The resulting bloodbath became Calderon's media legacy. Even though the vast majority of the deaths were the result of cartel-versus-cartel violence, headlines recording the murder and carnage, particularly in border cities like Ciudad Juarez, led media talking heads to call Mexico a failed state in waiting. They missed Calderon's critical strategic insight: Unless the cartels were challenged, militarily and morally, Mexico would surely fail. He wasn't going to let it happen, not on his watch.
The bullets and arrests, however, were temporary treatments for the worst symptoms. They cannot cure Mexico's systemic ills. Calderon understood that corruption had economic and political penalties as well as security consequences. In a speech delivered in 2008, he sketched the political objective: "Instead of faltering, we have taken on the challenge of turning Mexico into a country of laws."
Honest laws and an honest legal system had to trump rule by gun, bribe and insider whim. In that same speech, he argued: "Today we are experiencing the consequences of years of indifference to the cancer of crime, (legal) impunity and corruption. This scourge has become a threat to the peace and well-being of Mexican families and constitutes a challenge to the state's viability."
Securing the rule of law in Mexico required systemic reform. Calderon used the term "structural reform" as something of an all-purpose phrase for reforming the judiciary, the police, the government and the economy.
The reform isn't finished. Many Mexicans fear that the return of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) to presidential power means a return to the dark days of PRIsta institutionalized corruption. Calderon's successor, Enrique Pena Nieto, insists he is a new generation leader who will continue to pursue essential reform.
If Pena Nieto fails to do so, the historians of 2050 will treat him with deserved contempt.
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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