By William Booth
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, September 3, 2009
MEXICO CITY, Sept. 2 -- President Felipe Calderón pledged Wednesday to continue his full frontal attack -- including deployment of thousands of soldiers on the streets -- in the fight against the powerful drug cartels that threaten the national security of Mexico.
In his third state of the union address, which marks the halfway point in his six-year term, Calderón said that his government would reform civilian law enforcement and the courts but that the Mexican army would continue to lead the fight until local and state police forces are free of corruption. Those police are now slowly being retrained and vetted.
With unprecedented U.S. support, including $1.4 billion in aid, Calderón has tripled spending on security in a struggle for law and order that has left almost 14,000 people dead since he took office. The violence has turned border cities such as Ciudad Juarez into danger zones where a dozen people are shot dead a day and that U.S. citizens are warned to avoid.
Military operations against drug cartels are underway in 16 of Mexico's 31 states and its federal district. Human rights complaints against the Mexican military have soared 600 percent, but the U.S. State Department this month concluded that Mexico is working hard to improve that record.
As part of Calderón's state of the union report, his attorney general said 80,000 drug suspects have been arrested, including 10 major cartel leaders -- among them "narco-juniors," who are the money-laundering, designer-clad scions of big cartel families. Authorities have also arrested top government officials who were supposed to be fighting the cartels but were actually in their employ. Security forces have arrested 1,400 kidnappers and detained or dismissed 200 politicians and government agents accused of protecting the crime mafias, which are enriched by an estimated $14 billion in revenue generated by sales in the United States, the biggest drug market in the world.
Calderón gave his speech before a National Congress in which the power has shifted away from his National Action Party back to his old nemesis, the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, which ruled Mexico for most of the 20th century.
Over the weekend, 499 lawmakers were sworn in -- the only one missing was elected deputy Julio César Godoy Toscano, the brother of the governor of Michoacan state, who is hiding after the government charged that he was working for the hyper-violent new cartel La Familia, whose trademark is beheading its enemies.
In addition to his pledge to continue the fight against the drug cartels, Calderón said he would push for universal health care, fight widespread poverty, and reform a monopolistic telecommunications industry that burdens Mexicans with some of the highest cellphone bills in the world, limits Internet bandwidth and keeps television in the hands of two firms.
"We face a defining moment," Calderón said. "In our hands is the decision whether we continue with inertia or whether we push for deep changes to transform our country."
"Poor Calderón. It hasn't been easy," said Ana Maria Salazar, a political analyst. "What he's been through the last three years? It's just amazing he is still standing. He came in and declared war on drug cartels. Then the price of tortillas skyrocketed. His ministers died in a plane crash. There's the worldwide economic crisis. The influenza epidemic began here. The price of oil plummets. Now we have a drought. I wonder when a meteor is going to hit the city."
Although his party lost the midterm elections this summer, Calderón's popularity remains high. According to a poll released Tuesday by the newspaper Reforma, Calderón's overall approval rating is 68 percent, compared with 62 percent a year ago. Half of the Mexicans surveyed give him high marks for his fight against organized crime. His lowest scores were for the economy.
The peso is deflated. After the flu outbreak, tourism flat-lined. Automobile manufacturing -- Mexico is known as "Little Detroit" -- downsized. Unemployment is the highest in 13 years. The economy is expected to shrink about 7 percent this year. More than half of all Mexicans are poor, and about 20 percent live in extreme poverty, meaning food and shelter are daily challenges.
"I was very struck that his top 10 list began with poverty, and that's a remarkable admission for the president," said Dan Lund, a Mexico political pollster. "That he also talked about inertia was very interesting. Because it was almost an admission of another kind. Because who would be responsible for the inertia of the last three years?"