All homicides, whether resulting from a barroom brawl or a cartel feud, have gone up every year under Calderon, from fewer than 9,000 in 2007 to more than 27,000 last year, according to Mexico’s national statistics institute. It is likely that there will be more than 100,000 homicides in Mexico during Calderon’s term, far more than in the United States — which has almost three times the population — during the same period.
Kidnappings, robberies and extortion have soared as well, symptoms of a broader breakdown in public security unleashed by the cartel violence, analysts say. In one especially grim gauge of the mayhem, Mexican prosecutors revealed this year that more than 1,300 people were beheaded in the country between 2007 and 2011.
In May, three top Mexican generals, one a former undersecretary of defense, were arrested and later charged with working for the Beltran Leyva drug cartel.
“You can say the war has been a failure because Calderon said violence needed to stop, and now there’s three times more violence,” said Ruben Aguilar, a popular commentator in Mexico who served as a spokesman for Calderon’s predecessor, President Vicente Fox. “He said he had to diminish the cartels. But the cartels are still here, bigger and more violent than ever.”
Although many drug lords have fallen, a glaring exception is Sinaloa cartel boss Joaquin “El Chapo (Shorty)” Guzman, Mexico’s most powerful trafficker, who under Calderon has expanded control over the most lucrative smuggling routes.
Forbes magazine listed Guzman as one the world’s richest men. In private, U.S. narcotics agents grumble that his web of bribery reaches deep into the Mexican government, helping him elude capture again and again.
But the Obama administration has avoided criticizing Calderon or his strategy on the record.
Calderon “has had significant success in clearly recognizing the problem and working to find a way to address it,” said David T. Johnson, a former U.S. assistant secretary of state who was in charge of the drug war partnership with Mexico and American assistance for judicial reform. “It is much to his credit that he has reached out to the United States as a partner, working with us to build the capacity of the criminal justice system.”
Yet not one of the dozen top cartel leaders captured alive has been put on trial and convicted in Mexico using police-gathered evidence or witness testimony — a sign that the institution-building and judicial reform that were supposed to be hallmarks of Calderon’s campaign have fallen far short.
Instead, the kingpins are typically extradited to the United States or held for years without trial in Mexico.
A July report from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, chaired by Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), concluded that the deployment of Mexican troops to fight organized crime has been ineffective and may have increased sensational killings by fragmenting criminal mafias into warring bands.
Mexican film director Roberto Hernandez, whose “Presunto Culpable” (“Presumed Guilty”) chronicled the odyssey of a wrongly accused man — and became the highest-grossing documentary in Mexican history after authorities tried to censor it — said that “some progress has been made” in reforming the country’s legal system, “but unfortunately, I can’t say it’s due to the leadership of the president.”
Forced confessions, sometimes exacted by torture, continue to be standard practice, say human rights observers, who have found that the worst abuses have been committed by Mexican soldiers.
“The military was the only institution with the firepower to confront the drug cartels, but it didn’t have the policing skills, and the police had those skills, but not the firepower,” said Roderic Camp, an expert on the Mexican military at California’s Claremont McKenna College.
Calderon tried to reshape Mexico’s federal police force for that role, raising the number of officers from 6,000 to more than 35,000. But the agency has been plagued by scandal and criminal infiltration.
A dozen Mexican federal police officers, wearing civilian clothes and driving unmarked cars, launched a high-powered ambush attack in August against an armored sport-utility vehicle with diplomatic plates, leaving two CIA agents and a Mexican marine wounded. Mexican officials have not determined whether the attack was a case of mistaken targets or directed at U.S. personnel.
The federal police buildup was a cornerstone of Calderon’s security strategy. Peña Nieto plans to shift tactics and fight the narcos with a new paramilitary force modeled after the French National Gendarmerie.
By then, Calderon may no longer be living in Mexico. In diplomatic receptions, he has repeatedly said that he plans to move to the United States at the end of his term, fearing for his life.
If Mexico’s homicide rate continues to decline and security improves after he leaves office, Calderon will probably be vindicated for his strategy despite the high costs, independent pollster Jorge Buendia said.
“Right now, I think the public is ambivalent,” Buendia said. “They support the fight against the cartels as a matter of principle. But they’re ready for a change.”