Calderón's Offensive Against Drug Cartels

By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, July 8, 2007

MEXICO CITY -- Every Monday morning, President Felipe Calderón settles in at the head of the table in the presidential library at Los Pinos, Mexico's fortresslike chief executive's compound.

Calderón presides over strategy sessions with the leaders of Mexico's army and navy, key players in the centerpiece initiative of his seven-month-old presidency: a military assault against drug cartels. No Mexican president in recent history has convened his security council with such regularity, but few of his modern-day predecessors have faced such a daunting security crisis.

Calderón is betting his presidency on a surge of Mexican troops -- one of the country's largest deployments of the military in a crime-fighting role -- to wage street-by-street battles with drug cartels that are blamed for more than 3,000 execution-style killings in the past year and a half. Sending more than 20,000 federal troops and police officers to nine Mexican states has made Calderón extremely popular; his latest approval ratings hit 65 percent.

But as the campaign drags into its eighth month and the death toll mounts, Calderón is facing a growing cadre of critics, including the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights representative in Mexico, who opposes the use of the military in policing. Calderón is also contending with foes in Mexico's Congress who want to strip him of the authority to dispatch troops without congressional approval. The Washington Office on Latin America, a human rights organization, has faulted him as quick to use the military but slow to reform Mexico's corrupt police.

All this is familiar territory for Calderón, a former congressman and energy secretary who appears comfortable in the role of political scrapper.

Pundits predicted he would struggle in office after collecting barely more than a third of the vote in last July's election and being forced into a two-month legal battle -- twice as long as the Bush-Gore electoral crisis in 2000 -- before being declared president by Mexico's Supreme Electoral Tribunal.

But Calderón has not only pounced on the drug violence. He also has pushed through a controversial reform of Mexico's corrupt and antiquated pension system, and he is gaining momentum for a massive fiscal initiative aimed at reducing the country's dependence on oil revenue.

"This seems to be his political destiny," wrote Ramón Alberto Garza, editor of the weekly Indigo. "To sail with the wind against him, a storm on the horizon, with a mutinous crew but to finish the journey safe in port."

Calderón inherited Mexico's drug problem, which was beginning to rival in scope and savagery the 1980s drug wars in Colombia. Drug lords, who make their riches trafficking in cocaine, but also methamphetamines and marijuana, were beheading rivals and killing police officers, municipal officials and journalists who got in their way. Some municipal governments and police forces were so infiltrated by organized crime that they essentially ceased to function as public service entities and became virtual arms of the cartels.

A War Over 'Plaza'

As far back as mid-July 2006, with the election outcome still in doubt, Calderón began laying the groundwork for the military campaign, Mexico's attorney general, Eduardo Medina Mora, said in an interview. With corruption raging throughout local governments and only 27,000 federal police officers available, Medina Mora said, the military seemed to be the only viable option.

"The size of the problem was large enough to understand that using the full federal deployment of police was not enough," Medina Mora said as a Beethoven piano sonata played in the background at his high-rise headquarters in Mexico City.

By the time Calderón took office in December, Mexico's two most powerful drug organizations -- the Sinaloa and Gulf cartels -- were deep into a war over "plaza," as Mexicans call drug territory. Carnage led the news almost every night. It was then that Calderón, a careful, wonkish public speaker not known for soaring rhetoric, started hitting verbal home runs.

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