Calderon already rates as a radical reformer who pursued system-changing goals. He wasn't the first Mexican president to acknowledge Mexico's deep systemic flaws. He was, however, the first president who had the vision and adroit political skills to craft a political and social process that might -- over time, if subsequent administrations sustained the effort -- first mitigate then eliminate them.
We already know Calderon had the personal courage and political will to employ radical but legal methods to achieve his goals of systemic political and economic modernization.
Calderon's Cartel War, launched in December 2006, the first month of his term, was both an act of desperation and the first step in his radical reform program. Drug gangs, powered by the billions of dollars they reap feeding the USA's appetite for illegal drugs, were in the violent process of carving Mexico into criminal satrapies.
To curb growing cartels' power, Calderon used a dangerous weapon: the Mexican military. His critics immediately accused him of militarizing a fight with criminal gangs. He argued the gangs posed a national threat.
Colombia's narco-guerrillas had political aims for the territories they controlled. Pure greed drove the Mexican cartelistas' more crafty squeeze of government and judicial institutions. The deadly threat to the lives, liberty and property of honest citizens posed by both is cruelly similar, however. The cartels possessed military-level firepower. Their billions purchased machine guns and grenades, armored SUVs and battlefield communications systems.
Los Zetas cartel, founded by Mexican Army defectors, employed commando tactics in its assaults on police stations and rival gangs. Ill-trained municipal, state and, yes, federal police forces were outgunned by the gangs.
Police incompetence was a pervasive shortcoming. But the real enemy of the Mexican people, at all levels -- in the police forces, in the judiciary, among prosecutors, in state and federal political bureaucracies, an enemy still leveraged by the cartels and crony billionaires -- is corruption.
The Mexican people regard the Mexican military, with good reason, as the most trusted national institution. Calderon used this institution as the tool to begin building systemic trust. The military took the war to the cartels.
Austin Bay is the author of three novels. His third novel, The Wrong Side of Brightness, was published by Putnam/Jove in June 2003. He has also co-authored four non-fiction books, to include A Quick and Dirty Guide to War: Third Edition (with James Dunnigan, Morrow, 1996).
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