Calderon's War

By Flannery, Nathaniel Parish | Journal of International Affairs, Spring-Summer 2013 | Go to article overview
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Calderon's War


Flannery, Nathaniel Parish, Journal of International Affairs


In December 2006, Felipe Calderon took over as Mexico's new president and made a bold decision to directly confront the drug trafficking organizations that had steadily gained power over the course of his predecessors' terms in office. He started by sending troops into his home state of Michoacan, and over the next six years Mexico's government succeeded in pushing drug-ferrying planes off its airstrips and into airfields in Guatemala and Honduras. Over the course of "Calderon's War" Mexican soldiers captured and killed dozens of high profile cartel leaders. But after more than half a decade of continuous anti-cartel operations, many of the traditional strongholds of the country's drug trafficking organizations have experienced a worrisome deterioration in security. For instance, in the state of Guerrero, as cartel leaders such as the Beltran Leyva brothers and La Barbie were taken down, a destabilizing sequence of inter-cartel competition has led to a string of disturbing violent incidents as well as complaints about robbery and extortion. Over the course of Calderon's presidency it became clear that without complementary improvements in local policing efforts, the anti-cartel strategy would not be able to bring Mexico the long-term security and stability that citizens demand. Fighting the drug cartels is not enough. Effective security policy requires the police to help protect ordinary citizens from "unorganized" crimes such as theft, carjacking, and extortion.

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In September 2006, barely a month after Felipe Calderon was elected as Mexico's president, narco thugs in Michoacan dumped five severed heads onto a dance floor in Uruapan, one of the state's main cities. By that point in the year, cartel gunmen had killed more than 400 people in Michoacan, including nearly two dozen senior police officers. Along with the severed heads, the gangsters in Michoacan left threatening notes. "See. Hear. Shut Up. If you want to stay alive," said one. (1) In spite of the gruesome nature of some of the cartel killings, in 2006 Mexico was still a relatively safe place. Overall, during Calderon's term in office, the number of homicides recorded by Mexico's National Statistics Institute (INEGI) nearly tripled from 10,452 in 2006 to 27,213 in 2011. (2) In an article published in July 2012, security analyst, Eduardo Guerrero, said, "today it's not possible to argue that the violence from organized crime is confined to just a few corners of the country." (3)

Calderon, a technocrat from the right-of-center National Action Party, might have had good intentions, but he picked the wrong strategy. At the start of his term, he pulled an olive drab military style jacket over his pressed, light-blue oxford shirt and squeezed a brand new dark green army cap over his head. (4) The brim of the hat partially covered his delicate, frameless glasses. Flanked by a military official in standard-issue attire, he pushed forward with Operation Michoacan Together and sent 4,000 troops to patrol the hills of his home state. The soldiers went out into the streets and, over the next few years, crime rates across Mexico soared. Four years after implementing the strategy, Calderon acknowledged that, up until that point in his term, "2010 was the year with the most violent deaths in the country." (5) As Calderon's soldiers started capturing and killing cartel bosses, Mexico's criminal groups started battling among and between each other for control of the drug trade and local rackets. This period of upheaval has corresponded with a rise in ordinary street crime in many towns and cities. It is impossible to deny that he inherited an extraordinarily challenging security dynamic. Nevertheless, in hindsight, one thing has become clear: Calderon took the wrong approach to the war on drugs.

From the day the first bullet was fired all the way until the day the flag was passed to the next administration, Calderon's War failed to address the direct needs of Mexico's population.

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