The administration of Mexican President Felipe Calderón has long focused on the strengths of its fight against drug traffickers. The staggering death toll here is often cited as the inevitable sign of the strategy´s success.
But this week, President Calderón, under mounting pressure, issued his most sobering assessment of where Mexico stands against drug traffickers and called on the political class and civil society to join his fight, as he painted a picture of political candidates being killed, priests being extorted, institutions intimidated, and journalist kidnapped.
“This criminal behavior is what has changed, it has become an activity that defies the state and even seeks to replace the state," he said, during a three-day conference on public security in Mexico City (Spanish).
His call for support in the face of such challenges was not typical. “What he wants to convey is that this is a problem that is huge,” says Alejandro Schtulmann, head of research at the Emerging Markets Political Risk Analysis (EMPRA) consulting firm in Mexico City. “I think he wants to garner more support for the next years for measures he will have to take.”
His words come as new figures were released on drug-related deaths. The Center for Research and National Security (Cisen) reported that more than 28,000 people have been killed since the president took office in December 2006 and dispatched the military and federal authorities to battle organized crime.
The conference also came on the heels of the kidnapping of four journalists last week in northern Mexico, which authorities say was carried out by drug traffickers to force journalists to implicate the traffickers' rivals and corrupt local authorities. On Thursday, the federal police announced the arrest of three suspects in the kidnappings. The journalists have been freed.
Despite the climate of fear across Mexico, Calderón is not going to back down. He acknowledged that many groups are asking him to give up the fight, but that would be paramount to letting criminals reign with impunity, he said. Instead, he called on all sectors of society to support him in his battle.
The government reiterated its successes to date. Guillermo Valdes, the director of Mexico´s intelligence agency, underlined that tens of thousands of weapons and millions in hard currency have been seized. The new death toll, higher than previous government figures, is wearing on many, though the government has long maintained that it is a sign of groups splintering and weakening.
The conference did generate some fresh ideas, including a renewed debate on whether Mexico would be willing to legalize drug use. "It's a fundamental debate in which I think, first of all, you must allow a democratic plurality [of opinions]," Calderón said in statements during the conference. "You have to analyze carefully the pros and cons and the key arguments on both sides."
Calderón later released a statement clarifying that he is opposed to legalization but open to debate on the subject, but many observers doubt his commitment.
“He did not open the debate from his own will,” says Jorge Hernández Tinajero, the president of Cupihd, a civil group in Mexico that disseminates information about drug policies. “It is because he is against a wall.”
And while the question of legalization has now graced the headlines of all the major papers and dominated space on opinion pages, it is far from the answer to ending the violence plaguing the nation. “The legalization would obviously help public security, but it is not the only solution, it must be accompanied by many other things,” says Mr. Hernández Tinajero, such as education and tackling money laundering.
Calderón reiterated the need to restore the social fabric by investing in education and enticing those participating in organized crime back into legal society, and root out corruption in the nation´s institutions.
Calderón´s message may not have given many hope that calmer times are near, but his words were welcomed by many. “I think he is trying to engage society and share the concerns of the government with civil society,” says Mr. Schtulmann. “This is definitely a change of strategy.”