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Felipe Calderón marks four years of reform efforts stymied by Mexico drug war

The tenure of President Felipe Calderón, who is preparing to give his fourth state of the union address, has been marked by the brutal Mexico drug war and political infighting that's stymied reform.

By Staff writer / September 1, 2010

Mexican President Felipe Calderón arrived in Colombia to attend the inauguration of President-elect Juan Manuel Santos last month. Mr. Calderón is in the fourth year of the single six-year term he is allowed.

John Vizcaino/Reuters


Mexico City

Mexican President Felipe Calderón kicked off his presidency in December 2006 with an ambitious reform package. The can-do technocrat was going to tackle Mexico's entrenched corruption, disband its behemoth quasi-monopolies, and – most important – take the fight to Mexico's burgeoning drug cartels.

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But in the fourth year of his six-year term, marked by handing his state of the union address to Congress today, it's become clear that the country's brutal drug war has sapped his administration's energy and that political infighting has squelched his reform agenda. Mr. Calderón will formally deliver his speech Thursday morning in a ceremony.

To be fair, Calderón is credited, more so than past presidents, with trying hard to push through energy, fiscal, and education reform. He scored a big victory early in his term in revamping the state-worker pension system.

IN PICTURES: Mexico's drug war

One of his boldest moves was the shutdown of the giant state electricity company last year that had long reigned over Mexico City.

Moreover, people still like him. He enjoys a 57 percent approval rating, according to a new poll by the Mexico City-based firm Buendia & Laredo. But the most necessary reforms in the country, observers say, have ultimately been so watered down that they have been rendered essentially meaningless.

"[Calderón] has a pretty tough road ahead," says Alejandro Schtulmann, head of research at the Emerging Markets Political Risk Analysis consulting firm in Mexico City. "There will be more reforms, but what we are going to see in the next couple years is a piecemeal approach."

As eyes turn to the 2012 presidential elections in a country where reelection is barred, Jorge Buendia, of Buendia & Laredo, has a less optimistic take: "[Calderón's] agenda is really dead."

All-consuming drug war

Even though some 28,000 people have been killed in four years, and political kidnappings are an increasing problem, most Mexicans understand that Calderón, who dispatched the military to fight drug cartels and has refused to back down, had little choice and they support his hard stance. He got a big boost this week with the capture of Edgar “La Barbie” Valdez Villarreal, alleged top member in the vicious Beltran Leyva cartel.

To render his war on drugs more effective, Calderón has pushed through judicial reform in hopes that rampant bribery and intimidation will no longer prevent the sentencing and jailing of hardened drug cartel criminals.

Why It Matters: The United States has a large stake in the success of Mexican President Felipe Calderón's war on the drug cartels, which has touched off waves of alarming violence. Less obvious is the stake the US has in the success of his slate of social reforms, which now have been subsumed.