Friday, November 30, 2012

Assessing Calderon’s Presidency on his Last Day in Power

Mexican President Felipe Calderon prepares to leave office tomorrow after six years in which he battled drug cartels, unleashing a tide of violence which may only now be on the point of receding.

His presidency was defined above all by security, as he launched a head-on attack on the organized criminal groups that had been able to operate relatively unmolested under his predecessors. Calderon sent more than 50,000 troops onto the streets of Mexico to fight drug gangs, starting in his first month in office. The resulting violence left some 60,000 dead in killings linked to the drug war, with an estimated total of 101,000 murders during his term, about a third higher than in the previous administration, reports the Associated PressInSight Crime quotesofficial statistics which show that the number of murders nearly doubled from 10,300 in 2007, Calderon's first year in power, to 22,500 this year.

The real figure may be even higher, as some 25,000 people have gone missing in the last six years, according to figures from Mexico's Attorney General’s Office, as the Washington Post reports.

The drug war did have some successes, taking down many of the country’s biggest crime lords. With the death of Zetas boss Heriberto Lazcano in October, Calderon pointed out that the government had captured or killed 25 on a list of 37 cartel leaders which it published early in his term. A notable absence is Sinaloa Cartel leader Joaquin Guzman, alias “El Chapo,” perhaps the world's biggest trafficker, who remains at liberty as Calderon leaves power.

The chaos and violence has failed to have a significant impact on the supply of drugs passing through Mexico to the US, and decapitated criminal groups have splintered to from a larger number of smaller and often more aggressive organizations.

Incoming President Enrique Peña Nieto is expected to take a different tack in fighting cartels, focusing not on pursuing capos or intercepting drugs but on bringing down the levels of violence.

There are signs that the tide may be starting to turn, and that the violence may be slowing. Places like Ciudad Juarez, the most dangerous city in the world at one point in Calderon’s presidency, have seen a dramatic security improvement in the last year and a half. Security analyst Alejandro Hope, who closely follows the phenomenon, wrote recently that 2012 was on course to be the first year to see an annual drop in homicides since 2007, while reports of large-scale massacres and dismembered bodies seemed to have slowed. If his analysis is correct and the turning point has already been reached, then Peña Nieto will be the one to reap most of the political benefits.

InSight Crime’s Patrick Corcoran points to some errors of the Calderon era that Peña Nieto should avoid, including showy efforts to reorganize government institutions or create new police bodies which are “typically little more than a distraction; the efforts needed to pass legislation and then create the new force would be better spent investing in the existing police bodies and addressing their specific shortcomings.” The new president has revealed plans for a security force modeled on the French National Gendarmerie, and to disband the Security Ministry, putting police and security bodies under the control of the Interior Ministry. The Miami Herald points to possible risks of this, noting that the Interior Ministry was long used by Peña Nieto’s PRI party “to co-opt or pressure opponents, rig elections and strong-arm the media.”

For Corcoran, however, “many of Calderon's initiatives were philosophically sound, and simply require more patience or persistence,” including police vetting, targeting kingpins, and justice reform.

The reforms to justice institutions in particular have not been carried out in full, with the oral trial system still mostly unimplemented four years after it was approved, as the AP comments. And, as the Washington Post notes, “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,” pointing to deep weaknesses in the justice system.

Calderon had more success when it comes to the economy. The AP sums up his term as having saved Mexico from collapsing during the global financial crisis by ensuring fiscal stability, though it left the country with no improvement to poverty levels, and insufficient job growth. Calderon saw out his term by passing a labor reform law on Thursday.

Peña Nieto is promising to bring in free market reforms, including opening up the state-run oil industry.

For the Washington Post, during Calderon's term, “modest gains were made, but his center-right government was consumed by the drug war,” which has now reached a stalemate.

The LA Times highlights Calderon’s openness to cooperation with the US, saying that he “essentially rewrote the rules under which foreign forces could act here in matters of national security.”

Now, Calderon is planning to go to Harvard University as the first Angelopoulos Global Public Leaders fellow at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, as the New York Times reports, following a tradition of ex-presidents leaving the country.


News Briefs

  • After Colombia's stated its intention to pull out of the International Court of Justice in the Hague in protest over a ruling giving sea territory to Nicaragua, Bloggings by Boz comments that the withdrawal of Colombia’s Navy would leave the waters open to drug traffickers, as Nicaragua’s force doesn’t have the same capacity. For Boz, the idea of excluding either country is at fault; “When the hemisphere starts dividing up the ocean and fighting over who controls which area, especially when most countries do not have the resources or capabilities to do so, that's a scenario in which the criminal groups prosper.” The Economist’s Americas View blog also looks at the issue, noting that disputes with Nicaragua could hurt the FARC peace process, as Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega is facilitating the negotiations.
    La Silla Vacia says that the withdrawal from the Hague will hurt President Juan Manuel Santos’ prospects of asserting himself as a regional leader, undermining his ambition to become a mediator between the US and leftist Latin American countries.
  • The trial of politicians involved in the “mensalao” corruption scandal has come to an end in Brazil, with the court handing down sentences for the final three of 25 defendants on Wednesday, as the NYT reports. The Federal Supreme Court will meet next week to decide questions including whether the sitting politicians convicted in the case should lose their seats, reports O Globo
  • Meanwhile the NYT reports that a new political corruption scandal is breaking in the country, with officials in the government of previous President Lula da Silva again accused of bribery. Rosemary Noronha, a chief of staff to da Silva, is accused of acting as a coordinator for those who wanted to buy favors from officials. Another Lula chief of staff, Jose Dirceu, was sentenced to more than 10 years in prison as part of the mensalao case. As the WSJ reports, government supporters are painting the latest case as a sign of President Dilma Rousseff’s determination to bring corruption in the country to light.
  • Human Rights Watch called on Brazil to act against extrajudicial killings by police, and implement a resolution issued on Wednesday by the country’s Human Rights Defense Council on steps that should be implemented to to properly investigate these deaths.
  • The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights told Guatemala’s government to improve conditions in a mental health facility in Guatemala City, following reports that it is controlled by gangs who enter from a nearby prison, abuse the patients and subject them to commercial sexual exploitation, reports the NYT.
  • The Economist reports on hold-ups in Venezuelan ports, which it links to inefficient management and poor infrastructure maintenance since they were nationalized nearly four years ago
  • IPS reports from Veracruz, on Mexico’s Pacific, painting a dark picture of a state it calls a “black hole” because of organized criminal violence, with women, migrants and journalists all targeted. One in every three migrants who go missing in the country reported last seen in Veracruz, according to the report.
  • InSight Crime has a three-part special on how migrants are targeted by organized crime in the Americas, where they are  “especially vulnerable as they move north through what is a veritable gauntlet of gangs, large criminal groups and corrupt officials.”
  • Negotiators from the FARC rebel group and Colombia’s government are taking a week-long break in peace talks held in Havana in order to consult with their respective leaderships, reports the Miami Herald.
  • The Guardian has a report on Mexican artist Teresa Margolles, winner of the Artes Mundi prize, who creates work related to drug violence in her country, including one piece using bloody floor tiles from the house where a friend was murdered.