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Mexican President Calderón Leaves Office Under Wave Of Criticism

Mexican President Felipe Calderón
Photo courtesy Mexico government
Mexican President Felipe Calderón

Outgoing Mexico President Felipe Calderón has had some harsh words for his critics these last few days in office. Last week, he addressed the Mexican Navy, saying “history would remember and judge who fought for a free Mexico.”

On Tuesday, he presided over the 102nd anniversary of the Mexican Revolution for the last time, telling the crowd that force was the only option against crime.

As early as this past February, Mexicans have viewed Calderón fairly popularly. His approval rating that month was 58 percent according to an El Universal newspaper polling. When he first took office, his popularity was nearly the same, 60 percent. In fact, his lowest approval rating has been 53 percent. He actually grew more popular even as this drug war has raged on and on.


This is a president who’s taken tremendous amounts of criticism for how he managed the drug war. It’s been fascinating to watch the criticism build. Some 60,000 people were killed during his six years in office, though nobody knows exactly how many of those were killed by authorities and how many killed by the warring Zeta, Gulf, Sinaloa, Arellano-Felix, Familia Michocana, Beltrán Leyva and various smaller rivaling cartels. That’s a point that always seems to get lost in the debate over Calderón’s successes and failures as president of Mexico.

One of his grandest detractors has been former president Vicente Fox. Since leaving office in 2006, Fox has taken to the world of academia in the U.S., arguing for the legalization of marijuana.

He has called Mexico’s drug war “useless”

And he has said that the drug war is failing his country.

It’s often overlooked that Fox himself actually set the ground structure for Calderón’s very inherited war. The Sinaloa and Juárez cartels first openly clashed with a series of familial killings in Sinaloa and Mexico City in late 2004. The Zetas were already active in Tamaulipas at the time and Sinaloa was making inroads against the Zeta’s then-employer, the Gulf Cartel, in that region of the country. It was in this context that Fox launched Operation Safe Mexico, pushing his Army against the cartels. In fact, he even referred to it as an open challenge against the cartels, stealing Saddam Hussein’s Operation Desert Storm battlecry: “the mother of all battles.”


This then, is a very different, and perhaps subdued Fox, who now travels the U.S. urging for the legalization of marijuana.

It’s not my intent to defend Calderón or his strategies in this drug war. His soldiers have accounted for numerous human rights abuses in Mexico. They have kidnapped and murdered people who protested against them; they have taken money from the Mexico’s most murderous drug lords, like Arturo Beltrán Leyva. Entire federal agencies that the Mexican populace was supposed to rely on, have failed in their missions either through gross ineptitude, carelessness or sheer greed.

But I do think it’s important to remember that Calderón inherited the drug war. And he inherited it not only from former president Fox, but also from the power elite structure that allowed powerful cartel associates like Ismael Mayo Zambada, Joaquín Chapo Guzmán Loéra, and Vicente Carrillo Fuentes to flourish in Mexico for the last two decades.

We’ll be hearing more criticism of the outgoing president in the coming days. In the first few months of Enrique Peña Nieto’s presidency, we’ll hear some astonishing tales of the old administration. I get it, that’s the game. But let’s not forget that cartel leaders like Guzmán, Zambada, Carrillo have been operating quite richly in Mexico since long, long before Calderón took office.