Mexico is at war. No, not a war with the United States over immigration, though the war for stability and modernity Mexico is waging has profound effects on that hot-button North American issue.
Let’s take Mexico’s figurative battle first, the "political fight for modernization." Figurative, however, doesn’t mean without the threat of severe civil disorder.
Conducting legitimate elections is certainly a "front" in Mexican modernization. So is navigating the storm of post-election partisan rivalry, massive street demonstrations and threatened violence.
A retrospective look at the July 2006 presidential election and its dicey aftermath suggests Mexico is maturing as a democracy. That is good news.
The election pitted moderate-conservative National Action Party (PAN) candidate Felipe Calderon against left-wing Democratic Revolution Party (PRD) candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador. Calderon won by an angstrom — 244,000 votes out of 41 million ballots cast.
Lopez Obrador, however, declared himself the "legitimate president" and led huge demonstrations in Mexico City that shut down businesses. International observers, however, said the vote was fairly conducted and Mexico’s Federal Electoral Institute (IFE) certified the election results. In December 2006, Lopez Obrador and PRD activists tried to frustrate Calderon’s inauguration.
Eight months later, Lopez Obrador continues to claim the presidency — but last year’s bellow is this year’s pathetic echo. The consensus view is the IFE demonstrated real institutional integrity and ran a clean election.
President Calderon has certainly impressed the Mexican electorate. Combating corruption is another front in the fight for modernization, and Calderon is attacking that complex, debilitating and pervasive problem. Calderon is pursuing judicial and police reform. His government is reportedly in the midst of a "corruption purge" of its federal police. Two hundred eighty-four Mexican police commanders and sub-commanders will be replaced. Not all of these suspect cops will be arrested, however. An interesting policy wrinkle is a "rehabilitation" course.
Calderon’s "war on the drug lords" isn’t figurative — it is a tough, bitter counter-insurgency combining classic military counter-guerrilla sweeps with special forces-type police raids and intelligence operations. It also intertwines with his political war on corruption.
Money generated by the illegal drug trade has made it very easy for the big "cartels" to buy off police and judges. The drug cartels were able to carve out "safe zones, which have been compared to quasi-independent feudal fiefs. Police corruption, vicious turf wars among drug gangs and the "safe zones" beyond federal control are key reasons Calderon decided to treat the drug war as an "insurgency" in Mexico.
A military and police offensive began in December 2006 and is still underway. At one point, around 30,000 federal troops were involved in operations.
Calderon decided to give the Mexican military a major role in the war because he considered it to be more reliable than local and state police forces. (Apparently, many Mexicans agree. A recent poll in Mexico found that the Mexican military was the second most "respected institution" in the country. The most respected is "the family.")
In April, the Mexican Army arrested over 100 local and state policemen in northern Mexico. The common charge was "linked to organized crime," which usually means the suspect is involved in the narcotics business.
Several actions are quite similar to U.S.-led counter-insurgent operations in Iraq. In April, four Mexican policeman in Sonora state died in a drug gang attack that involved 40 gunmen. The attackers struck a police station, took hostages, then committed "execution style" murders. State police and Mexican Army soldiers fought a pitched battle in the mountains outside the town and claimed to have killed 12 of the gunmen. The attack was a terrorist and insurgent tactic designed to kill local cops who oppose the gangs and cow the local populace.
Credit Calderon. He is literally attacking several of Mexico’s worst problems head-on. He won’t eradicate the problem of drug smuggling — that is a U.S. problem. America creates the demand. However, he could well smash the powerful cartels that operate as criminal governments. As for his reform agenda — the next Mexican president will also have to have Calderon’s degree of commitment because it will take a decade or more to make his reforms stick.