Modern history



In the campaign to replace Fox, two candidates quickly moved to the fore.

The PAN, much to most people’s surprise (including Fox), nominated a little-known wonkish lawyer, Felipe Calderón, who had been born into the National Action Party and spent most of his life advancing its cause. His father, Luis Calderón Vega, was one of the PAN’s founders, and an advocate both of democracy (he fought PRI authoritarianism) and a Catholic version of Christian Socialism. The elder Calderón resigned from the party in 1981, believing it had become a right-wing organization serving only the rich. Felipe stayed on, as despite sharing his father’s democratic leanings, he was much more conservative in his economics. In the 1980s he moved from his home town of Morelia, in Michoacán, to Mexico City, where he studied law and got an MA in economics. He then added a degree in public administration from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government (2000), imbibing neoliberal ideology while rising through the party’s ranks. He served in the Fox administration as secretary of energy, but resigned in 2004 to protest Fox’s support for a rival cabinet minister as his successor. When he pulled off his surprise victory, Mexico’s wealthy minority threw their hats in his ring. However, Calderón tailored his platform to appeal to those in the middle class who had benefited from specific Fox programs, like loans that enabled them to buy their own homes, and from the very modest but very timely uptick in the economy during Fox’s last two years (driven in part by an unexpected windfall from a jump in oil prices).

His chief opponent was not the PRI’s Roberto Madrazo, who was weighed down by the opprobrium barnacled to his party, but Andrés Manuel López Obrador (often referred to as AMLO). López Obrador hailed from the southern state of Tabasco, where he joined the PRI in 1976, and studied political science at a public university. In 1984, he relocated to Mexico City, where in 1988 he joined the dissenting left wing of the PRI led by Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, and after the stolen election, shifted to the new PRD. A party stalwart and social activist, López Obrador was elected mayor of Mexico City in 2000. There he further developed existing social welfare programs, and initiated one that provided cash subsidies to single mothers and the elderly. He left office in 2005 with an unprecedented 84 percent approval rating, and a highly visible national profile. As the PRD candidate, his campaign slogan was “For the Good of Everyone, the Poor First,” referring to his advocacy of increasing taxes on the rich and extending resources to the poor. Such policy proposals, together with an austere lifestyle and a record of support for indigenous Mexicans, alienated many in the upper class and business community who viewed him as an uncultured (read: not quite white) Robin Hood figure. But his appeal to the poor and working class, together with his name recognition, helped propel him to an early double-digit lead in the polls.

Calderón struck back with television attack ads, accusing López Obrador of being a “Danger to Mexico,” claiming that his domestic cash transfer policies would derail the economy, and comparing him to Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez. These ads were well below the belt, according to Mexico’s enlightened and very strict campaign rules against negative campaigning, and they were eventually banned, but not before they had helped (together with some AMLO tactical errors) close the gap between the two front-runners.

In the end, two different but overlapping Mexicos faced off, one more socially conservative, the other more socially liberal; one more rooted in the industrial north, the other strongest in the ­central and southern states where most of the country’s poor lived; one favoring state action, the other preferring to let the market work its magic. As Ginger Thompson reported in the New York Times, the contest would come down to how the middle class would vote. And the single biggest line of division within that sector—as demonstrated by post-election analyses—was what a voter thought about NAFTA. Those who believed they had benefited from it (and from closer ties to the U.S.) tended to back Calderón, those who felt damaged by it (and by the enhanced U.S. links) leaned toward López Obrador.

What the 2006 election was not about was the drug-related bloodletting—the battles between the state and the cartels, and between one cartel and another—that had broken out big time during the Fox sexenio.

Nor was it about crime in general, in part because Mexico as a whole had been experiencing a decided drop in crime of all sorts. Since its peak in 1992, the national homicide rate had declined steadily from 19.72 per 100,000 citizens, to 8.04 in 2007. Other crimes had plummeted as well, leaving Mexico’s criminal indices near the average of other industrialized nations, and lower than those of England, Holland, and Ireland. The Mexican “crime crash” paralleled with uncanny precision the one underway in many U.S. cities, with violent crime in New York peaking in 1991, and hitting a record low in 2005.

All the candidates were remarkably circumspect in their rhetoric, making no mention of particular cartels, lest they call down gangster wrath. (The death of candidate Colosio had not been forgotten.) Calderón talked vaguely about freeing “cities like Tijuana, Nuevo Laredo, or Acapulco from this cancer before it eats away our society,” and advanced a series of specific reforms—changing the judicial system, centralizing the police forces, extraditing captured drug lords to the United States, and imposing life sentences on convicted kidnappers. López Obrador argued that creating jobs and reducing poverty was the only real way to fight crime—“I don’t think you can make much progress with prisons or threats of heavy-handed approaches and tougher laws,” he said, though he also broke with the left’s anti-military ­tradition by suggesting a bigger role for the army in fighting the drug trade, given how well armed were the cartels.

On election day, July 2, the contending forces proved to be as sharply divided in votes as they were in views. Calderón received 35.89 percent of the vote. López Obrador got 35.33 percent. Madrazo of the PRI trailed in third place with 22.26 percent. The 0.56 percent separating the two Mexican front-runners in 2006 was a trifle larger than the 0.51 percent gap in the USA contest of 2000, though of course Al Gore had won the popular vote, and only the existence of an Electoral College allowed the Supreme Court to overturn the popular decision, generating a firestorm of claims by furious Democrats that the election had been hijacked, that Bush was an illegitimate president.

In Mexico, where there was no Electoral College, the López Obrador forces, pointing to a variety of irregularities, claimed that Calderón’s popular vote margin had been obtained by straight-out fraud—hearkening back to the great theft of 1988—and that López Obrador was the rightful president. But where Gore eventually backed down and accepted the outcome, López Obrador refused to acquiesce. His supporters declared Calderón’s looming presidency illegitimate, and took to the streets to abort it. During July and August, López Obrador’s followers had been blocking major thoroughfares like Avenida Reforma (a Champs-Élysées lookalike) and had set up a giant encampment in the Zócalo, Mexico City’s enormous central plaza, roughly equal in size to eleven football fields.17 But after undertaking a partial recount of the ballots (not the full one AMLO was demanding), the Federal Electoral Tribunal declared Calderón the winner. The protests continued.

On November 20 (not coincidentally, the anniversary of the Mexican Revolution), an ocean of Obradordistas—they claimed to be a million strong—massed in the vast Zócalo and bulged out into surrounding streets. They had come to “install” their man as president. At the center was a huge stage, on which was placed a replica of the podium in the Legislative Palace. Behind it was a gigantic backdrop featuring an eagle-topped cactus (the symbol of the nation) drawn by a renowned cartoonist, pen-named “El Fisgon” or “Mr. Snoop.” And it was at that podium, to the strains of patriotic music and thunderous applause from the immense assemblage (and on-stage dignitaries, including several governors and senators), that Rosario Ibarra de Piedra, an iconic Mother of the Disappeared whose son had been spirited away in Mexico’s Dirty War of the 1970s, draped a reproduction of the green presidential sash around him and knotted it in place. López Obrador, the crowd-sourced president of Mexico, then delivered his inaugural address, and named the members of his cabinet (oddly including PRI people who had helped engineer the 1988 fraud).

Eleven days later, on December 1, when Calderón arrived at the Legislative Palace of San Lázaro to take the oath of office before a joint session of Congress, all was bedlam. Outside, hundreds of thousands paraded through the center of the city, hoisting red banners, Mexican tricolor flags, and placards emblazoned “No to Fraud,” all the while chanting over and over: “Obrador! Obrador! Obrador!” Inside, shouting and jostling representatives from the two leading parties struggled to dominate the scene. López Obrador’s people tried to block the entrances to prevent those of Calderón’s party from getting in, hoping to short-circuit the proceedings by precluding a quorum. This would not be a mere inconvenience; the Constitution provided that if the elected president did not take the oath on the appointed day in the appointed place, the presidency would be declared vacant and a new election called.

A flying wedge of PANistas outflanked the PRD stalwarts and hustled Calderón into the chamber through a back door. Bulling their way to the podium, skipping all the traditional ritual, forgoing the shaking of hands, throwing protocol to the winds, they slapped on the sash of office. Calderón swore a hasty allegiance to Mexico, his voice drowned out by boos and cheers. The new (if precariously perched) president of the republic was whisked away and out the door. The whole business was over in three minutes flat.

In all the hubbub, less attention was paid to a press conference Calderón had just held, hours before his dash to the sash. In addition to announcing the members of his security cabinet, Calderón tossed a bombshell into the roiling national conversation. He was declaring, he said, a war on drugs, a “battle against drug trafficking and organized crime, which will take time, money, and even lives.”

Organized crime, he explained, had been allowed to grow exponentially due to corruption and sloth, and it had become so powerful that it now exercised control over significant parts of the country. “Mexicans cannot and should not allow de facto powers to defy the authority of the state on a daily basis,” Calderón said, nor should they accept the attendant flouting of the law, the explosion of crime, the violence that, he argued, was spinning out of control. His war would protect the citizenry, diminish corruption, and reduce the bloodshed. It was a matter of great urgency, a matter of national security. It required and would receive immediate action.

Ten days later, on December 11, 2006, 5,300 armed troops, assembled chiefly from various federal forces (the army, navy, and federal police), rolled into the State of Michoacán, due west of Mexico City—an initiative presumably worked up in closed-door consultations sometime between July and December. The latest iteration of the War on Drugs was underway.

Many Mexicans were stunned by this development. Calderón had not provided the slightest hint during the campaign that he intended any such military undertaking. Not surprisingly, many believed this conjured-up war was a desperate bid by Calderón to save his presidency. It looked like an effort to change the conversation, to distract attention from the throngs in the streets, to establish his legitimacy by rallying the country behind its commander-in-chief and his heroic stand against a quasi-external foe.

There is a lot to be said for this theory, and one day the smoking gun that proves it may turn up. But even if eventually it can be shown conclusively that such self-serving motivations dominated Calderón’s decision, it is still too facile an explanation of how and why the war was launched. The burgeoning lawlessness and horrific violence of the Fox era were legitimate causes for alarm. With heads rolling—and in his home state of Michoacán, no less—it was not prima facie unreasonable for Calderón to argue that the federal state needed to recapture territory that had been effectively seized by organized crime.

The question was how best to go about doing so. In his campaign Calderón had talked about (once again) reorganizing the rotted-out federal police force and reforming the judiciary. He had made passing mention of establishing yet another law enforcement agency modeled on the DEA. He had spoken about raising military salaries, which might have been seen as portending his next move. But still, in all his campaign rhetoric, there had been nary a whiff of war. If anything, he had depicted the greatest menace facing Mexico as coming not from drug lords, but from López Obrador.

Nor had he talked publicly of war during the electoral crisis, when he was president-elect. What he did do, in the months between the voting in July and his rocky inauguration in December, was to consult with Antonio Garza, the U.S. ambassador, and then with President George W. Bush, about a fully militarized war on drugs. In September, at a private dinner with Garza in Mexico City, Calderón said he planned to make attending to the narcos a key pillar of his administration. Garza offered a hearty concurrence. Indeed he warned that if Calderón wanted to attract the investments needed to jump-start Mexico’s economy, “foreigners and Mexicans alike had to be reassured that the rule of law would prevail.” Calderón stressed his strong desire to improve cooperation with the U.S. on security matters.

In November, at the White House, in his first face-to-face meeting with Bush, the president-elect pleaded for a major commitment of guns and money.18 He received the president’s energetic blessing—perhaps no surprise given that three years earlier Bush had initiated his own “war of choice.” Four months later, at a March 2007 presidential meeting in Merida, Mexico, the leaders finalized the terms of a billion-plus dollar U.S. commitment to providing weapons, intelligence-gathering equipment, and training.19

But while Calderón had taken steps to arrange for backup, he had not fully grappled with the weakness of the Mexican armed forces under his command, nor had he fully assayed the strengths of his enemy.

The spectacular desertion rates in the military under Fox called for measures beyond a modest raise in pay.20 And sending the army to deal with criminal disorder in the middle of Mexico’s cities would require a lengthy training period, for which his blitzkrieg war plan made no provision. Perhaps here Calderón was unduly influenced by U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who, when responding in December 2004 to complaints from front-line soldiers in Iraq about a dangerous lack of preparation, issued his famous dictum: “you go to war with the army you have—not the army you might want or wish to have at a later time.”

Conceivably Calderón’s proposed centralizing of the national police forces—bringing the Federal Preventive Police and the Federal Investigation Agency under a single command—might mitigate corruption. But the fantastic amounts of money gangsters could bring to bear might have given a more prudent man pause. Nor was significant attention paid to the nation’s roughly two thousand local police forces—which were at best useless, and more often than not active adjutants of the cartels—other than a willingness to evict them from office wholesale, or, if need be, have federal forces shoot them down.

An even weaker reed than the means of violence was the means of justice. The criminal justice system was a bad joke, corrupt beyond belief, wildly inefficient, its conviction rates infinitesimal, its prisons porous or controlled by inmates.

And for all Calderón’s sweeping references to “the state” regaining control of cartel-dominated territory, there was no longer a “state” in the old unitary sense. The days of one-party rule were over, for ill as well as good. The defeated PRI, licking its wounds and looking for a comeback, was not inclined to join a coalition government. López Obrador’s PRD supporters were still in the streets contesting Calderón’s right to be president. Congress was effectively gridlocked. And key state governorships were in the hands of rival parties. All this may have influenced his decision to skip any effort to cultivate support and instead just spring his war on the citizenry—staging not a coup but a coup de théâtre that he hoped would carry the day. But even Bush had taken pains to put together a “Coalition of the Willing.”

Then there was the strength of the enemy, which might have been better assessed. It was not just the cartels’ gringo-derived firepower—Calderón was very alive to that issue and would call on the U.S., repeatedly, publicly, and fruitlessly, to restore the assault-weapons ban, to sign CIFTA, to stem the flow of Kalashnikovs. Rather, it was that Calderón seemed not to comprehend that the drug business had taken deep root, with hundreds of thousands of campesinos having become dependent, for lack of better alternatives, on the narco economy. Perhaps it was hard for him to reckon with this silent support, because that would have required confronting the profound crisis of the countryside, and reconsidering the role of NAFTA and the whole neoliberal project in creating it.

Calderón and his party had run on a pro-NAFTA platform, aiming at and receiving the support of the substantial number of ­Mexicans who were benefiting from the new order. Analysis of the 2006 voting statistics showed PAN’s support had come disproportionately from the industrial and service sectors of the north, from the middle- and upper-middle classes, and from self-identified Catholics. AMLO had done better with agrarian, southern, and poorer voters, though the PRI’s Madrazo had done better still in those sectors. Calderón had talked of fighting poverty, but he believed the way to do so was by pressing ahead with the neoliberal project, opening the country still further to international capital, and expanding the industrial sector so it could absorb the growing number of farmers being driven from the land by unequal competition with U.S. agribusiness. A New Mexico would thus peaceably replace the Old. He did not quite get that the drug business, whose illicit cargoes rolled north from Nuevo Laredo and Ciudad Juárez alongside the trucks conveying automobiles and electronics, was itself part of the New Mexico. The impoverished peasants pouring into the narcoeconomy—getting jobs as growers, gunmen, packagers, drivers, guards, and peddlers—and the many rural villages being “modernized” through profits from the drug trade, had a stake in this new status quo, and would fight to defend it.

Nor was Calderón quite prepared to tackle the interdependency between Mexico’s narcoeconomy and the country’s financial, commercial, and industrial infrastructures. Though he did win passage of some (extremely modest and feebly enforced) money-laundering legislation, he never fully confronted the degree to which the banking system benefited from the billions of dollars repatriated each year from sales in Gringolandia, monies that in turn helped fertilize a host of “modern” sectors like transportation, hotels, security, cattle ranches, record labels, and movie companies. In 2009, midway through his sexenio, the roughly $30 billion that annually flowed to Mexican gangsters ran a close second to profits from oil exports ($36.1 billion), and exceeded remittances from migrant Mexican maids and agricultural laborers ($21.1 billion), and foreign tourism ($11.3 billion). He did not quite grasp the degree to which his own constituents might be complicit in perpetuating the established narco-order he was now setting out to topple.

He might also have given some attention to the cultural appeal of the narco-enemy among an indeterminate but sizeable percentage of Mexico’s youth, especially the popularity of narcocorridos. These songs, which cast drug dealers as heroic rebels, had evolved (or devolved) from a 200-year-old tradition of peripatetic balladry. Back in the day, wandering minstrels would bring the latest news, set to music, to the hinterlands of northern Mexico. During the War of Independence in the 1810s and 1820s, the lyrics took on a rebellious cast. This emphasis was still in place a century later during the Revolutionary wars when (as Grillo notes in El Narco) they were sung around the firesides of militia camps.

In the 1930s, balladeers began singing about bandits and bootleggers, celebrating outlawry much as popular culture did in the contemporary U.S.A. In the 1970s the outlaws being limned became drug dealers, the bootleggers’ latter-day incarnation. With the huge success in 1974 of “Contraband and Treason,” a ditty by the group Los Tigres del Norte, the format went mass market. The tale of drug runners driving over the border to San Diego with pounds of marijuana stuffed into their car tires—probably the first recorded narcocorrido—was a sensation in Sinaloa, and among Chicano gangs in California. Soon hundreds of imitators from both sides of the border were churning out hardcore narcocorridos, with obvious interlinks in the 1980s and 1990s to U.S. gangsta rap.

Despite songster claims to have inherited the mantle of a subversive tradition, and for all their heroizing of young hoods as fearless machos with Robin Hood inclinations, they were in fact bulwarks of the system. The songs were paeans to consumerism and misogyny, celebrating fast cars and snappy clothes and sexy subservient women—the enjoyment of wealth not its redistribution. Their depiction of narcos as successful self-made men, entrepreneurs with Uzis, was equally obfuscatory, as the drug trade was a quasi-corporate machine that relied on active complicity of the forces of order.

Their essential congruity with the status quo was one reason that the songs were popular not just with the gangsters themselves, not just to many of the disaffected masses of the unemployed and semi-employed of the Old Mexico, but were taken up as well by affluent children of the New Mexico. These private-school graduates and scions of rich ranching families striking hip-hop gangsta poses in the manner of suburban U.S. youth, thought it cool to dress up like hoodlums or hang out with the sons of capos. While no more likely than their U.S. counterparts to pick up AR-15s, their susceptibility to the allure of gangster culture complicated Calderón’s notion that he could rally a unified “us” against a marginalized “them.”

Of one thing the new president was certain: it would be a bad idea to reverse macroeconomic policy (as the left advised) by refurbishing the safety net, reestablishing subsidies the PRI had long promoted, slowing or reversing the privatization of public services (of education and day care, for instance, which only appealed to voters who could afford to pay for them), or restoring price controls on basic commodities. (Though on the latter issue he proved pragmatic, backing down when resistance to his proposed cutbacks in tortilla subsidies threatened to become explosive.)

Instead, Calderón defined what he was up against in purely military terms. And in this he was egged on by the United States. This was, after all, Bush Time, when terrorism was treated not as a crime against humanity but an as act of war requiring in response a “global war on terrorism,” albeit a war with no clear definition of “victory.” It is possible that Calderón had Operation Condor in mind as a model—a quick campaign to beat hell out of the narcos for a year or so, reminding them of who was boss, after which the bad guys would fall back in line. But given that the old PRI apparatus of corrupt federal oversight of the drug trade had been largely dismantled, there was no obvious line to fall back to, even if he had wanted (which he did not) to replace the PRI’s de facto organization of the industry with one run by the PAN.

He might have been better advised to take Bush’s war in Iraq as a negative role model. By 2006 Iraq had long since turned into a Vietnam-style quagmire, and in the November 2006 elections it had just cost the Republicans control of the House and Senate. But just as Calderón was assuming power, Bush, who had been sidling away from his “stay the course” rhetoric, now changed course again—­prodded by the right—and threw another twenty thousand troops into the Middle-Eastern morass. (“The surge” would buy him a little more time, at the cost of many more American and Iraqi lives, but in the end would lead only to his party’s being booted from the White House by an anti-war Democrat in 2008.)

Like Bush, Calderón charged heedlessly ahead, with equally disastrous results.

17 This was a highly symbolic occupation, as the Zócalo was (and is) the city’s symbolic, cultural, and political center. Around it are grouped major Mexican institutions: the baroque sixteenth-century Metropolitan Cathedral; the National Palace (constructed in the sixteenth century on the site of, and redeploying materials from, the Palace of Moctezuma), which housed the federal executive branch, a White House without the living quarters; the Palace of Government of the City (City Hall); and the ruins of the Aztecs’ Templo Mayor.

18 The timing of the meeting was a bit awkward as two weeks before the Oval Office get-together Bush had signed into law the Secure Fence Act of 2006, which called for erecting 698 miles of fence on the boundary between the two nations. Calderón criticized the plan in a meeting with Hispanic groups, saying he wanted to see “the U.S.-Mexico border not covered in walls and barbed wire, but as an area of opportunity and prosperity for Mexicans and Americans both.”

19 Lucrative contracts for arming the Mexican state went to, among others, Bell Helicopter, Northrup Grumman, Sikorsky, and United Technologies Corporation.

20 Though this was a promise on which he delivered: soldiers who received 4,300 pesos ($316) a month in 2006 got 10,800 pesos ($795) a month by 2012.

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