Mexican President Felipe Calderon delivers his final state of the union… (Alexandre Meneghini, Associated…)
MEXICO CITY — Outgoing President Felipe Calderon told Mexicans in his final state of the union address Monday that although their country was still rife with problems, particularly drug violence, structural changes he championed would make it stronger in the long run.
Calderon's decision shortly after taking office in 2006 to confront drug gangs head-on came to define his presidency, although the wisdom of his choice remains a matter of intense debate here.
On Monday, he said 22 of the 37 most wanted crime figures had been "neutralized" on his watch. He acknowledged that problems remain, but did not specifically mention the explosion of violence that has left more than 50,000 people dead since he sent the military into the streets.
"Many problems persist, yes, but today Mexico has more and better capacities to confront them," Calderon said in a 90-minute speech in the central courtyard of Mexico City's colonial-era National Palace. "Mexico has changed, and changed for the good. It has more solid and effective public institutions."
But institutional change often takes time, and the country remains frustrated by the bloody struggle against the drug gangs.
"Calderon ends his six-year term in a very sad way for him, and in a very tragic and worrisome way for the country, with very high homicide rates and with record rates of extortion and kidnapping," security expert Eduardo Guerrero said Monday in a radio interview. "It seems to me the Calderon administration was very haughty, and very deaf to the calls to adjust the strategy."
Mexicans are divided in their opinions of Calderon, 50, of the conservative National Action Party. An August poll by Mitofsky International put his approval rating at 46%, up from 37% just before the July presidential election in which his party's candidate finished a distant third. Another poll conducted in late August by the newspaper Reforma put Calderon's approval rating at 64%.
President-elect Enrique Peña Nieto and his Institutional Revolutionary Party, due to take power in December, will have to decide how much they want to tinker with Calderon's aggressive security strategy, as well as an economic policy that has ensured stability and delivered modest growth rates.
On Monday, Calderon suggested that history would vindicate him. Upon taking office, he said, he realized that the drug gangs had moved beyond shipping drugs to the U.S. and were focusing as well on the domestic drug market, which sparked bloody new turf battles. At the same time, many security forces were ill-equipped to fight the criminals or had been corrupted by them.
As he confronted the drug gangs, he said, he also sought to "reconstruct the laws and institutions of security and justice with a long-term vision," and rebuild the social fabric of the country.
The number of federal police was increased from 6,000 to 36,000 officers. Police at all levels have been subjected to background checks. The government created a national drug treatment program and a safe schools program, and built libraries, parks and sports facilities in violence-ridden Ciudad Juarez.
Calderon took credit for a 77% reduction in homicides in Ciudad Juarez, although observers say the number of deaths might have dropped because one drug gang vanquished another in the city.
Meanwhile, the federal police have suffered several embarrassments, including a deadly shootout in the Mexico City airport in June involving crooked federal officers, and an incident in which officers fired on two American CIA agents last month.
Calderon acknowledged that there had been "errors and abuses" among federal forces, but he said they were an exception.
Calderon, a Harvard-trained economist and lawyer, took office promising to be "the employment president." Despite the global downturn, he said, more than 2.2 million jobs had been created since 2007.
Mexico continues to suffer from economic disparity, corruption, an underperforming education system, sclerotic unions and a domestic market disfigured by monopoly power. Calderon said he had taken steps to correct some problems and that others could be solved if lawmakers would approve a number of government proposals.
Cecilia Sanchez of The Times' Mexico City bureau contributed to this report.