When Mexican president Felipe Calderón leaves office on December 1, his successor, Enrique Peña Nieto, will inherit a country with rampant corruption and high levels of drug-related violence. Of course, when Calderón entered the presidency six years ago, he himself inherited a country with rampant corruption and high levels of drug-related violence.
To appreciate his legacy, we must recall that Mexico was not enjoying peace in December 2006. Powerful drug cartels were already at war with each other, and the government was already fighting back. Security analyst Viridiana Ríos of Harvard has shown that the violence began to increase as early as 2004.
If anyone doubts that, consider these Mexican news items from late 2004 and early 2005:
* In December 2004, U.S. consul Michael Yoder told Reuters that at least 22 American citizens had either disappeared or been kidnapped in Nuevo Laredo over the previous four months.
* On January 21, 2005, after six prison workers were executed by drug traffickers in the city of Matamoros (which sits next door to Brownsville, Texas), President Fox vowed to wage the “mother of all battles” against those responsible for the killings.
* On January 26, the U.S. State Department warned American travelers that “increased violence among drug traffickers” had created a “deteriorating security situation” on the Mexican side of the border. That same day, U.S. ambassador Tony Garza sent a letter to Mexican officials explaining the public announcement: “The escalating fighting among drug-cartel elements has meant sharp increases in murders and kidnappings,” he wrote, adding that “the inability of local law enforcement to come to grips with rising drug warfare, kidnappings, and random street violence will have a chilling effect on the cross-border exchange, tourism, and commerce so vital to the region’s prosperity.”
* A few days later, the New York Times reported on the growing violence: “While new criminals have emerged along the border and begun a new fight for control, kingpins fight back from their prison cells, ordering killings and running their operations with the help of corrupt guards and prison administrators.”
Rio estimates that drug-related murders increased by almost 9 percent in 2005 and by almost 11 percent in 2006. By December 2006, when Calderón was sworn into office, a Reuters/AP dispatch from Mexico City said that the country was “struggling with rampant drug trafficking and crime.”
The new president, a member of the conservative National Action Party (PAN), basically had four options: 1.) Confront the drug cartels with federal, state, and local police forces. 2.) Confront them with the military. 3.) Try to cut a deal with the cartels that would allow them to continue most of their criminal activities, provided they kept the violence to a minimum. 4.) Ignore them and hope for the best.