Calderón’s War

Nathaniel Parish Flannery
April 17, 2013

In September 2006, barely a month after Felipe Calderón was elected as Mexico’s president, narco thugs in Michoacán dumped five severed heads onto a dance floor in Uruapan, one of the state’s main cities. By that point in the year, cartel gunmen had killed more than 400 people in Michoacán, including nearly two dozen senior police officers. Along with the severed heads, the gangsters in Michoacán left threatening notes. “See. Hear. Shut Up. If you want to stay alive,” said one.[i] In spite of the gruesome nature of some of the cartel killings, in 2006 Mexico was still a relatively safe place. Overall, during Calderón’s term in office, the number of homicides recorded by Mexico’s National Statistics Institute (INEGI) nearly tripled from 10,452 in 2006 to 27,213 in 2011.[ii] In an article published in July 2012, security analyst, Eduardo Guerrero, said, “today it’s not possible to argue that the violence from organized crime is confined to just a few corners of the country.”[iii]

Calderón, a technocrat from the right-of-center National Action Party, might have had good intentions, but he picked the wrong strategy. At the start of his term, he pulled an olive drab military style jacket over his pressed, light-blue oxford shirt and squeezed a brand new dark green army cap over his head.[iv] The brim of the hat partially covered his delicate, frameless glasses. Flanked by a military official in standard-issue attire, he pushed forward with Operation Michoacán Together and sent 4,000 troops to patrol the hills of his home state. The soldiers went out into the streets and, over the next few years, crime rates across Mexico soared. Four years after implementing the strategy, Calderón acknowledged that, up until that point in his term, “2010 was the year with the most violent deaths in the country.”[v] As Calderón’s soldiers started capturing and killing cartel bosses, Mexico’s criminal groups started battling among and between each other for control of the drug trade and local rackets. This period of upheaval has corresponded with a rise in ordinary street crime in many towns and cities. It is impossible to deny that he inherited an extraordinarily challenging security dynamic. Nevertheless, in hindsight, one thing has become clear: Calderón took the wrong approach to the war on drugs.

From the day the first bullet was fired all the way until the day the flag was passed to the next administration, Calderón’s War failed to address the direct needs of Mexico’s population. The multibillion dollar market for illicit drugs in the United States continues to be fed by shipments from Latin America and other parts of the globe. Calderón’s mistake is that he adopted a unilateral response to an international problem and failed to take sufficient measures to adequately protect his own country’s population from the unintended side effects of his strategy. Given the scope and the magnitude of the underlying economic mechanisms which fuel the drug trade, other governments in the region, such as Costa Rica, are choosing to focus on protecting their own citizens and working to promote law and order by implementing effective community policing. The central criticism of Calderón’s strategy is that he embraced a macro military solution and allowed troop movements to take precedence over effective local policing. The result has been six years of reputation-damaging violence, a re-organization of the structure of Mexico’s organized crime, and almost no disruption whatsoever of the connection between cocaine suppliers in Colombia and consumers in the United States. The drug trade is an international problem that requires an international solution. Crime and violence, on the other hand, are national and local problems that can be addressed by local policymakers.

Urban Example One: Mexico City

Mexico City presents an interesting example of the benefits of security strategies that focus on community policing. During the course of Calderón’s War, Mexico City, once one of the world’s most dangerous cities, transformed into one of the safest urban hubs in the hemisphere. In 2010, Mexico City’s police tallied 318 murders.[vi] By contrast, during the same year New York City and Chicago, two cities with smaller populations than Mexico City, reported 536 and 449 murders.[vii] Ciudad Juárez, a drug war epicenter with a population of about one million, dealt with 3,111 murders in 2010.[viii] Even as the cartel war rages in other parts of Mexico, the country’s capital city has emerged as an oasis of relative safety and a testament to the value of effective community police work.

Although Mexico City continues to experience periodic instances of violence, it relies on police rather than soldiers to maintain security. Over the last twelve years, under the leadership of mayors from the leftist Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), Mexico City has achieved a miraculous reduction in crime. Even as drug cartel and street gang violence have become serious threats in many other regions of the country, Mexico City has emerged as a relative oasis. With a combination of social programs and vigilant community policing, leftwing mayors Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO), the PRD’s candidate in the 2012 presidential race and his successor Marcelo Ebrard—who is widely expected to run for president in 2018—restored a semblance of order.

Mexico City’s current success is the result of effective security policy. In the late 1990s, Mexico City invited the army to help patrol high-risk neighborhoods. The army, however, was unable to help lower the crime rate. Under AMLO and Ebrard’s leadership, the PRD installed security cameras, built up community-focused police patrols, and implemented outreach programs to build connections with the most marginalized neighborhoods in the city. Eduardo Guerrero, a security consultant, explained that the key to the PRD’s success in Mexico has been its ability to establish relationships with the leaders of the different parts of the informal economy. “The PRD does it very well, they’re a political machine,” he explained.[ix]

In 2011, Mexico City recorded fewer murders than Detroit and Chicago, but in the 1990s, the situation was much worse. “There was an explosion of crime,” Guerrero said.[x] In 1996, Mexico City recorded an average of three murders every day.[xi] In 1997, criminals shot a journalist from the United States in the spine during a failed kidnapping attempt, and in a separate incident gunmen robbing restaurant patrons shot two German tourists.[xii] By 1998, a string of similar incidents prompted the U.S. State Department to warn that crime in Mexico City “had reached critical levels” and warned U.S. citizens visiting Mexico’s capital that there had been a “marked increase in the levels of crime committed.”[xiii] In the following years, crime levels remained high and Mexico’s reputation suffered as a result.

At the start of the new millennium, Marcelo Ebrard—first as police chief and later as mayor—focused on improving the city’s image. Under the tutelage of former New York City mayor Rudold Guiliani, he adapted New York City’s strategy of changing a culture of illegality. Whereas Guiliani went to work fixing New York City’s broken windows and ticketing subway passengers who tried to evade paying the fare, Ebrard started by removing unpermitted street vendors from many of Mexico City’s historic public streets and plazas. These efforts were augmented by a philanthropic gesture from Carlos Slim, Mexico’s wealthiest businessman, who paid $100 million to aid the city’s efforts to renovate the Historic Center. Shannon O’Neil, senior fellow for Latin America Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), explained that Ebrard and his predecessor, AMLO, “went street by street in the Centro Histórico and got rid of the ambulantes. It’s a variant of the broken windows theme.”[xiv] Ebrard ordered the capital’s police officers to issue tickets to motorists who refused to wear their seatbelts while driving and also set up police checkpoints to look for drunk drivers. He also installed security cameras throughout the city. In La Roma, a block away from the PRD’s headquarters, there is a street sign that says “Safe City” and shows a picture of a security camera looking down at the skyline and a silhouette of the Angel of Independence, a statue near the historic center. “Security Camera in Operation. Images will be used to prevent crime and guarantee public safety,” the sign says.

Now, seemingly undisturbed by reports of gruesome violence in other parts of the country, every night of the week young parents gather near the statue of David in the center of a fountain in Rio de Janiero park in the Roma neighborhood, around the corner from the PRD’s office. Mauricio Maquivar, a middle-aged waiter at one of the trendy restaurants that line a main avenue a few blocks away, said that in the 1990s, “the police never came here unless there was a big problem.”[xv] Now, throughout the evening transit, police in cars with flashing blue lights patrol the neighborhood. “They come every fifteen minutes,” Mauricio said. Street gang activity, once a major problem in La Roma, has been pushed out to other more marginalized neighborhoods on the fringes of the city. “The goal is to establish a safe zone and then push the boundary outward,” Guerrero said.[xvi] Street gang activity has mostly been eliminated from a targeted group of middle and upper-income neighborhoods. Street drug dealers and stolen car parts stores are now mostly located on the fringes of the city.[xvii]

In 2012, the U.S. Department of State dropped its “critical crime level” warning for Mexico City. Overall, crime rates have fallen even though the retail market for drugs such as marijuana, amphetamines, and cocaine continues to function. Local authorities appear to tolerate the presence of drug dealers in certain areas as long as they stay out of the protected neighborhoods and avoid violence. In fact, according to Guerrero, one of the reasons for the relatively low level of violence in Mexico City, “is the high competition in the drug sale market.”[xviii] The retail market for drugs in Mexico City is highly atomized—a collection of individuals rather than an oligopoly controlled by a few organized crime groups. Small-time operators have little incentive to use violence in order to gain an additional sliver of the market. Unlike in cities in other parts of the country where cartels are fighting viciously to gain control of lucrative smuggling routes, at least until the start of 2013, Mexico City’s retail drug market has functioned with a comparatively low amount of violence.[xix]

SCENE: On a cloudy day in July, 2011 Martha Messina, a mid-career economic development specialist from Mexico’s Ministry of Economy drove her car past the security gate at Genpact, an India-style call center that sits across the border from Texas on the southern bank of the Rio Grande in Ciudad Juárez, a place that was then Mexico’s most violent city.“For safety,” she said, sliding the door lock into place on her car door.[xx] After all, according to the newspapers sold by the men standing by the pedestrian bridge that connects the city to El Paso, twenty-five people had been killed in Juárez over the previous weekend.[xxi]Messina drove away from the Genpact building, a modern, grey and blue box with large glass windows and Indian, Mexican, and U.S. flags hanging above its main entrance. Out on the smooth, wide streets, she could see billboards from chains like Office Max and Starbucks that have opened in Juárez in the last few years. She also saw the heavy metal window gates and barbed wire lined roofs and fences at some of the older, locally owned small businesses that line the streets. The back wall of one empty store was covered in black spray-paint graffiti, and there was an aging, white Oldsmobile poking out of the open hole that was once a front display window.  “There’s a lot of life in the businesses here, but they only talk about the negative,” Martha said.[xxii]

In other parts of the country, by contrast, residents say that what they worry about the most is the street crime that has started occurring during the cartel war. During Calderón’s term, the army and federal police engaged in a long list of violent confrontations with cartel gunmen but were not able to help the local police deter carjacking, extortion, and other crimes that affect local residents. Rather than using the federal forces to augment state and municipal police operations, Calderón pushed forward an organized crime-focused strategy that undermined the security dynamic in conflict zones across the country. “It is important to note that the increase in the incidence of common crimes has occurred in states where the big cartels had a larger presence at the start of [Calderón’s] presidency,” Guerrero explained.[xxiii]

Instead of just setting up a military base in Michoacán and sending in soldiers, Calderón could have also invested in Mexico City-style security cameras and community police patrols and used the army only as a deterrent and a weapon of last resort. With a two-pronged strategy, the army can focus on deterring cartel gunfights or confronting criminal gunmen, and the local police can focus on preventing and investigating break-ins, robberies, and extortion. The army is poorly suited to handle all of these tasks by itself. And, too often, if the federal forces devote all of their energy to battling the cartels, local criminals and youth gangs, operating under the army’s radar, can take advantage of the situation and engage in petty crimes and extortion. A 2010 report from the Washington Office on Latin America explains directly, “Militaries should not be used for internal security and law-enforcement roles.”[xxiv] Police serve one function and soldiers serve another. “Soldiers are trained to kill the enemy. Police are trained to collect evidence . . . and investigate [crime],” said CFR’s O’Neil.[xxv]

Urban Example Two: Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua

In 2007—one year into Calderón’s term—Ciudad Juárez, a border city that hugs the Texas border across the river from El Paso, recorded just over 300 murders. As the Sinaloa Cartel, Mexico’s most powerful criminal organization, moved into Juárez, violence started to increase. In January 2008, gunmen started the new year by killing a police officer and leaving a list of names of other policemen along with a threatening note.[xxvi] In February, soldiers stationed in Juárez entered a house and found twenty-five assault weapons, five small guns, seven grenades, a cache of 3,000 bullets, and five cars with plates from Sinaloa.[xxvii] A turf war was already under way, but during the first few months of 2008 police recorded a few dozen murders. It was only after March of 2008, when Calderón sent in a force of army patrols, that the violence surged. In 2008, Juárez recorded 1,607 murders.[xxviii] In 2009, cartel gunmen demanded the resignation of the city’s police chief, promising to kill an officer every 48 hours until he complied. In response, Calderón sent in an additonal 5,000 soldiers. By 2010 the total jumped to more than 3,000—ten times higher than 2007 levels.[xxix] Assessing the city’s prospects in 2009, Lucinda Vargas, an economist who provided strategic advice to the city explained, “there’s a lot of evidence that Juárez in a micro sense, is becoming a failed state.”[xxx]

Even as trucks carrying masked, machine-gun-wielding soldiers rumbled through the streets, gunmen working for the Sinaloa Cartel targeted and killed affiliates of the rival Juárez Cartel. Over the course of the conflict, residents tallied the daily death toll of police officers, parking lot attendants, and street vendors. As the security forces turned their attention to the cartels, street crime increased. The local police had been poorly equipped to battle cartel gunmen, but the soldiers were equally inept at deterring common criminals. Even during the cartel feud, as many as 900 street gangs continued to operate in Juárez.[xxxi] In 2011, Noelia Covarrubias, a lifelong resident of Juárez who helps run a lunch van called Burritos Sarita, explained that for small business owners “extortion is the biggest fear.”[xxxii] Sara Beltran, an artist from Ciudad Juárez, whose family now lives across the border in El Paso, explained, “All the sicarios, the ones killing people . . . they’re young.”[xxxiii] Beltran’s grandmother was murdered in Juárez. “They broke into her house . . . it was a 17 year old that killed her. The violence affects everyone,” she explained.[xxxiv]

What happened in Juárez was a collapse in security that occurred after the military replaced the police as the law enforcement agency. The Washington Office on Latin America report from 2010 explains, “A military is meant to fight wars, and a police force is meant to enforce laws. There are clear reasons why neither is good at doing the other’s job.”[xxxv] In April 2010, the army left Juárez, and Mexico’s Federal Police took over and started targeting criminal gangs. The Policía Federal arrested several hundred suspected cartel members as well as thousands of other alleged criminals. They also worked to dismantle kidnapping and extortion rings, the type of street activity that directly impact residents’ lives. The Federal Police pulled out of Juárez in July 2011, leaving the city under the control of municipal police chief Julián Leyzaola. The cartel feud continued to burn in Juárez, but Leyzaola nonetheless sent out municipal police to patrol the city, focusing on establishing a sense of law and order in the city center. He also increased police presence in certain high-risk communities. “You can’t apply a strategy from a desk. You have to apply it in the street,” Leyzaola said in an interview with the New York Times.[xxxvi]

Due to a combination of effective local policing and the evolving dynamic of the cartel feud that is playing out in the streets, Juárez’s security profile improved over the course of 2011 and 2012. In July 2011, police arrested José Antonio Acosta Hernández, a former police officer who became one of the top enforcers for the Juárez Cartel.[xxxvii] He confessed to killing over 1,500 people. One year later police arrested Benjamin Valeriano, another senior Juárez Cartel affiliate.[xxxviii] Over the course of 2011 and 2012, the Juárez Cartel lost much of its territory as the Sinaloa Cartel consolidated control over the city. As Sinaloa squeezes out its rivals and establishes monopoly control over transport routes, the incentives for cartel violence are declining. In 2012, Ciudad Juárez reported fewer than 800 murders.[xxxix] “I have one objective: to fight delinquency,” Leyzaola explained.[xl] The falling crime rate has not gone unnoticed. Federico Ziga, president of the city’s restaurant association, explained, “We’re seeing the results we asked for. The results are there.”[xli] A February 2013 report from the Trans-Border Institute in San Diego explains, “for the first time since 2008 the border city [Juárez] was displaced from its unenviable position as the municipality registering the most homicides nationwide. Instead, that title went to the resort city of Acapulco in 2012.”[xlii]

Urban Example Three: Acapulco, Guerrero

In different ways, both Mexico City and Ciudad Juárez highlight the importance of community-focused police work. Acapulco, the main tourist city in the state of Guerrero on Mexico’s Pacific coast, illustrates the negative effects that the cartel-focused security strategy can have on local communities. In the absence of effective community policing, taking on the cartels is a dangerous proposition. Between January 2007 and October 2010 Acapulco reported an average of ten murders a month.[xliii] But as Calderón continued to capture and kill cartel leaders, violence in Acapulco spiked. In 2012, for the second year in a row, police recorded more than 1,000 murders in Acapulco.[xliv] In a recent interview with Foreign Policy Louise Arbour, CEO of the Crisis Management Group, explained that “If [she] had to pick one dominant theme in conflict prevention and particularly in post-conflict reconstruction, it’s the emergence of the necessity for the rule of law.”[xlv] During the course of Calderón’s War, in Acapulco, the army and federal police succeeded in capturing and killing a number of senior cartel leaders but failed to help local police maintain a basic sense of law and order.

The deteriorating security situation in Acapulco, once one of Mexico’s most popular tourist destinations, highlights the flaws of Calderón’s approach to dealing with the cartels. In December 2009, four hundred police officers raided a compound outside of Mexico City, killing Arturo Beltran Leyva, the leader of what was then one of Mexico’s most powerful criminal organizations.[xlvi] On the day of the operation Calderón said, “I want to recognize the valiant work of the army that has shown once more with [it]s actions that it’s at the front lines to defend Mexican families from the actions of criminals.”[xlvii] In 2010, federal police officers paraded Eduardo Villareal, another senior-level cartel enforcer, in front of reporters’ cameras, touting his capture as another major victory.[xlviii] On the same day as Villareal’s arrest, Calderón addressed Mexico’s public. He did not directly mention the operation that led to Villareal’s capture, but he did say, “it’s important that states and towns also strengthen their own police forces because nine out ten of the police in Mexico are local police [and] especially because robbery, extortion, kidnapping, and other local crimes represent 90 percent of the crimes that most hurt [our] citizens.”[xlix] Starting in mid-2010 following the arrest of Villareal, Acapulco’s murder rate jumped to an average of seventy-two per month.[l]

Unfortunately for the residents of Acapulco, the result of these arrests was the fragmentation of established criminal groups and an explosion of violence as warring factions fought for control of the city and street gangs brazenly increased their activities.[li] Patrick Corcoran, a security analyst for InSight Crime, a Washington D.C.-based watch group, explained that, although Acapulco has always been “a key entryway for South American cocaine,” the recent series of “breakdowns in the coherence of the hegemonic networks in Mexico have transformed Acapulco from the site of a battle between two competing gangs to an anarchic mess of newer groups.”[lii] During the course of 2011, as the police struggled to clamp down on extortion and violence, some local business owners temporarily closed their doors in protest. Despite the arrest of senior cartel leaders the street level violence has continued. José Luis Piñeiro, a researcher from Mexico City’s Autonomous Metropolitan University, explained, “The truth is that this is a type of thousand-headed hydra . . . You cut off one and another one emerges, but the government believes that this tactic of dismembering cartels is effective.”[liii] Corcoran explains that “much of the recent surge in violence stems from battles between the Independent Cartel of Acapulco, which is made up of the remains of the network run by Edgar Valdez Villarreal until his arrest in September 2010, and the South Pacific Cartel, a newly emerging gang that is loosely affiliated with the Beltran Leyvas.”[liv] After taking office on 1 December 2012, Calderón’s successor, Enrique Peña Nieto, sent additional troops to Acapulco to set up checkpoints and patrol the highways and city streets. The city’s current security plan now includes a mix of street patrols by soldiers and federal police as well as foot patrols by unarmed local police and navy officers who weave through the crowds of sunbathing tourists. At the start of 2013, however, the violence in Acapulco has continued. In February 2013, criminals in Acapulco killed a Belgian businessman and raped six Spanish tourists.[lv] Calderón’s term in office is over, but the violence continues in Acapulco.

Case Study: Mexico’s Secretary of Public Security

Shortly after the 2012 election, Felipe Calderón’s media team invited several reporters to visit the president’s modern and heavily guarded Public Security Ministry campus in Mexico City. Francisco Niembro González, the ministry’s under-secretary of Information Technology, flashed an image of a map of Central America onto one of the display screens in the ministry’s crisis planning center. Arced red lines on the map marked the flight trajectories of cocaine-ferrying planes leaving Colombia, one of the Mexican cartel’s main South American cocaine suppliers, and Guatemala and Honduras. “Planes with drugs no longer enter Mexico,” Niembro explained.[lvi] In another room, Niembro pointed out a flow chart explaining one cartel’s hierarchical structure. A label on one chart said “Evolution of the Michoacán Cartel.” Various photos in the chart were marked labels tagged different leaders as having been killed or captured. “We’ve invested in technology and the results are there,” Niembro said.[lvii]

Unfortunately for Mexico’s citizens, although Calderón’s government succeeded in pushing drug-carrying planes off its airstrips and into airfields in Guatemala and Honduras and also managed to capture and kill a number of high profile cartel leaders, at the end of his term, Michoacán and its neighbor, Guerrero—the state where Acapulco is located—are two of the most unstable and most dangerous in Mexico. In both Michoacan and Guerrero, local residents, frustrated with the failure of the police to protect them from criminals, have formed vigilante groups.[lviii] In January 2013, security analyst Sylvia Longmire explained, “Acapulco is still a hot spot. There are at least two or three major TCOs [transnational criminal organizations] and several smaller criminal gangs operating there and fighting for control of that plaza.”[lix]

What is happening now in Mexico is similar to what happened in Colombia after security forces killed Pablo Escobar, the country’s top cocaine exporter. Drug policy analyst Russell Crandall argues that killing Escobar “did almost nothing to affect the broader drug war.”[lx] A decade after his death, Colombia still exported the same amount of cocaine as it did during the 1980s, but prices fell, and purity improved. “In fact,” Crandall argues, “the kingpin strategy’s ‘success’ is now credited with ‘atomizing’ Colombia’s drug production and trade into much smaller and more elusive drug trafficking entities.”[lxi] Alma Guillermoprieto argues that in Mexico, “Where once there were two or three trafficking groups, there are now dozens of full-blown mafias.”[lxii]

Mexican security analyst Eduardo Guerrero explains that “the multiplication and geographic dispersion of local crises of violence—that appeared in municipalities such as Chihuahua, Ciudad Juárez, Culiacan, and Tijuana in 2008, and later continued developing in cities such as Monterrey, Acapulco, and Guadalajara—are viewed today as the principal threat to public security.”[lxiii] Calderón did take steps to modernize the federal police, but failed to implement a community-focused security strategy at the national level. As drug shipments continue and the violence drags on, it is not surprising that Calderón’s anticrime efforts have not been viewed favorably by other leaders in the region.

The Regional Perspective

Guatemala’s planning minister, Fernando Carrera, explained, “What Mexico has done [during the course of Calderón’s war] is to sweep the problem . . . all the way over to us, and in turn we swept it over to Honduras.”[lxiv] Honduras, the mid-point on the map between Colombia and Mexico, has emerged as a transit point for shipments of northern bound drugs. It has also become one of the most violent countries on the planet. Like Mexico, Honduras has been forced into the impossible situation of trying to find a unilateral solution to an international problem. “The problem is the transit from the producers to the consumers. That traffic forces us to invest an enormous amount of resources in order to try to solve a global problem,” Carrera explained.[lxv]

Calderón’s strategy, after all, follows the U.S.-led focus on prohibition, a policy that has fallen out of favor in many other countries in the region as leaders have assessed the costs and benefits of the program. César Gaviria, a former president of Colombia, said, “Fifty years have gone by since the United Nations Convention [on Narcotic Drugs, signed in 1961] and forty since Richard Nixon declared war on drugs, and the policy is a crashing failure.”[lxvi] At the 2012 UN General Assembly meeting in New York, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos said, “It is our duty to determine—on an objective scientific basis—if we are doing the best we can or if there are better options to combat this scourge.”[lxvii] At the UN meeting, Santos also pointed to the international nature of the drug problem. In order to find a solution, “the debate on drugs must be frank, and without a doubt, global,” he said.[lxviii]

As leaders from Colombia, Costa Rica, Honduras, Guatemala, Mexico, and the U.S. states of Colorado and Washington have argued, it is time for renewed debate about the U.S.-led militarized drug strategy. Drug policy researcher Coletta Youngers says this dialogue “should start from the premise that completely eliminating either illicit drug consumption or production is unrealistic.”[lxix] Especially as Latin America’s political and economic influence expands and popular support for legalization in the United States grows, the discussion about changing the dynamics of the drug war will have to be put on the table soon. In Mexico, the calls for policy change are already being heard. Manlio Fabio Beltrones, a leader from Peña Nieto’s party in Mexico’s Congress, said, “The legalization of marijuana forces us to think very hard about our strategy to combat criminal organizations, mainly because the largest consumer in the world has liberalized its laws.” Luis Videgaray, the top advisor to Mexico’s current president, Enrique Peña Nieto, said legalization “changes the rules of the game in the relationship with the United States” with regards to antidrug efforts.[lxx]


In his first speech as president, Calderón’s said, “today criminality is trying to terrorize and immobilize [our] society and government” and promised to “fight to re-take public security.”[lxxi] He made the decision to take on the cartels even though he did not run on an anticrime platform, and at the time of his election few citizens believed that drug trafficking was one of the most important problems facing Mexico.[lxxii] By the end of Calderón’s term, however, security problems have now become one of the primary issues affecting Mexico’s image as well as the daily lives of citizens in many parts of the country. Mexico researchers Rubén Aguilar and Jorge Castañeda argue that “Calderón could have perfectly well launched a crusade against security problems, violence, and un-organized crime.”[lxxiii] Overall, Calderón’s war against the cartels was a failure. He was elected by the Mexican people but did not devote sufficient attention to the local security needs affecting his country’s citizens. As Eduardo Guerrero explained, “The government’s strategy did not consider that some criminal activities prosper in a context of generalized violence.”[lxxiv] Calderón’s war mistakenly focused on battling drug trafficking. In a January 2013 report from the Brookings Institution, public policy analyst Vanda Felbab-Brown argues, “For years, the Calderón administration dismissed the violence, arguing that it was a sign of government effectiveness in disrupting the drug trafficking groups.”[lxxv] Calderón should have placed public security at the center of the policy agenda. A strategy that focused on promoting law and order and reducing street crime would have been better for Mexico’s citizens, better for Mexico’s image and, in the end, better for the region as a whole. In a recent op-ed, former New York Times Mexico correspondent Alan Riding wrote that “Peña Nieto’s priority is to make Mexico a safer place—for its citizens, for tourists, for businesses—and this may only be possible by conceding that narcotics trafficking will continue so long as there is a lucrative market next door.”[lxxvi]

After leaving office and settling into his new residence near Harvard University’s campus, Calderón wrote an article in which he pointed to Ciudad Juárez as the major success story of his anticartel efforts. “The problem of crime and violence has many causes. Therefore, a holistic public policy approach is necessary, one that tackles not only law enforcement challenges, but also the economic, educational, labor, and health short-comings that have an effect on the security situation,” he said.[lxxvii]

Peña Nieto has proposed a comprehensive crime reduction strategy that includes a wide variety of social, military, and police programs. At the start of his term, however, a string of drug-related murders in Mexico City, gunfights involving drug traffickers in northern Mexico, and attacks against tourists in Acapulco and Cancun have further damaged Mexico’s reputation. Calderón’s term in office ended in December 2012, but his war continues. Mexico still finds itself in the impossible situation of trying to improvise a national strategy to combat a global phenomenon. The most that Mexico’s citizens can hope for is the implementation of successful community police programs and a drop in violence and street crime.

Nathaniel Parish Flannery is a Latin America focused analyst and writer. He has worked on projects in Colombia, Mexico, Chile, Argentina, Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia, India, and China and written feature articles on business, organized crime, politics, and culture for the AtlanticFortune, Univision, the NationLapham’s Quarterly, the Global Post, and a number of other publications. He writes about political risk for his Latin American LENS column on He has investigated the effects of organized crime, working on projects along Mexico’s northern border as well as in the hills of places like Jalisco, Michoacan, and Guerrero. He will complete his master’s degree in international affairs at Columbia University in May 2013.



[i] Will Weissert, “Mexican Gangs Displaying Severed Heads,” Associated Press, 21 October 2006.

[ii] Cory Molzahn, Octavio Rodriguez Ferreira, and David A. Shirk, “Drug Violence in Mexico: Data and Analysis through 2012” (online report, Trans-Border Institute, University of San Diego, San Diego: February 2013),

[iii] Eduardo Guerrero, “Epidemias de violencia,” Nexos, 1 July 2012a.

[iv] Francisco Resendiz, “Centralismo marcó al sexenio,” El Universal, 1 December 2012.

[v] Jorge Ramos Perez, “2010, el año más violento, admite Calderón,” El Universal, 6 January 2011.

[vi] Nathaniel Parish Flannery, “Mexico City: Triple Homicide at Capital’s Airport Does Not Indicate a New Incursion of Drug War Violence,” Forbes, 26 June 2012.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Eduardo Guerrero, interview with the author, 18 May 2012.

[x] Nathaniel Parish Flannery, “From Bistros to Bullets: The Mexico City Miracle,” The Atlantic, 5 February 2013a.

[xi] Sebastian Junger, “Very Risky Business,” New York Times Magazine, 8 March 1998.

[xii] Julia Preston, “State Department Warns of ‘Critical Levels’ of Crime in Mexico,” New York Times, 1 May 1998.

[xiii] Ibid.

[xiv] Flannery (2013a).

[xv] Nathaniel Parish Flannery, “Earthquake dispatch: A live report from Mexico City’s bustling Roma neighborhood,” Univision News, 21 March 2012.

[xvi] Eduardo Guerrero, “La Estrategia Fallida,” Nexos, 1 December 2012b.

[xvii] Ibid.

[xviii] Ibid.

[xix] Ibid.

[xx] Nathaniel Parish Flannery, “Big Business Booms in an Unlikely Mexican City,” The Global Post, 23 August 2012.

[xxi] “Ejecutan a 27 durante el fin de remana en Juárez,” El ágora, 4 July 2011.

[xxii] Ibid.

[xxiii] Ibid.

[xxiv] George Withers, Lucila Santos, and Adam Isacson, “Preach What You Practice: The Separation of Military and Police Roles in the Americas” (online report, Washington Office on Latin America, Washington, DC: 2010), 2,

[xxv] Shannon O’Neil, interview with the author, 26 April 2012.

[xxvi] Melissa del Bosque, “El Lugar Mas Peligroso del México,” Nexos, 1 May 2012.

[xxvii] Charles Bowden, Murder City: Ciudad Juárez and the Global Economy’s New Killing Fields (New York: Nation Books, 2010), 2.

[xxviii] “1,607 Murders in Juárez for 2008,” KTSM News, 31 December 2008.

[xxix] Daniel Borunda, “Juárez murders hit 3,000 for year,” El Paso Times, 16 December 2010.

[xxx] Marc Lacy, “The violent battle for control of a border city,” New York Times, 1 March 2009.

[xxxi] Steven Dudley, “Juárez After the War” (online report, InSight Crime, Washington DC: 13 February 2013,

[xxxii] Flannery (2012a).

[xxxiii] Nathaniel Parish Flannery, “From Mexico to Soho: Artists Seek to End Violence in Juárez,” World Policy Journal, 14 November 2012.

[xxxiv] Ibid.

[xxxv] Withers, 3.

[xxxvi] Damien Cave, “A Crime Fighter Draws Plaudits, and Scrutiny,” New York Times, 23 December 2011.

[xxxvii] Randal C. Archibold, “Drug Kingpin Wanted in the US is Held in Mexico,” New York Times, 31 July 2011.

[xxxviii] Lourdes Cardenas, “Alleged Juárez Cartel Leader Arrested,” El Paso Times, 22 July 2012.

[xxxix] “Mexico: Murders drop by 75% in Ciudad Juárez,” Infosurhoy, 2 January 2013.

[xl] Cave.

[xli] Ibid.

[xlii] Molzahn, Ferreira, Shirk.

[xliii] Guerrero (2012b).

[xliv] Molzahn, Ferreira, Shirk.

[xlv] Susan Glasser, “Bringing Back the Rule of Law,” Foreign Policy, December 2010.

[xlvi] Elisabeth Malkin, “Mexico Deals a Blow to a Cartel but Warns of Continued Drug-Related Violence,” New York Times, 17 December 2009.

[xlvii] Felipe Calderón, “Golpe Contundente a Una de las Organizaciones Criminales Más Poderosas en Mexico y America Latina” (televised speech, 17 December 2009).

[xlviii] Randal C. Archibold, “Mexican Police Arrest Alleged Drug Kingpin,” New York Times, 30 August 2010.

[xlix] “‘Como nunca’ se sigue debilitando la estructura criminal: Calderón,” Milenio, 30 August 2010.

[l] Guerrero (2012a).

[li] Patrick Corcoran, “Forget Cliff Diving, Acapulco Now Known as Hot Spot in Mexico’s Drug War,” Christian Science Monitor, 24 August 2011.

[lii] Ibid.

[liii] Malkin.

[liv] Ibid.

[lv] “Belgian killed in Mexico resort was businessman,” Associated Press, 24 February 2013.

[lvi] Nathaniel Parish Flannery, “Mexico Is Implementing Reforms, but Still Faces a Challenging Security Dynamic,” Forbes, 7 March 2013.

[lvii] Ibid.

[lviii] Vanda Felbab-Brown, “Peña Nieto’s Piñata: The Promise and Pitfalls of Mexico’s New Organized Crime Strategy” (paper, The Brookings Institution, February 2013), 13.

[lix] Nathaniel Parish Flannery, “Mexico’s New Government Faces Ongoing Security Problems,” America’s Quarterly, 4 March 2013.

[lx] Russell Crandall, The United States and Latin America After the Cold War (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 88.

[lxi] Ibid.

[lxii] Alma Guillermoprieto, “Drugs: The Rebellion in Cartagena,” New York Review of Books, 7 June 2012.

[lxiii] Guerrero (2012a).

[lxiv] Guillermoprieto.

[lxv] Ibid.

[lxvi] Ibid.

[lxvii] Brian Winter, “U.S.-led ‘war on drugs’ questioned at UN,” Reuters, 26 September 2012.

[lxviii] Ibid.

[lxix] Coletta Youngers, “Dangerous Consequences: The U.S. ‘War on Drugs’ in Latin America,” in Latin America after Neo-Liberalism: Turning the Tide in the 21st Century?, ed. Eric Hershberg and Fred Rosen (New York: New Press, 2006), 94.

[lxx] William Booth, “Mexico says marijuana legalization in U.S. could change anti-drug strategies,” Washington Post, 8 November 2012.

[lxxi] “Presidente Calderón: Discurso completo en el auditorio,” El Universal, 1 December 2006.

[lxxii] Rubén Aguilar and Jorge Castañeda, Los Saldos del Narco: El Fracaso de Una Guerra (Mexico: Punto de Lectura, 2012), 75.

[lxxiii] Ibid.

[lxxiv] Guerrero (2012b).

[lxxv] Felbab-Brown.

[lxxvi] Alan Riding, “Safety First in Mexico,” New York Times, 28 November 2012.

[lxxvii] Felipe Calderón, “Todos Somos Juárez: An Innovative Strategy to Tackle Violence and Crime,” Latin American Policy 1 (Spring 2013).