MEXICO CITY — President Felipe Calderon, who sent battalions of poorly trained soldiers into the streets to fight powerful transnational crime organizations, leaves the battlefield this week after six years with at least 60,000 dead in drug violence and the war essentially a stalemate.
Although Calderon’s security forces have captured or killed more than two dozen of Mexico’s most-wanted drug cartel leaders, many of those vacancies have been filled. And while some cartels have been diminished, others have thrived, and there has been no measurable decrease in the quantity of drugs smuggled into the United States.
Calderon’s strategy unleashed record levels of crime that helped send his party to a staggering defeat in July’s presidential election, though a majority of Mexicans say in polls that they support the military campaign.
Incoming president Enrique Peña Nieto of the rival Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, will replace Calderon on Saturday, promising to press ahead with the fight and maintain Mexico’s drug war partnership with the United States.
Yet Peña Nieto says he will fight the war differently, measuring success not by bringing down cartel bosses but by bringing down Mexico’s homicide rate. He met with President Obama at the White House on Tuesday.
What is unclear is how Mexico’s new president can deliver security gains in cities and towns, where government troops are often the only bulwark between relative order and total criminal takeover.
Calderon has insisted that his military-led strategy is finally making Mexico safer. Homicides attributed to organized criminal activity fell in the first six months of this year, his administration says, declining for the first time since Calderon took office in December 2006.
The country has gone several months without one of the dramatic mass killings that left corpses dumped along major highways or tortured bodies hanging from bridges a few miles from the U.S. border. And regions popular with tourists and American retirees are mostly free of violence.
Homicide rates have plunged in the once notoriously dangerous border cities of Tijuana and Ciudad Juarez. Businesses have reopened, and citizens praise the relative calm.
Calderon’s approval rating has improved as public perceptions of security tick upward, and in recent speeches he has insisted that “history will be the judge” of his term.
“In these six years, our nation has waged an unprecedented fight for the rule of law, justice and freedom for our families,” Calderon said in a recent address to the Mexican Congress that was careful to characterize the fight as a still-evolving “process.”
It is hard-won progress at an extraordinary price.
Calderon came into office vowing to reduce poverty, increase educational opportunities and open the country to free and competitive enterprise. Modest gains were made, but his center-right government was consumed by the drug war.
Stemming the flow of illegal narcotics from Mexico was one of the drug fight’s top priorities for Washington, which has backed Calderon with nearly $2 billion in security aid. The U.S. government delivered Black Hawk helicopters, night-vision goggles and crime-fighting computer software, and helped train thousands of Mexican federal police at academies supported with American tax dollars.
But six years into the fight, Mexican marijuana, methamphetamine and heroin remain cheap and more plentiful than ever in the United States, according to U.S. government data. U.N. surveys indicate that the per-gram price of cocaine on American streets is roughly the same as it was a decade ago.
Calderon was not the first Mexican president to send soldiers against drug traffickers. But the deployment of more than 50,000 heavily armed, masked troops to patrol city streets became his signature security strategy as Mexico’s police floundered in corruption scandals and the dysfunctional criminal justice system was overwhelmed, critics say.
Violence by the numbers
According to tallies of government homicide data by Mexican media organizations, about 60,000 people have been killed in cartel-related violence since Calderon took office. An unknown number have gone missing — unknown because the government has refused to release its internal tallies.
Calculating the drug war dead is a guessing game. This year, the Calderon government announced that it would no longer update its running count of drug killings, saying the true cause of death could not be reliably ascertained in a country where fewer than 10 percent of all crimes are investigated.
But Mexico’s raw crime statistics are sobering.