon’s campaign have fallen far short.

Instead, the kingpins are typically extradited to the United States or held for years without trial in Mexico.

A July report from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, chaired by Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), concluded that the deployment of Mexican troops to fight organized crime has been ineffective and may have increased sensational killings by fragmenting criminal mafias into warring bands.

Police tactics

Mexican film director Roberto Hernandez, whose “Presunto Culpable” (“Presumed Guilty”) chronicled the odyssey of a wrongly accused man — and became the highest-grossing documentary in Mexican history after authorities tried to censor it — said that “some progress has been made” in reforming the country’s legal system, “but unfortunately, I can’t say it’s due to the leadership of the president.”

Forced confessions, sometimes exacted by torture, continue to be standard practice, say human rights observers, who have found that the worst abuses have been committed by Mexican soldiers.

“The military was the only institution with the firepower to confront the drug cartels, but it didn’t have the policing skills, and the police had those skills, but not the firepower,” said Roderic Camp, an expert on the Mexican military at California’s Claremont McKenna College.

Calderon tried to reshape Mexico’s federal police force for that role, raising the number of officers from 6,000 to more than 35,000. But the agency has been plagued by scandal and criminal infiltration.

A dozen Mexican federal police officers, wearing civilian clothes and driving unmarked cars, launched a high-powered ambush attack in August against an armored sport-utility vehicle with diplomatic plates, leaving two CIA agents and a Mexican marine wounded. Mexican officials have not determined whether the attack was a case of mistaken targets or directed at U.S. personnel.

The federal police buildup was a cornerstone of Calderon’s security strategy. Peña Nieto plans to shift tactics and fight the narcos with a new paramilitary force modeled after the French National Gendarmerie.

By then, Calderon may no longer be living in Mexico. In diplomatic receptions, he has repeatedly said that he plans to move to the United States at the end of his term, fearing for his life.

If Mexico’s homicide rate continues to decline and security improves after he leaves office, Calderon will probably be vindicated for his strategy despite the high costs, independent pollster Jorge Buendia said.

“Right now, I think the public is ambivalent,” Buendia said. “They support the fight against the cartels as a matter of principle. But they’re ready for a change.”

Nick Miroff is a Latin America correspondent for The Post, roaming from the U.S.-Mexico borderlands to South America’s southern cone. He has been a staff writer since 2006.
William Booth is The Post’s Jerusalem bureau chief. He was previously bureau chief in Mexico, Los Angeles and Miami.
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