Pubdate: Wed, 19 May 2010
Source: Wall Street Journal (US)
Copyright: 2010 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
Author: David Luhnow


MEXICO CITY-Ten days after taking power following a hotly contested 
election in 2006, Felipe Calderon sat in the gilded presidential 
chair and signed a decree that would shape his presidency: an order 
to deploy 6,000 army troops to his home state of Michoacan to take on 
drug gangs. Like many, the president believed the army might have 
trouble with the drug lords, but would at least force them out of 
city plazas and back into the shadows.

It hasn't worked out that way. Some three years later, more than 
23,000 people have been killed in drug-related violence across 
Mexico, according to government figures. The bloodshed keeps rising 
despite the presence of an estimated 45,000 to 60,000 
soldiers-roughly a fourth of Mexico's army-in nine states.

The 47-year-old career politician begins his first official visit to 
Washington on Wednesday as a leader who started a battle on the 
doorstep of the U.S. that turned into a war-a conflict whose 
consequences will shape Mexico for years to come.

Polls show that while most Mexicans support the president's war, most 
think the drug lords are winning. In the past few weeks, cartel 
gunmen burst into the Holiday Inn hotel in Monterrey and snatched 
guests from their rooms. Drug gangs also blocked the highways leading 
out of Monterrey, Mexico's business capital. Among the victims of the 
war: a groom coming out of his wedding, a 12-year-old and his mother, 
and scores of teens.

The war may be striking closer to Mr. Calderon, too. Diego Fernandez, 
one of leading figures in Mr. Calderon's National Action Party (PAN) 
and a former presidential candidate, disappeared last weekend, and is 
believed to have been kidnapped. Some say the apparent abduction 
could be a warning to Mr. Calderon to back off.

In an interview, Mr. Calderon acknowledges the drug gangs were much 
stronger than he realized, largely because his predecessors let the 
problem grow. He compared his position to that of a doctor who opens 
up the body of a patient who supposedly has appendicitis, but who the 
doctor discovers has cancer.

At that point, said Mr. Calderon, a responsible doctor begins 
aggressive treatment. "Of course, there is always a patient that 
says: "Listen, that doctor is terrible. Before I went to see him I 
was feeling really well," Mr. Calderon said.

Critics say Mr. Calderon launched the drug war in part to gain 
credibility following his narrow victory and focused too much on the 
army's brute force rather than intelligence work and undermining 
cartel finances.

They also say that he has surrounded himself with a loyal but 
ineffective team that prevents him from changing his strategy quickly enough.

Manlio Fabio Beltrones, a Senator for the former ruling party, 
compares Mr. Calderon to a new home owner who discovers a beehive in 
his home. "He begins whacking the beehive with a broom without 
thinking it through. And now his home is full of angry bees," says 
Mr. Beltrones.

For supporters, which include the U.S. government, Mr. Calderon is a 
hero. Every Mexican president since the 1980s vowed to take on drug 
traffickers, but the bespectacled lawyer is the first to make it a 
priority. President Barack Obama calls him Mexico's Eliot Ness.

For someone who has put his country and legacy on the line fighting 
drug gangs, however, the Mexican leader says he could use more help 
from the U.S., the world's largest illicit drug-consuming nation. Mr. 
Calderon praised President Obama's recent initiative to curb drug 
demand. But he also said there was a correlation between the increase 
in drug-related violence in Mexico and the lapsing of the assault 
weapons ban in the U.S. in 2004.

Mexico has seized some 45,000 assault weapons under Mr. Calderon's 
watch, most of them smuggled from the U.S. "I respect the Second 
Amendment to the United States Constitution," Mr. Calderon said. "But 
the truth is that these weapons are not going into the hands of good 
Americans, [they] are going directly into the hands of criminals."

For the U.S., Mr. Calderon's war has major implications. Ciudad 
Juarez, across the river from El Paso, Texas, has become the murder 
capital of the world, three times more violent than Baghdad. In 
March, two Americans linked to the U.S. consulate in Juarez, 
including a pregnant woman, were murdered by hit men.

Mexican cartels now control the bulk of the distribution of illegal 
drugs in the U.S., according to U.S. officials. In many ways, Mr. 
Calderon is waging a lonely war. He is fighting decades of entrenched 
corruption. The country's army is poorly trained. Many officials and 
most of Mexico's elites share little sense of urgency. Some say the 
president himself didn't show enough leadership. During his first 
three years in power, Mr. Calderon visited Ciudad Juarez, ground zero 
in the drug war, only twice. That changed after an incident in 
January when gunmen burst into a party there and murdered 15 teens. 
The president mistakenly said the victims were cartel hit men, 
causing an outcry. He has since visited Juarez three times.

"People in Colombia-and I include myself-believe that Mexicans are in 
denial," says a former top-ranking Colombian defense official, who 
says that although Mexico's drug violence is not yet at the level 
faced by Colombia in the 1990s, Mexico's legacy of corruption will 
make a solution more difficult.

The last of five children, Mr. Calderon grew up with a father who had 
his own quixotic quest. His father Luis ran for office six times 
against the Institutional Revolutionary Party and lost each time. He 
finally won a congressional seat on his seventh try, in 1979.

Mr. Calderon's introduction to politics began at age six, helping 
siblings paste his father's election propaganda on walls. After law 
school and a masters' degree in economics, he became the PAN's 
youngest leader at age 33. Friends describe the president as 
nationalistic and patriotic, a true Mexican who loves strong tequila 
and sentimental ballads. Recently, Spanish singer Joaquin Sabina told 
the press that he thought Mr. Calderon had been "naive" to launch a 
war on drugs. The president invited the singer to lunch. They traded 
points of view over a few tequilas, and belted out songs with a mariachi band.

Mr. Calderon overcame a 15 percentage point deficit in the 2006 
general election to squeak out a victory against the favored 
candidate, leftist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.

Afterwards, Mr. Lopez Obrador refused to concede, claiming fraud and 
organizing protests. To take the oath of office, Mr. Calderon had to 
sneak into Congress, past leftist lawmakers who vowed to disrupt the 
ceremony. Some say Mr. Calderon was searching for a spectacular move 
to start his presidency, much like former President Carlos Salinas, 
who won a contested 1988 election, did in jailing a powerful 
oil-workers' union boss. "I think he did this for reasons that had 
nothing to do with violence or drugs, but the old Mexican tradition 
of starting off the six-year term with a bang," says Jorge Castaneda, 
a former foreign minister under Mr. Calderon's predecessor, Vicente Fox.

Like many Mexicans, Mr. Castaneda says the assault on drug gangs only 
made matters worse by putting pressure on cartels that then attacked 
rivals to make up for lost profits, resulting in more violence.

Enrique Krauze, Mexico's leading historian, endorses the war, despite 
misgivings about strategy and timing. "Every war has its 
pacifists-the 'better red than dead' types. Our version is 'better 
narcos than dead' types. But they are wrong. Calderon was right to 
confront this." Drug gang violence began rising in Mexico a few years 
after Mr. Fox won the 2000 presidential election. With the end of the 
PRI's system of a strong president, Mexico endured a power vacuum, 
filled by state governors, union leaders, big business and drug gangs.

The notion that Mexico took too long to fight the drug gangs was 
endorsed recently from an unusual source: a major drug lord. Ismael 
Zambada told Proceso magazine that the government waited too long, 
and "the narcos are a part of society now."

Mr. Calderon says the critical moment for him in assessing the 
violence was a series of conversations before taking office with the 
leftist governor of Michoacan state, Lazaro Cardenas.

Mr. Cardenas, grandson of the fabled Mexican president of the same 
name, told Mr. Calderon that he and other state governors were 
worried about the growing influence of drug gangs in local police 
forces and politics.

In 2005, a Michoacan-based gang rolled five severed heads on to the 
dance floor of a strip club. It was the first of many gruesome 
beheadings. "The governor had asked for help from the federal 
government...[but] was given none," says Mr. Calderon. "He asked for 
help and I gave it to him."

Mr. Cardenas says he asked the president for more attention to 
security matters but not specifically to send in troops. He says one 
incident in particular seemed to affect Mr. Calderon. The 
president-elect was in Morelia, the state capital, talking with the 
governor when news broke of a local prison riot. Some of the inmates, 
linked to drug gangs, had taken their own lawyers hostage. They later 
executed four of them. Joint Operation Michoacan flooded the state 
with soldiers. Within months, violence ebbed. But soon after, the 
killings rose again not only in Michoacan, but across northern Mexico.

Mr. Beltrones, the opposition senator, says Mr. Calderon's plan 
focused too much on army patrols. His summary of what needs changing: 
"more intelligence, less army." And a stronger attack on cartel 
finances. "It hurts more to get hit in the pocketbook than between 
the legs," he said.

Mr. Calderon says Mexico is focusing more on intelligence work, and 
points to the recent killing of top drug lord Arturo Beltran Leyva by 
Mexican Navy forces as a successful example.

Edgardo Buscaglia, an Uruguayan-American academic, says countries 
that have successfully attacked organized crime, like the U.S., Italy 
and Colombia, had four elements in place: a judicial system that 
worked, an assault on drug gangs' assets, an attack on high-level 
political corruption and a program to attack the "soft-side" of the 
drug trade through education and work opportunities.

Without those, Mr. Buscaglia says any attack on organized crime will 
result in increased violence, as traffickers simply dedicate more 
resources to corruption and beating rivals.

Consider Mexico's decrepit judicial system. Mr. Calderon's government 
has trumpeted the arrests of more than 70,000 people linked to 
organized crime in the past three years. But Mr. Buscaglia estimates 
98% have since been freed because of faulty prosecution or 
corruption. When asked, Mr. Calderon didn't dispute that figure.

Last year, soldiers swarmed into Michoacan's city halls to arrest 10 
mayors for alleged ties to a local drug gang. Since then, all 10 have 
been released because of a lack of evidence.

Under Mr. Calderon, Mexico passed a reform allowing states to 
overhaul courts to include things like oral arguments and 
cross-examination, which should improve the quality of police work 
and judicial transparency. But only a handful of states have 
implemented the changes.

Another area where Mexico lags is attacking cartel finances. Central 
bank figures estimate that some $15 billion in U.S. 
dollars-cash-comes into the Mexican economy every year. While money 
spent by American tourists can account for some of that, experts say 
much of it is drug money that makes its way to Mexico.

The Mexican leader doesn't have much time to show progress before the 
bloodshed erodes public support. Already some Mexican politicians, 
like Mexico City mayor Marcelo Ebrard, have suggested they will dump 
Mr. Calderon's security policies if they win the 2012 presidential 
campaign. U.S. officials are also worried.

"We are at a critical stage...because we don't know who comes next 
after Mr. Calderon," Anthony Placido, head of enforcement and the 
Drug Enforcement Administration, told a recent senate hearing.
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake