Mexico's Felipe Calderón

  • Working with the opposition to get things done
  • Drugs: Mexico's in-and-out war is part of a ritualized inaugural ceremony
  • The Anti-Drug War: Taking the offensive
  • "Mérida initiative" bound to grow (possibly even into a Plan Colombia)
  • Reconsidering U.S.' role and immigration reform

The political stalemate brought about by Mexico's presidential elections last year created an air of uncertainty surrounding the country's electoral future. The elections featured Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the candidate from the left-leaning Party for a Democratic Revolution (PRD), and the victorious Felipe Calderón Hinojosa, from the center-right National Action Party (PAN). The impasse came about when López Obrador tenaciously claimed electoral irregularities during the voting and tabulating phases of the election. The deadlock finally ended on September 6, when the electoral tribunal of Mexico's judiciary, the Federal Electoral Institute (IFE), decided to declare Calderón the new president-elect of México.

Calderón assumed office on December 1, 2006, in the midst of a huge public uproar that made graphically evident Mexico's deep-seated, almost organic, divisions. Calderón's campaign promoted the slogan "A drive towards Mexico's future," which called for a market economy, privatization, and an unremitting campaign against drug trafficking. During the race, Calderón portrayed himself as a traditionally conservative politician, opposing the legalization of abortion and gay marriage.

Today, with almost a year in office behind him, opinions vary over whether he has proven to be a socially responsible and capable president, or just a stalwart of elitism and a servitor of the vested interests. Calderón's critics point out that he has not given sufficient attention to important matters, which range from lagging health and educational systems to the mishandling of the Oaxaca riots—issues that highlight Mexico's systemic corruption and the ineffectiveness of many of its political institutions.

However, despite the clearly justified criticism that he has attracted, Calderón has proven to be a surprisingly skilled and avid negotiator, able to deftly bargain with a powerful opposition over his plans to reform the country. This is one of the main contrasts between himself and his predecessor, Vicente Fox, who fielded a chimerical agenda, but failed almost entirely to get any portion of his program through the legislature.

Working with the opposition to get things done
Calderón has initiated his reform program with the enactment of two important bills in Congress. The first was the comprehensive tax bill, a fiscal reform measure that raised taxes on corporate net income by 16.5 percent over a three year period. He also was able to obtain 5.5 percent rise in petrol taxes, with the revenue to be distributed to needy local and state governments. This measure passed in mid-September, and is part of Calderón's broader plan to hike tax collection by approximately 14 percent by the end of his term in 2012. The bill will also cut taxes on Pemex, Mexico's state-owned petroleum corporation, while boosting public investment in Mexico's most important state asset by 50 percent.

Calderón has also promulgated an electoral reform. This piece of legislation was aimed at reducing the length of federal election campaigns, as well as enabling the Federal Electoral Institute (IFE) to regulate primaries and other major electoral events. The bill also mandates that Congress select an external comptroller to monitor the IFE. The impetus for the electoral reform bill stems from a desire by the PRD to force Luis Carlos Ugalde, the controversial head of the IFE, out of office. The PRD contends that Ugalde is the villain of the script and must be removed due to his questionable handling of last year's election stalemate, along with the suspect private fortune he is said to have acquired under mysterious circumstances.

Drugs : Mexico's in - and - out war is part of a ritualized inaugural ceremony
One of Calderón's major and most focused objectives as president has been to unleash a tough offensive against drug trafficking in Mexico. While the drugs are mainly cultivated in Andean nations, Mexico is a transit point for illicit substances destined for the United States. Calderón has launched a series of initiatives promoting interagency cooperation, mainly between the country's armed forces, civilian agencies, and the federal police in order to more effectively contend with the drug cartels. Calderón's strong stance already has proven rewarding, with more than 40 tons of cocaine confiscated in the past two months, in combined operations involving the Secretaries of Marine and National Defense, the attorney general's office, and the Customs administration. The relative success of these operations has created an air of possibly deceptive triumphalism surrounding Calderón's anti-drug-trafficking efforts. However, the Calderón administration might be wise to check the basis for these somewhat euphoric attitudes. It might be confusing a tactical victory with a strategic one, since on a number of occasions Mexican presidents have begun their terms in office by launching a militant anti-drug drive that quickly fades out, with the country then turning back to its habitual rhythm of corruption, cronyism, money laundering and embezzlement, laced with a record level of crime and violence.

The Anti - Drug War
Is the price of cocaine up? According to the BBC, the price of cocaine in 37 cities across the U.S. has risen sharply since March and the purity of cocaine has dropped by 11 percent over the same period, indicating there may be difficulties in meeting demand. Another reason for Calderón's perceived success is that John Walters, the top White House drug official in charge of anti-drug efforts, has made much of praising Mexican authorities, especially Calderón, for their commitment in dispatching more than 30,000 troops and federal police throughout Mexico to step up the war against the drug gangs.
Soon after various anti-drug operations had been launched in different parts of the country, they began to run out of momentum, and corrupt practices and other government delinquencies started to resurface once again. It is doubtful that the Calderón administration will be able to continue to show that it has a proactive plan to fight the war on drugs. However, it is more likely that Calderón himself will follow the example set by his predecessor, and continue to imitate the chronically failed initiatives followed by a string of Mexican presidents, most notably Vicente Fox. It is also important to note that the institutions involved in the anti-drug fighting, such as the security forces and elements of the criminal justice system, are themselves known to be extremely tainted and normally turn out to be a gross liability in anti-drug efforts, due to their human rights abuses, their ineptitude and their established collaboration with the drug czars and cartels.

Operation Michoacán, launched in December, 2006, illustrates why there are misgivings over Calderón's current strategy. The Mexican Armed Forces, the Secretary for National Defense, and the Secretary for Public Security collaborated to destroy numerous plantings of illicit crops, as well as to impair drug traffickers and arrest them. The maneuver received widespread criticism from Mexico's civil society, including Mexico's Human Rights Commission, for Mexican authorities' alleged abuse of detainees. After Operation Michoacán's completion, the Secretary for Public Safety announced that during the operation it confiscated 1,200 kilograms of marijuana as well as 56 stolen cars.

Taking the Offensive
Certainly Operation Michoacán was meant to be a strong initiative on behalf of improving Calderón's image at the outset of his rule, but by now it has to be considered only as a fairly effective launch of a war that is far from over. These types of operations do not necessarily uproot drug trafficking for any length of time, because they usually leave a slot vacant for someone else to move into, invariably creating a vicious cycle whereby the government nominally continues its offensive against the drug cartels while the bulk of the latter's resources remain intact, or in fact get even stronger since their structure temporarily goes underground. Therefore, to actually win this war, every actor involved in drug trafficking, such as the growers, processors and transporters of illicit crops, must be identified and neutralized.

The reason for this somewhat gloomy assessment is centered on Calderón's disinclination to get into a fight in order to pass any new legislation targeting the reform of the country's justice system or rendering permanent the changes needed to reform its woeful security forces. Furthermore, Calderón has candidly acknowledged that passing new legislation to aid in the war on drugs is not a priority for him or his administration.

" Mérida initiative " bound to grow
During a summit held with President Bush in March in Mérida, Mexico, Calderón criticized Washington for remaining inert when it came to Mexico's recent offensive against drug trafficking. President Bush reacted to Calderón's complaints on October 22, announcing his intentions to urge the U.S. Congress to fund a security proposal to combat drug trafficking, transnational crime, and terrorism in Mexico and Central America. The plan is known as the Mérida Initiative and as part of it, President Bush has requested Congress to approve a $1.4 billion aid package to be spent over the next three years, beginning with the U.S. awarding Mexico $500 million over the next 12 months to the anti-drug war and well as providing $50 million to Central American countries to fight their dreadful gang problems. A State Department communiqué stated that the aid package—specifically the $550 million that will transferred over the next 12 months—
will provide its neighbor with technical advice and training to strengthen its judiciary, non-intrusive inspection and monitoring equipment (ion scanners, canine units for Mexican customs) for the newly reconstituted federal police and for the military to be able to more effectively interdict drug traffic.

The Mérida Initiative has attracted a good deal of opposition from both sides of the border. Many Mexicans feel uncomfortable with the entire concept and perhaps fear that the plan will inevitably entail a presence of American security forces in Mexico, something they rightly see as a violation of their sovereignty, and which the Pentagon denies would ever happen. Thomas Shannon, the Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, pointed out that placing and then increasing an American presence in Mexico is not part of the plan.

Reconsidering U . S . 's Role
In the United States, this initiative has encountered some opposition in Congress, as some Congressmen feel they were not consulted when the plan was designed. In an interview with the BBC, Representative Eliot Engel (D-NY), chairman of the Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, was unhappy that the Bush administration did not consult Congress while developing the plan; he even raised doubts on whether Congress would approve the plan because "up until now they have not been part of the decision-making process."

This is not the first time that the U.S. has attempted to aid Mexico through a series of ad-hoc efforts intended to boost its role and effectiveness in its war on drugs. In 1997, the U.S. supplied Mexican security forces with helicopters and land equipment, only to see cartels themselves frequently recruit the security forces. However, Shannon states that this is not 1997, and that Calderón's government seeks to fight crime rather than trying to accommodate it. He forgets that the same irrelevant rhetoric was used over the last several decades to defend Mexican interests even though Mexico's drug-involvement was an embarrassment to the White House. That refusal to acknowledge the extent of Mexico's derelictions was due to this country's need of Mexican cooperation in NAFTA and the immigration question.

Calderón must carefully consider Washington's role in Mexico's anti-drug effort, given the explosive nature of the two countries' relations. Calderón must press the U.S. for technical support and intelligence in Mexico's war on drugs, but like other similar initiatives designed to help it achieve a resounding victory in the war on drugs, the US has hindered as well as helped. As any other program of reform that Calderón might want to undertake, there is peril in turning to the U.S. through the Mérida Initiative. The two countries don't necessarily agree on the proper strategy in the war against drugs, since what may be constructive for the U.S. may be destructive for Mexico.

Immigration Reform
One of the major setbacks suffered by the Calderón Administration on the issue of immigration reform is that it has not been able to make any headway as of yet, when it comes to lobbying its case in the U.S. Calderón urged the U.S. Congress to approve the ill-fated Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2007, which could have helped the approximately 11 million Mexicans living and working illegally in the United States to start on the path toward regularization. In the end, the bill fell 7 votes short.

More recently, Calderón has voiced his displeasure with the Bush Administration's crackdown on illegal immigrants, which includes staging numerous raids on factories and farms suspected of hiring illegal workers and immediately deporting growing numbers of them. This is a very sensitive subject for Mexicans and certainly for Calderón, who voiced his discontent in an address to the Mexican Congress in early September, in which he stated that there is a great deal of insensitivity towards those who do not have legal status in the United States, but simultaneously have contributed greatly to the economy and the daily workings of U.S. society.

While immigration reform would be helpful in granting legal status for the millions of illegal immigrants presently residing in the U.S. it will not solve nor stop migration going from Mexico to the United States. Therefore, in order to effectively resolve that issue, Calderón and his senior officials must understand that immigration towards the United States will substantially decrease only when Mexico becomes a fully prosperous country with a high job-creation capability, where wealth is not primarily concentrated in the hands of a minute percentage of the country's population. The immigration issue is more than just an economic one, and will only be settled by inventive initiatives by Mexican authorities as well as by new and enlightened legislation emerging from the U.S. Congress.

Conclusion
Calderón has taken a strong stand on trying to achieve immigration reform in the U.S., while at the same time he shows the world that he is determined to combat domestic drug trafficking. However, there has been a general lack of effective initiatives in related sectors, such as educational and health reform, whose inefficiency greatly hinders the quality of life of millions of Mexicans, thus pressing them to head for the U.S.

It is too soon to label the Calderón Administration's opening anti-drug thunder as either a success or a failure. Calderón must be able to pass some important pieces of legislation in the Mexican Congress, hunt down the corrupted, and gain stepped-up support behind the country's war on drugs. While he still has a series of issues he is presently nursing, such as harmonizing Mexican policy with that of pending US reforms, he has surprised many for the admirable amount of discipline and continuity that he has displayed throughout his first year in office. Therefore, there is some reason to believe that Calderón and his cabinet, even though they have not earned enough credits for this, if they continue on their present path, can make a difference in creating a prosperous and well-rewarded Mexican population on both sides of the border.