The Cartel Crackdown

Winning the Drug War and Rebuilding Mexico in the Process

After a shootout in Monterrey, which has become one of Mexico's most violent cities during a turf war between rival drug cartels. (Courtesy Reuters)

In July, Mexico will elect a new president to replace Felipe Calderón. Each of the three candidates in the race is campaigning on a distinct social and economic platform, presenting sharply different visions for Mexico’s future. Yet whoever wins will need to address the foremost challenge confronting the country today: the battle against the drug cartels. And despite all the negative headlines, the next president will find that the government has made huge gains in the last five years toward defeating them.

When Calderón took office, in December 2006, the cartels were deeply rooted in Mexico, effectively controlling municipalities across the country and even entire states. In the previous two decades, they had amassed billions in illicit revenue and, operating with virtual impunity, used their illegal profits to penetrate and corrupt the Mexican government on a vast scale. These competing drug organizations fought over territory and supply routes, causing rampant violence. Calderón became the first Mexican president to take them on. By using force and launching large-scale reforms of Mexico’s law enforcement institutions, he has already destroyed some of the cartels and weakened several others.

As a result of Calderón’s determination and his success against the cartels, his approval rating now stands at 52 percent. Yet those organizations continue to plague the country. Since Calderón first took them on in late 2006, nearly 50,000 Mexicans have died in drug-related homicides. Although most of these murders are a result of cartel-on-cartel violence, the unremitting kidnapping, extortion, and bloodshed has hurt Mexico’s image, damaged its tourism industry, and exhausted an increasingly weary Mexican public. According to an August 2011 Pew poll, less than half of Mexicans believe that the government is making progress in its battle against the cartels.

This fatigue is feeding an undercurrent in Mexican politics suggesting that Calderón’s efforts to

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