by Austin Bay
December 6, 2012
By 2050, enough time will have passed for historians to render a fair-minded judgment on Felipe Calderon and his six daring years as president of Mexico.
Calderon already rates as a radical reformer who pursued system-changing goals. He wasn't the first Mexican president to acknowledge Mexico's deep systemic flaws. He was, however, the first president who had the vision and adroit political skills to craft a political and social process that might — over time, if subsequent administrations sustained the effort — first mitigate then eliminate them.
We already know Calderon had the personal courage and political will to employ radical but legal methods to achieve his goals of systemic political and economic modernization.
Calderon's Cartel War, launched in December 2006, the first month of his term, was both an act of desperation and the first step in his radical reform program. Drug gangs, powered by the billions of dollars they reap feeding the USA's appetite for illegal drugs, were in the violent process of carving Mexico into criminal satrapies.
To curb growing cartels' power, Calderon used a dangerous weapon: the Mexican military. His critics immediately accused him of militarizing a fight with criminal gangs. He argued the gangs posed a national threat.
Colombia's narco-guerrillas had political aims for the territories they controlled. Pure greed drove the Mexican cartelistas' more crafty squeeze of government and judicial institutions. The deadly threat to the lives, liberty and property of honest citizens posed by both is cruelly similar, however. The cartels possessed military-level firepower. Their billions purchased machine guns and grenades, armored SUVs and battlefield communications systems.
Los Zetas cartel, founded by Mexican Army defectors, employed commando tactics in its assaults on police stations and rival gangs. Ill-trained municipal, state and, yes, federal police forces were outgunned by the gangs.
Police incompetence was a pervasive shortcoming. But the real enemy of the Mexican people, at all levels — in the police forces, in the judiciary, among prosecutors, in state and federal political bureaucracies, an enemy still leveraged by the cartels and crony billionaires — is corruption.
The Mexican people regard the Mexican military, with good reason, as the most trusted national institution. Calderon used this institution as the tool to begin building systemic trust. The military took the war to the cartels.
The resulting bloodbath became Calderon's media legacy. Even though the vast majority of the deaths were the result of cartel-versus-cartel violence, headlines recording the murder and carnage, particularly in border cities like Ciudad Juarez, led media talking heads to call Mexico a failed state in waiting. They missed Calderon's critical strategic insight: Unless the cartels were challenged, militarily and morally, Mexico would surely fail. He wasn't going to let it happen, not on his watch.
The bullets and arrests, however, were temporary treatments for the worst symptoms. They cannot cure Mexico's systemic ills. Calderon understood that corruption had economic and political penalties as well as security consequences. In a speech delivered in 2008, he sketched the political objective: "Instead of faltering, we have taken on the challenge of turning Mexico into a country of laws."
Honest laws and an honest legal system had to trump rule by gun, bribe and insider whim. In that same speech, he argued: "Today we are experiencing the consequences of years of indifference to the cancer of crime, (legal) impunity and corruption. This scourge has become a threat to the peace and well-being of Mexican families and constitutes a challenge to the state's viability."
Securing the rule of law in Mexico required systemic reform. Calderon used the term "structural reform" as something of an all-purpose phrase for reforming the judiciary, the police, the government and the economy.
The reform isn't finished. Many Mexicans fear that the return of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) to presidential power means a return to the dark days of PRIsta institutionalized corruption. Calderon's successor, Enrique Pena Nieto, insists he is a new generation leader who will continue to pursue essential reform.
If Pena Nieto fails to do so, the historians of 2050 will treat him with deserved contempt.