As he nears the end of his six-year term, Mexican President Felipe Calderon leaves his country with a better-armored economy — and also more armored cars.
Calderon delivered his final state-of-the-nation speech on Monday, trying to cement his legacy as the president who stabilized the economy and took on the country’s entrenched organized crime groups, putting Mexico on the road to rule of law.
He boasted of expanding and cleaning up the federal police, putting nearly US$160 billion in international reserves and creating more than 2 million jobs, twice the number during the term of his predecessor, former Mexican president Vicente Fox.
“It’s been our generation’s job to assume the costs and risks of making urgent changes in politics and security,” he said in the speech at the National Palace. “The reform has begun to bear fruit, but real results will only be seen in the future.”
Still, the short-term verdict on the Calderon administration is decidedly mixed, starting with the fact that violence-weary voters in the July national elections were so weary of his tenure that they kicked his party out of the presidency and brought back the long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI).
“Mexico is a long way from having strong rule of law still, and a solid economic base has not necessarily led to the kind of jobs that people hope to have,” said Andrew Selee, director of the Mexico Institute, a Washington-based think tank. “It’s a well-managed economy, but it’s not a dynamic economy, and that’s the legacy.”
The sale of armored vehicles in Mexico has doubled since Calderon took office and the homicide rate has soared, with beheadings and mass slayings so common they often no longer make the front pages of national newspapers — and with local papers often too intimidated to cover them at all.
Government statistics show 21,500 homicides in the first half of this year, compared with about 25,000 for the entire year of 2007, Calderon’s first full year in office.
Calderon praised the transformation of the federal police, which he said has grown from 6,500 officers to 37,000 during his term, including 8,600 college graduates — a reform forced by the repeated failure of similar overhauls of earlier police agencies.
The federal Public Safety Department, which oversees federal police officers, and the Attorney General’s Office have vetted 100 percent of their agents with background checks, he said.
The reputation of the federal police has also been battered. Two weeks ago, federal police ambushed a US Embassy vehicle, injuring two CIA agents working with a Mexican Navy captain. The federal agents said they were investigating a kidnapping when they opened fire on the armored SUV.
In June, two federal police officers fatally shot three colleagues at Mexico City’s airport. Authorities said the shooters were part of a trafficking ring that flew in cocaine from Peru. Mexico announced this month that it was replacing 348 federal police assigned to security details at the airport in an effort to quash drug trafficking through the terminal.
Last year, a businessman from Ciudad Juarez, across the border from El Paso, Texas, accused a group of 10 federal police officers of beating him, torturing him and demanding money. He was stabbed to death a day before he was to attend a judicial hearing on his accusations against the officers.
Just last week, 10 more federal police were arrested for trying to extort a businesswoman in Morelos state south of Mexico City, an incident she captured on tape.
“There have been many problems with restructuring the federal police because they haven’t eradicated corruption,” said Raul Benitez, an expert on security at Mexico’s National Autonomous University. “The adaption of the armed forces to fighting drug trafficking has been slow and difficult, and they haven’t been able to resolve the human right violations.”
Calderon sharply escalated an armed offensive against drug traffickers when he took office in December 2006 and made the battle his top priority. More than 47,000 people had been killed in drug violence since then and through September last year, the last time the government released official figures.