Goodnight to President Felipe Calderon, the Drug Warrior


Recall the classic scene in Scarface where a raging drunk Tony Montana tells a restaurant full of Miami’s 1%: “Say goodnight to the bad guy! It’s the last time you’re gonna see a bad guy like this again!”

Those are surely the words that Mexican President Felipe Calderon would like to cry as he metaphorically staggers out of office (rumors of his alcoholism are rife) on December 1. The cover of the country’s left-wing news weekly Proceso says it all: “The nightmare’s over”. In the last six years, the man’s been blamed for everything; he’ll go down as one of the worst presidents in Mexican history whether he truly deserves to or not.

So say goodnight to the bad guy; beloved amigo of two White House administrations, loyal defender of the IMF, “drug warrior” extraordinaire, and a man who tens of thousands of Mexicans have asked the International Criminal Court to investigate for war crimes.

Whatever else he may have achieved, Calderon’s term will ultimately be remembered for one thing: the 90,000 murders on his watch; the majority of them a result of his multi-billion dollar, fully-loaded “Drug War”, which has seen both the military and the country’s heavily-armed organized crime groups go for broke. Under the circumstances, poverty, unemployment and dire wages are just par for the NAFTA-era course.

The kiss-off is that Calderon’s “sexenio (six-year term) of doom” also led to the re-election of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) this past July as voters abandoned his National Action Party (PAN) in droves. The old guard – which ruled Mexico as a de facto dictatorship for 71 years – returns Saturday in the form of ultra-telegenic Enrique Peña Nieto, already a You Tube hit for his Bush-like gaffes, cruddy English and public appearances with drug-traffickers. The nightmare’s over? Fat chance.

In classic PRI style, Peña Nieto overspent the $25 million campaign limit by well over 1000% and was heavily supported by corporate media in what protest movements called an “imposition” on the electorate. Following a whitewash of an investigation into alleged coercion and vote-buying, the country’s Federal Electoral Tribunal ratified the election on September 6.

Despite Calderon telling everyone back in January that the PRI would return to power “over his dead body”, the transition has been unerringly smooth, prompting many to suspect a pact between the two to keep out the populist (i.e. chavista) left. Calderon even turned away from his own party in refusing to condemn the PRI’s foul play. Looks like bad guys stick together, after all.

Give War a Chance

These were six years of scandal and bloodshed from the get-go. On July 2, 2006, Calderon defeated leftist candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador of the Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) by just 0.56% of the vote and faced months of “Occupy”-style protests in Mexico City by those claiming his victory was a fraud. The protests followed Calderon all the way to his inauguration where he was ushered into congress at midnight under heavily-armed guard while PAN and PRD deputies literally brawled on the chamber floor.

A month after taking office, Calderon did a “George Dubya” and notoriously appeared in military garb at an Army base in Michoacan. Ready to officially declare his Washington-backed war on organized crime, he hyped the unstoppable might of the Mexican armed forces; many of whose highest-ranking officers have essentially administered drug-trafficking for years.

There was indeed a bloody rivalry among Mexico’s drug mafia but only 16% of citizens believe the country is safer since Calderon sent tens of thousands of troops onto the nation’s streets. Massacres and gun battles have become a daily occurrence; extortion, kidnapping and other crimes have soared as the “drug cartels” diversify. Calderon boasts that he has captured or killed 25 of the country’s most wanted drug lords (“the kingpin strategy”) but on the eve of his departure, organized crime looks stronger and more deeply-rooted than ever.

The “war” has been nothing more than an attempt to unify the $40-60 billion Mexican drug trade under the umbrella of the Sinaloa Cartel, Calderon’s favorite narco group. The Sinaloa Cartel’s takeover of border cities like Tijuana, Ciudad Juarez and Nuevo Laredo backed by the military and federal police has simply led to brutal violence, but most shocking is the impunity. In 2010, Mexico’s Attorney General admitted that only 5% of the then-22,000 gang-related murders had been investigated while barely 28% of federal arrests even make it to trial.

With a weak judiciary, the strategy has been pure repression. Street-level gang members are cannon fodder; the wealthiest drug lords are left alone or handed some cushy protection deal. Any of them who might prove inconvenient usually wind up dead. As for the military’s role, official complaints against the Army for human right abuses are in the thousands.

Dirt will continue to emerge over just how deeply Calderon’s administration was penetrated by the Sinaloa Cartel. Contrary to the myth that Mexican journalists have been silenced by the country’s violence, there has been some absolutely outstanding work done on just how far the corruption goes. 60-70% of elections in Mexico show evidence of having been penetrated by organized crime and all three major parties – including the left – have been implicated in what former UN security advisor Edgardo Buscaglia calls a “pact of impunity” among the country’s political class.

It’s the Economy, Estupido

As for the economy, ignore the hype that Mexico is the next BRIC in the wall, or the ‘m’ in TIMBI – or whatever the latest fad among free trade gurus. Extreme poverty has risen to nearly 20% under twelve years of supposedly inclusive, “democratic” PAN governments. The country is officially the second most unequal among OECD states, with ineffective social programs and institutionalized corruption as key as NAFTA in Mexico’s sluggish and top-heavy growth.

Calderon’s term was all about “structural reforms” – energy, labor and fiscal reforms – that were repeatedly blocked by the leftist PRD and a faux-populist PRI (their very name, the “Institutional Revolutionary Party”, sums up the ideological paradox they represent). The PRI will nevertheless now pursue exactly the same reforms at the behest of Mexico’s elite; the party’s congressional head, Manlio Fabio Beltrones, has said such reforms are essential if the country wants to emerge from “mediocrity”.

By “mediocrity”, he means that as many as 70% of the country’s 115 million inhabitants live in poverty, eight million young people are without work or studies, and nearly half of the labor force toils away in the informal economy. The government’s response is simply to make life easier for foreign investors and hope that they mop up the mess: Wal-Mart is currently the country’s largest employer.

One of Calderon’s much-hyped achievements was expanding public health coverage to isolated rural communities via the Seguro Popular program; the very least the Mexican government owes its people. But without any genuine investment in the future, such programs don’t even begin to address the issues behind the country’s inequality. Earlier this year, for example, Raramuri Indians in the arid northern state of Chihuahua were dying of starvation. While countries like Brazil and Venezuela have been praised for reducing dire poverty, Mexico’s ostensibly similar social programs have had little meaningful effect.

Foreign capital, of course, has its own agenda. Part of the pact made between Calderon and Peña Nieto following this year’s election was clearly PRI support for a controversial labor reform that NAFTA hawks have been obsessing over since the 1990s. Designed to make the workforce as pliable and disposable as possible, the initiative was never going to pass without a deal being cut; the president overlooking evidence of electoral fraud in order to rush the bill through before the new left-heavy legislature could block it.

One unquestionable positive to come out of the Calderon administration was the passage of much-needed immigration reform (are you reading, Mr Obama?) designed to protect vulnerable migrants, most of whom come from Central America and use Mexico as a stepping stone on the way north. The reform passed unanimously owing to an appalling massacre in Tamaulipas two years ago that left 72 migrants dead. Yet activists and human rights campaigners remain sceptical; as many as 70,000 migrants have gone missing in Mexico since 2006. The change in the law – which will grant semi-legal status to such people – is a glimmer of hope rather than a victory.

Down the PAN

One big question is what comes next for the PAN; a smoldering wreck of a party after it took a decisive beating in the July 1 polls, largely on account of the “Drug War” fiasco. When it came time to select a candidate for this year’s presidential race, the party swung away from Calderon’s pick, Finance Minister Ernesto Cordero – probably the safer bet – and towards the lightweight Josefina Vazquez Mota whose campaign flopped big time.

The party’s now split between the calderonistas and current party chief Gustavo Madero who knows the PAN needs a face-lift before it can again do electoral battle with the PRI. As such, Madero wants a national conference to discuss the future of the party. The calderonistas wanted it to take place while their boss was still in office; the Madero faction successfully had it put back until Calderon and his goons are gone.

The PAN, founded in 1939 by right-wing Catholics and today a socially-conservative big business party, now risks sinking into irrelevancy and seeing the center-left PRD become the nation’s main opposition party. Indeed, the PRD and its allies will form the second biggest force in congress from December 1 and enjoy a sizable presence in the senate.

The PRD has everything to gain. Hugely popular in Mexico City, which it has governed since 1997, over the next six years the party will eschew the anti-imperialist rhetoric of Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (known to everyone as AMLO) and reposition itself as a “safe” centrist alternative through the candidacy of outgoing Mexico City mayor Marcelo Ebrard. If the affable Ebrard can do what many expect and steal a chunk of the middle-class vote, they could overtake the PAN for good.

Things are never, ever simple on the Mexican left, however. On September 9, two-time presidential candidate AMLO announced he was finally severing ties with the PRD after 23 years and will turn his activist-based National Regeneration Movement (MORENA) into a fully-fledged political party. This will certainly divide the left vote and likely result in another victory for the PRI in 2018. AMLO remains an icon to millions.

Just don’t be surprised to see them kiss and make up before then. The interpersonal drama on the Mexican left blows away any telenovela you’ve seen; although this is the most serious split since the PRD was founded in 1989.

Harvard Awaits!

While he divides opinion like nobody else in Mexico, Felipe Calderon has been widely praised internationally; being exactly the kind of leader the bigwigs in Washington and Brussels like to see run the show down south. When Mexico hosted the G-20 summit in June, he stood side by side with Obama and other global heavyweights in backing market reforms and IMF bailouts as the keys to development and recovery. Given Latin America’s shift to the left in recent years, Calderon has closer allies in the US, Canada, Spain and Britain than he does in his own backyard.

His relationship with both the George W Bush and Barack Obama administrations has been exemplary (in a neo-colonial sense), even if like any Mexican president he has to occasionally scold The Big Gringo for its rabid drug consumption, woefully lax gun laws and degrading treatment of immigrants. While the voto latino was crucial in the recent US election, Mexico itself was notable by its absence in the debates.

It should come as no surprise then that Calderon will shortly move his family to the US. With a citizens’ petition to the International Criminal Court accusing him of crimes against humanity for the 70,000-odd “Drug War” deaths, he’ll have been buoyed by the news that Washington granted immunity to former president (and Yale professor) Ernesto Zedillo, currently being sued in a civil case for his role in the 1997 Acteal massacre.

Calderon was linked to a teaching post in Austin until UT’s sizable Hispanic body fiercely protested the idea of him joining their faculty. Harvard now looks a safer bet, where he’ll no doubt preach the virtues of free trade and Colombian-style “democratic security”. Like most former LatAm “drug warriors”, he’ll also surely come out in favor of legalization at some point – six years too late.

As for Mexico, those voters who turned away from calderonismo this July in the hope that the PRI will restore much-needed public security and growth are sure to be disappointed. The PRI, once defiantly nationalistic, is now just another neoliberal party and has thus far offered little of change in the fight against organized crime. Major protests by students, unions and other social movements are already planned for Peña Nieto’s inauguration on Saturday as yet another “bad guy” takes the helm.

Paul Imison lives in Mexico. He can be reached at: paulimison@hotmail.com

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