Mexico Presidential Election: Drug War Tarnishes Felipe Calderon Legacy

As Mexico heads to the polls on July 1 to elect a new president, it seems an opportune time to sit back and evaluate the chiaroscuro mix current Mexican President Felipe Calderon leaves for his successor. During the sexenio (six years) Calderon ruled from Los Pinos, Mexico experienced a series of extremes, from economic success to significant bloodshed. Like Alice in Wonderland, Calderon saw Mexico depart one reality and emerge to a more chaotic parody of its previous existence. Given the rates of crime and violence in the country, many regional pundits have declared Calderon, as a president, a failure. However, within the labyrinth of corruption and violence, like in the fabled Wonderland, there is light to be seen.

It is true that Calderon’s narco-war, with its gruesome violence and endless narrative of human suffering, is hard to stomach as a smart policy decision. While statistics suggest levels of violence have stabilized in recent months, Calderon’s sun will set on the graves of at least 55,000 of his countrymen—casualties of a security situation that rapidly deteriorated under his watch. Tourism is down, investment scared away by instability and only a slim minority of citizens believes in the future of Mexico as it stands. Nevertheless, Calderon remains a staunch advocate of excising what he has repeatedly called “a cancer of criminality.” It appears to be a point of pride for the outgoing president that he never wavered from his chosen mandate to clean up corruption and impunity alongside simultaneous efforts at systematic reform. But it is important to understand that the current jagged security landscape is less the actions of one man and more the culmination of three distinct factors: years of benign neglect of corruption and impunity, an evolving and increasingly brutal criminal landscape, and the resulting clash from a newly minted effort at top-down systematic reform. Calderon attempted to remove what he likely perceived to be an isolated tumor within Mexican society, only to find that just beneath the surface was a grotesque illness that had metastasized into every vein and continued to present new complications despite every effort to defeat it. It is not a happy story to tell but, given the gravity and tumultuous nature of the security landscape, he had little choice but to play the cards he was dealt in the most expeditious manner possible.

Less trumpeted news for the Calderon administration, though very significant for the region, is Mexico’s steady economic growth over the last six years. While it will fall to Calderon’s successor to see how this growth informs development and the public good, the fact that the country managed to prosper during a global recession is a claim few leaders today can make. Moreover, so far in 2012, Mexico’s economy has expanded at a significant rate, almost double that of the United States, and currently is outpacing its most significant regional competitor, Brazil. In fact, at the G-20 Summit in Mexico this week, media rumors abounded that Mexico, not Brazil, was the new economic darling south of the U.S. border. Such positive economic positioning could not have been accomplished without the Calderon administration, though naysayers are unlikely to grant him credit, and will not feel any pressure to, given the current media environment. Unfortunately for Calderon’s legacy at present, drugs and guns and “Off with their heads!” sell more headlines than percentage points on a graph.