MEXICO CITY — President Felipe Calderon, who leaves office Saturday, is all but certain to find his post-presidency bedeviled by the need to defend his decision six years ago to deploy troops to fight drug cartels, a move that unleashed a frenzy of horrific violence that’s only now beginning to ease.
Already Mexicans are asking: Was it worth it?
Calderon has crisscrossed Mexico in recent weeks in a race to cut ribbons on bridges, highways, clinics and schools in a fight to shape his image around issues other than the “drug war.”
But soaring death rates and extraordinary brutality between cartels during much of his six-year term, coinciding with his decision to send troops to combat gangsters, is likely to be his legacy, and keep him occupied, both in and out of court.
Once Calderon is out of power, a cloak of legal immunity will be removed from his shoulders, and he’ll have to contend with human rights groups eager to sue him for what they claim is a sharp rise in rights abuses under his watch – particularly torture – by soldiers and federal police.
“The human rights community will press so that there are judicial consequences for Calderon, both in Mexico and abroad,” said Ernesto Lopez Portillo Vargas, the director of the Institute for Security and Democracy, a nonpartisan group.
Calderon, a 50-year-old Harvard-trained economist, says he had little choice but to tackle crime groups head on because they’d gained control of parts of the country. Weeks after he assumed office, he deployed nearly 50,000 soldiers and federal police to northern Mexico.
“It was like a volcano that accumulated great energy and suddenly erupts,” Calderon said in an interview published last week in the Mexican newspaper Excelsior.
He went on with a different metaphor: “It’s like going into a house and seeing a couple of cockroaches on the floor. When one follows the trail, one realizes that they are in the rug, in the wall and everything is infested with cockroaches. One can’t just cover the carpet. You have to clean the whole house. And that’s what it was up to me to do.”
Calderon has talked only vaguely of what he plans to do after he hands over power Saturday, ending 12 years of rule by his center-right National Action Party, or PAN in its Spanish initials.
News reports say he’ll take up an academic position in the United States. Harvard, Georgetown University, Stanford and the University of Texas all have been mentioned.
He and his family will be safer in the United States from reprisals by gangsters, but he’ll also be far away as thousands of PAN loyalists lose their government jobs to supporters of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, which now regains control of Mexico.
“The tsunami hasn’t begun yet,” said Samuel Gonzalez Ruiz, a security analyst and former federal prosecutor. “All these Panistas are going to get thrown out of their jobs. This tsunami will hit 50,000 families.”
As his party drifts after a severe drubbing in July’s presidential elections and out-of-work party stalwarts steam about their unemployed status, Calderon no longer can count on it to defend him once he leaves office.
Among his worst political enemies is Vicente Fox, his PAN predecessor as president. Fox threw his weight behind Enrique Pena Nieto, the Institutional Revolutionary Party candidate, before the election, and he’s lambasted Calderon, asserting that his “drug war” was harmful to the party, the nation and the army.
Calderon deemed that “with strong blows he could do the enemy in, and it didn’t work out. And we know that the army violates human rights every day but no one says anything,” Fox told Madrid’s newspaper El Pais last week during a visit to Spain.
He said Calderon was finishing his term with only 20,000 more inmates in jail than were there when Fox’s term ended.
“And for this we have 70,000 deaths? What was this war good for?” he asked.
The crime panorama in Mexico has changed dramatically in the past half decade, as drug gangs fought each other for turf and smuggling corridors. Where once there were six or seven powerful narcotics groups, there’s now just one dominant one, the Sinaloa Cartel.
Numerous other groups are less powerful. In the past three months, the Mexican navy – backed by U.S. intelligence – has dealt severe blows to the once-dominant Los Zetas and the smaller Gulf Cartel.
Homicide rates have fallen this year, and beheadings and massacres – once weekly occurrences – are far less frequent. Of the 37 most wanted drug and crime lords identified when Calderon took office, he says 25 have been “neutralized”: They’re dead or behind bars.
Where Mexico has failed on Calderon’s watch, though, is in arresting criminal suspects, carrying out successful prosecutions and keeping them in jail, experts said. Calderon deployed soldiers and federal police without having his government codify rules for the use of force or enforcing strict accountability for abuses.
“By ordering intensive confrontation with organized crime, he sparked an enormous human rights crisis,” Lopez Portillo said. “Accusations of torture (by state agents) grew fourfold in the last six years.”
Charges of routine use of torture by the armed forces and federal police have been documented or reflected in reports by Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, various U.N. groups and the U.S. State Department.
“If these are investigated, obviously responsible parties would be found,” Lopez Portillo said.
Some will seek to lay ultimate legal responsibility on Calderon.
One of Calderon’s predecessors in power, Ernesto Zedillo, who governed from 1994 to 2000, faced a civil lawsuit in U.S. federal court blaming him for crimes against humanity for a 1997 massacre in Guerrero state. The U.S. government told the court in September that Zedillo should be granted immunity, meaning the suit is likely to be quashed.
Concerned about his own potential legal travails, Calderon has worked closely with Pena Nieto in the transition period, leading to speculation that the two reached a tacit accord over Calderon’s future should judicial trouble arise.
“Experience tells me that the legal future of President Calderon depends fundamentally on two political factors: Pena Nieto and the United States,” Lopez Portillo said. “If the United States decides to exert pressure so that Calderon is not charged, he will not be charged.”
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