Calderon Leaves His Drug War Behind

By McCarton Ackerman 11/30/12

Mexico's president leaves office after six years and 63,000 dead, with the drug war at a stalemate.

Will he be missed? Photo via

Outgoing Mexican President Felipe Calderon leaves office tomorrow. On his watch, Mexico has aggressively battled its brutal drug cartels for six years; the drug war is now at a stalemate and many believe his militant methods have caused more harm than good. Despite the US providing nearly $2 billion in security aid, an estimated 63,000 people have died in Mexico due to drug war-related violence and more than 100,000 total homicides have taken place (a number far exceeding homicides in the US, which has three times the population.) Over 1,300 victims have been beheaded in the country since 2007, while kidnappings, robberies and extortions have soared. North of the border, Mexican marijuana, methamphetamine and heroin remain cheaper and more plentiful than ever. And although Calderon's security forces have captured or killed more than two dozen of Mexico’s most-wanted drug cartel leaders, many of those vacancies have been re-filled and none of those captured have yet stood trial. “You can say the war has been a failure because Calderon said violence needed to stop, and now there’s three times more violence,” says Ruben Aguilar, who was a spokesman for Calderon’s predecessor, President Vicente Fox. “He said he had to diminish the cartels. But the cartels are still here, bigger and more violent than ever.”

At least the country has now gone several months without any mass killings—an improvement on the extreme violence of this past summer, when 49 corpses were found dumped along a major highway in Guadelajara. And some popular tourist areas have remained relatively violence-free, which hasn't always been the case. Former murder havens like Tijuana and Ciudad Juarez have seen businesses reopen and residents praise the relative calm. It's just possible that Calderon's leadership will look better in retrospect, if the violence continues to decline. “Right now, I think the public is ambivalent,” says independent pollster Jorge Buendia. “They support the fight against the cartels as a matter of principle. But they’re ready for a change.” Calderon, partly out of fears for his personal security, will now move to the US. He'll spend a year at Harvard as the first Angelopoulos Global Public Leaders fellow—a one-year position created to give high-profile leaders leaving office time to write, lecture and generally share their experiences. At a meeting at the White House on Tuesday, Mexican president-elect Enrique Peña Nieto said he plans to continue working with the US to fight the drug cartels; however, he wants to change the emphasis to boost employment and educational opportunities as a strategy to create jobs and tempt Mexicans away from crime.

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McCarton Ackerman is a freelance writer and editor living in Portland, Oregon. He has been a contributor for The Fix since October 2011, writing on a wide range of topics ranging from medical marijuana in Colorado to the world's sexiest drug smugglers. Follow him on Linkedin and Twitter.