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Calderon's war

January 16, 2007|Denise Dresser | DENISE DRESSER, a professor at the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico, is a contributing editor to Opinion.

WHO WOULD have thought that Felipe Calderon, Mexico's mild-mannered, wonkish and uncharismatic president, would morph into an action hero? Clad in military fatigues, at the helm of an increasingly active and visible army, Calderon has declared an all-out war against Mexico's two main scourges: drug trafficking and the organized crime networks it has spawned. This is a bold move and one fraught with risk. If Calderon wins, he will strengthen his presidency and ensure Mexico's long-term stability and national security. If he loses, he could imperil both.

Calderon has little choice but to act. Mexico is growing increasingly lawless, and his presidency began in a weakened state because of a contentious election and its divisive aftermath. He must prove that he can establish the authority many Mexicans believe he didn't gain legitimately, and use it to govern in an effective way. In a country in which 1,500 people are killed a year in drug-related violence, security is the top priority for most Mexicans. Years of government inaction under former President Vicente Fox have left key institutions infiltrated with cartel accomplices, hundreds of police officers dead, scores of judges assassinated and dozens of journalists missing. During the Fox administration, Mexico turned into a more violent country than Colombia; Calderon's task is to recover lost ground and clean it up.

This will not be easy because the surge of drug trafficking in Mexico reflects a painful paradox: The government's drug enforcement efforts are undermined by the corrupting influence of the drug trade, yet the drug trade cannot survive without the protection of compromised elements within the government. Cocaine traffickers spend as much as $500 million on bribery, which is more than double the budget of the Mexican attorney general's office. As a result, it frequently becomes difficult to tell the good guys from the bad guys.

Police regularly play dual roles: They act as drug enforcers and as protectors of the smugglers. Violent conflicts routinely erupt between police operating as law enforcers and police acting as lawbreakers. So it's no wonder that as part of Operation Tijuana -- the Calderon crackdown that made headlines this month -- local police were forced to relinquish their weapons.

In the face of police corruption, Calderon has turned to the military to take on the anti-drug effort -- 3,300 army, navy and federal officers took part in Operation Tijuana. But moving soldiers -- who are separate from the federal police -- around the country at will is a cause for concern, and not just because of potential human rights violations. As a result of its expanded role, the military is becoming the supreme authority -- in some cases the only authority -- in parts of some states. And greater militarization frequently leads to corruption. When cartel leader Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman escaped from jail several years ago, it is believed that generals helped him do so. So using the military as a roving cleanup force may solve some short-term image problems, but it also creates other, intractable ones.

Calderon hopes to overcome the corrupting influence of the drug trade by creating a new national police force as well as a special anti-drug division, similar to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. He believes that with greater resources and more autonomy, those in charge of combating crime will not end up succumbing to it. But setting up a new agency and extending its reach will not be enough. Calderon needs to deal with Mexico's culture of illegality and pervasive impunity.

Over the last decade, Mexico's transition to democratic rule has cast a glaring light on the country's limited rule of law. Often judges, prosecutors and state officials have been unable to withstand the corrupting influence of the drug trade, a $7-billion-a-year business. And the credibility of public institutions has suffered when those proved guilty have eluded punishment.

So, while Calderon's efforts are to be applauded, they must also be accompanied by comprehensive measures that entail more than soldiers on the streets and photo-ops of the president dressed in olive green. The prospects for a stable, less insecure Mexico will be contingent on Calderon's capacity to enact a major overhaul of the country's judiciary and law enforcement apparatus. In other words, he needs to fight not only drug traffickers but the political networks that protect them.

If Calderon's "surge" is unable to rein in drug-related violence and bring its perpetrators to justice, even after using the army as an instrument of last resort, drug lords and their allies will know that the president's hand is weak -- and that his efforts are too little, too late.

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