Modern history



The July 1, 2012, presidential election would not be simply a referendum on the drug war, but the subject was clearly front and center given the bulletins clattering in from all quarters during the campaign’s final weeks. Nuevo Laredo: fourteen heads left in coolers in a van outside city hall; nine people hanged from a bridge. Veracruz: a mayor kidnapped from his home, his bound, tortured corpse found days later. Monterrey: forty-nine corpses minus heads, hands, and feet dumped in a nearby small town. Mexico City: a shootout at the international airport between two groups of uniformed federal police, at least one of which was working for a drug gang, with three officers left dead in a food court.

Calderón could not run again but whoever was chosen as the PAN candidate would have to run on his record, the evaluation of which would hinge on judgements of his war. Rather than leaving this to others, Calderón offered his own assessment, claiming it had been a success. At the end of November 2012, he argued that the war had turned a corner. Homicides attributable to organized criminal activity had finally fallen for the first time since he had taken office; there had not been a dramatic mass killing for several months; regions popular with tourists were relatively tranquil. In close-of-term speeches he asserted that “history will be the judge” of his time in office, and exuded confidence that the verdict would be a favorable one. But if winning a reduction of violence was Calderón’s marker of success—as he himself stressed in his final days in office—then it was hard to accept a claim of “mission accomplished” without reckoning with the impact of his initial escalation of the violence.

People turned to counting bodies. There was a wide range of estimates of how many “drug war–related” murders were committed during his term in office, and a collateral conversation about how to prove any particular killing was “drug war–related.”37 But there was general agreement that many, many people unambiguously met their end in ways that met the legal criteria of “drug war–related.” These included killings accompanied by a message relating to organized crime (as were 3,268 of the murders); accomplished with heavy caliber weapons (or another signature drug- gang method); captured (and boasted of ) on a cartel video; evidently preceded by torture (as was clear from examining the bodies of 4,645 people); or committed by decapitation (as in the case of 1,892 individuals).38

Deaths meeting these criteria were scrupulously totaled by the Calderón administration itself and made public, partly because it was believed that almost all the casualties were themselves gangsters. This position, which implies that the gangs were being weeded out of the national garden, either by the state or one another, was occasionally voiced directly. Take the case of a Mexican general, who told the press they should stop saying the state had killed one person more, and instead rejoice there was one criminal less. But this argument became harder to sustain as the war dragged on, and outcries against the slaughter of civilians grew along with human rights violation complaints against the military and police, which is perhaps one reason why the regime stopped counting during its final year. While much of the violence was certainly internecine, as cartels or factions battled for market share, human rights analysts like Nik Steinberg concluded that the great majority of victims were not criminals, but young, working-class men with families. And even those who had irrefutably signed on as sicarios were not “born to kill,” but had often been swept willy-nilly into the only game in town.

In any event, the official list sets a floor under the total—an unimpeachable floor, as it was constructed by Calderón’s own administration. In January 2012 the government acknowledged that at least 47,515 people had been killed in “drug war–related” incidents between December 2006 and September 2011 (when it announced it would no longer update and release official figures). Multiple sources suggest that a conservative estimate for the additional deaths on his watch between October 2011 to December 2012 would hover around ten thousand, providing a mortality baseline of roughly sixty thousand souls.39

To this number must be added some percentage of those who “disappeared”—or who “were disappeared.” Calderón’s people maintained a list of these as well—though this one was kept under wraps throughout his sexenio, and only leaked (by a government analyst) to the Washington Post two days before he left office. It contained over twenty-five thousand names of people who had gone missing, for whatever reason, during Calderón’s time. While some entries were accompanied by notes of chilling clarity (“Her daughter was forced into a car”; “The father was arrested by men wearing uniforms and never seen again”) the list also included those who might have migrated illegally to the States, or simply run away from home. The next administration would release a pruned version suggesting that, after having checked with families to see if the relative reported missing had perhaps reappeared, roughly eight thousand were still missing, an unknown percentage of which were drug-war related. This number—later revised to twelve thousand—was hotly contested. It had not taken into account the ongoing recovery of hundreds of unidentified corpses, exhumed from unmarked mass graves, which the state had not examined, despite promises to ­construct a DNA database that would allow comparison with information supplied by relatives of the disappeared. Nor had the state established the kind of Truth Commission investigation mounted in Chile, Argentina, and South Africa.

Accepting a figure of roughly ten thousand missing and presumed dead brings the conservatively estimated total to roughly seventy thousand over the six year period, but this number is also contested. Patient examination by responsible journalists, academics, activists, and human rights advocates, who plowed through news reports, legal documents, hospital records, and many other sources, produced higher figures. One careful accounting by Zeta, a weekly magazine published in Tijuana, placed the count at 109,000. But no one argues for fewer than the baseline constructed from the government’s own numbers. Given such bloody statistics, it is hard to credit a claim of success based on reduction of violence. Had Calderón not lifted a finger, the mortality count would almost certainly have been but a fraction of that generated by his own intervention, obviating the need for lowering the violence level that he himself had raised.

Nor had some goal been achieved, some victory that might have afforded the PAN candidate grounds for claiming that these dead had not died in vain. Perhaps the interdiction of the flow of drugs to gringo consumers could—according to some bizarre species of cost-effective moral calculus—be held to have warranted the slaughter?

But the record offered no comfort on this ground either, as a wide variety of indicators made clear that, for all the inter-cartel mayhem, the drug lords had managed to keep their eye on business. Whether measured by price, quantity, or quality, there was no diminution whatever in the flow of illegal substances. Mexican marijuana, methamphetamine, and heroin remained cheap and more plentiful than ever in the United States. United Nations surveys indicated that the per-gram price of cocaine on American streets was roughly the same in 2012 as it had been a decade earlier, and with undiminished purity. A report that year from Bruce Bagley and the Woodrow Wilson Center argued that drug trafficking organizations were better than ever at what they did, and that all indicators suggested a generalized failure of the strategies used to contain them.

Some of the cartels’ professionalism on Calderón’s watch involved new high-tech tactics: more capacious tunnels, complete with railway line, electricity, and ventilation; submarines—the average sixty-foot narco-sub carried several tons of cocaine; and drones—airborne drug mules that border-hopped below the radar screen. But cartels still deployed old low-tech devices. A former chief of operations for the DEA noted that a few days after the U.S. erected a high-tech fence along a stretch of border in Arizona, the cartels showed up with a catapult and began flinging hundred-pound bales of marijuana over to the other side. “We’ve got the best fence money can buy,” he observed ruefully, “and they counter us with a 2,500-year-old technology.”

But the primary narco way was the highway. Thanks to NAFTA, the flow of legal commerce was tremendous. In 2011, according to U.S. Bureau of Transportation statistics, nearly 4.9 million trucks and sixty-one million personal vehicles crossed the U.S.-Mexican border. It was impossible for inspectors to check more than a small sample of vehicles. For all the occasional dramatic seizures—the record-breaking drug busts Calderón touted as metrics of his success—the truth is that the river of drugs just kept on rollin’ along.

Worse: if reduction of drug consumption had been Calderón’s goal, he seemed to have made matters worse. Drug use in Mexico itself had increased somewhat, which in turn had upped the violence level as gangs of small-time dealers vied for control—not of the big international plazas, but of local street corners, where they now did their vying, courtesy of the NRA, with big-time weaponry.

Perhaps the greatest burden Calderón bequeathed to his would-be successor was fear.

The criminals’ ability to carve out new career paths—notably ­kidnapping and extortion—had in turn been facilitated by the war-engendered breakdown of public order, the spectacular increase in police corruptibility, the utter impunity afforded by a virtually defunct criminal justice system, and a state that, in many areas, was approaching the status of “failed”—precisely the nightmare scenario Calderón had set out to avoid. As the gangs had competed to establish their brand, their violence had grown increasingly grotesque, ­producing a paralyzing fear at all levels of society, leading to a weakening of social life, an abandonment of public space, an increase in distrust among neighbors, and a generalized sense of helplessness. In one 2011 national poll, two-thirds of Mexicans said they greatly feared being kidnapped, one-third had been a victim of crime in the previous three months, 43 percent had stopped letting their children play in the street, and 45 percent had stopped going out at night. 74.3 percent considered it “somewhat” or “very” dangerous to turn to the police (84.6 percent of those in the north). And when the drug struggle was presented as a “war,” 58 percent (across all social classes) believed that organized crime was winning it, while only 18 percent thought the government was.

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In the end, the burden of Calderón’s legacy would be assumed by Josefina Vázquez Mota, the PAN’s candidate in the 2012 presidential sweepstakes. Vázquez Mota—the first woman candidate from a major political entity—had been trained as an economist, worked for business organizations, wrote a pop self-help book for wives, and then segued into a political and administrative career. She served in the Chamber of Deputies; was secretary of social development; and then was secretary of public education. She ran Calderón’s campaign in 2006, and nabbed the nomination in 2012 despite not being Calderón’s choice. As the PAN’s person, there was no way she could distance herself from Calderón’s war, no matter how unpopular it might be. So she did the opposite. She promised to continue his aggressive ­militarized campaign to break the cartels, arguing as had Calderón that it was his hard line policy, not El Chapo’s victory, that had diminished the Juárez murder rate. She also suggested she would work even more closely with U.S. law enforcement.

López Obrador, speaking again for the PRD, firmly criticized the militarized approach, stressing its violation of human rights, and promised more aid to war casualties. He called, as had Calderón, for establishing a unified police command that would gradually take over security operations from the army; the training of its recruits, he stressed, should inculcate moral and civic values, as well as policing expertise. He would halt the activities of CIA operatives and DEA agents; reconsider the continuance of military aid under the Merida Initiative; and refocus intelligence activities on cracking criminal financial networks.

But the candidate who, immediately upon being nominated, leapt to first place in the polls and stayed there until he won was the youthful, telegenic, pompadoured governor of the state of Mexico, Enrique Peña Nieto, who would shrewdly pull off a comeback for the PRI, twelve years after it had been shown the door. Peña Nieto had deep roots in the state—which surrounds the autonomous Federal District (Mexico City proper)—and in the state’s PRI, which had remained impervious to PAN victories at a national level. Wired into state politics through family connections since he was a teenager, he got a BA in law and an MA in business administration. In a break with recent presidential practice, neither degree was from a U.S. university. He worked in business and law and then entered government, occupying a series of offices of escalating importance, forging relationships as he climbed with top PRI politicians and wealthy state businessmen. (Peña Nieto’s upward path was smoothed by his mentor and uncle, who was the notoriously corrupt governor of the state of Mexico from 1999 to 2005.) After winning a two-year term in 2003 in the state legislature, he was elected to the governorship (2005–2011). Generally accounted as a competent administrator, he was noted for infrastructure projects (state highways tripled during his term). However, his anti-crime record was mixed. Peña Nieto and his Attorney General Alfredo Castillo made inroads against a gang that had taken to leaving decapitated heads around the region, and managed to avoid the massive increase in murders suffered by much of the rest of the country. But violent attacks on women soared, reported robberies increased by almost 50 percent, and kidnappings quadrupled in his first four years. He also violently crushed protests by peasants incensed with a plan to expropriate their lands for a new international airport. His snaring of the nomination in 2012 was helped along by his marriage to a pop star, his mastery of TV self-presentation, and, student protestors charged, biased reporting from Televisa, whose news programs were the country’s predominant information source. Marchers chanted: “Peña, the TV is yours, the streets are ours.”

EPN—as Enrique Peña Nieto was often shorthanded—fashioned a canny strategy on the drug-war front. He would continue Calderón’s struggle but shift its focus away from capturing kingpins and making drug busts, towards diminishing the violence his predecessor’s approach had fostered. He would concentrate on domestic rather than international criminality—kidnapping and extortion rather than the flow of blow—prioritizing the safety and security of Mexico’s people rather than striving to please the DEA and U.S. Congress. The unstated nationalist subtext suggested that the gringos should defend their own border, rather than asking tens of thousands of Mexicans to die on their behalf.

He never quite said how he planned to accomplish this, apart from establishing a national police force, similar to the ones his rivals were calling for. He would create a “national gendarmerie,” an autonomous, forty-thousand-strong special force that would gradually replace army units, who would be returned to barracks. The gendarmes would be a hybrid force; its rank and file would be “of military origin”—a term never explained, but which was assumed to mean battle-hardened veterans of Calderón’s war—while the leadership would be civilian, trained in using police tactics rather than overwhelming military force. On paper it was an inspired straddle, though critics did wonder how the new forty thousand would differ from the old forty thousand, and how it would be made and kept corruption free.

What EPN had going for him that López Obrador and Vázquez Mota did not was, ironically, precisely the PRI’s legacy of corruption, which meant its proven ability to strike bargains with organized crime. This former negative now seemed a positive. Sicilia and others had called for cutting a deal with the cartels. It was politically impossible for the PRI to go along with this officially. But a portion of the electorate was convinced that, if elected, the PRI would revert to its old ways, allowing the cartels to operate freely as long as they played by certain rules and gave the government its cut. Here EPN’s opponents unwittingly helped him out. Calderón warned that the PRI might negotiate with the cartels in order to keep the peace. American officials privately feared the same thing. Peña Nieto stoutly denied he would ever do any such thing. This reassured those who wanted the war to continue, while those who hoped for a violence-reduction strategy simply assumed that of course he was lying. In truth, the old Humpty Dumpty, PRI-dominated plaza system was far too thoroughly broken for its pieces to be put back together again. There were too many new gangs out there to cut deals with unless a wave of re-cartelization took place. And the presidency had lost its ability to command a secret state, given the opposition parties and a nosy press. Nevertheless, many believed the PRI could and would reach an accord with the cartels; they had done it before, they could do it again.

Peña Nieto was also creatively ambiguous in his approach to Mexican-U.S. relations. Where the PAN would accelerate the anti-drug collaboration, and the PRD would throttle it back, the PRI did both, setting new limits while simultaneously promising “an intense, close relationship of effective collaboration.” There would, EPN insisted, be no armed American agents in Mexico, no armed joint counter-narcotics operations as in Colombia and Central America. Surveillance drones over Mexico to gather intelligence on drug trafficking were okay, if run by Mexico with the U.S. providing assistance and technology. He also favored U.S. military and police training their Mexican counterparts—a position, according to polls, supported by 75 percent of the population.

EPN could have argued, but preferred not to spell it out, that relations between the White House and the Mexican presidency might well improve, given that Calderón had become a strident critic of America’s failure to crack down on the southbound flow of arms or to diminish U.S. demand for illegal drugs. Indeed it was the PRI’s rather than the PAN’s position that was gaining favor in Washington. A 2012 report by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, ordered up by its chairman John Kerry, concluded that “military deployments to combat organized crime have achieved limited success and, in some cases, have led to human rights violations.” The U.S., accordingly, should “encourage the reduction of the Mexican military’s role in the provision of domestic security,” and provide Mexico with trainers for police academies rather than more Black Hawk helicopters. Noting also that Calderón’s core strategy of taking down top cartel leadership “has been widely criticized for de-emphasizing the daily security needs of average Mexicans,” the committee tacked toward Peña Nieto’s approach, fearing that if Mexicans did not see a reduction in violence, they might back a deal with the cartels.

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Peña Nieto won with 38.15 percent of the vote. López Obrador received 31.64 percent and Vázquez Mota trailed with 25.4 percent. EPN had won by a whisker, but a big enough whisker to keep post-election protests to a minimum.40

37 For a lucid investigation of the statistical (and political) issues involved in the gruesome business of body counting, see Heinle, Rodríguez, and Shirk, Drug Violence in ­Mexico (2014).

38 These figures come from the respected newspaper Reforma’s running tally, as published in its “executonometer.”

39 Reforma reported that in 2012 there were 9,577 organized crime–style homicides while the equally respected Milenio reported there were 12,390 for that year.

40 Calderón soon decamped for Harvard, where he taught classes at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, and worked on his memoirs, which were published in 2014.

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