Will outgoing President Calderón be remembered for more than Mexico's violence?

Calderón's legacy will likely include Mexico's heavy drug war death toll. But he made positive strides on the economic front with average annual inflation at historic lows.

Gregory Bull/AP/File
As president Felipe Calderón will likely be remembered for Mexico's violence, but he made positive strides on the economic front with average annual inflation at historic lows.

The number 60,000 will probably stick with him for the rest of his life – that's the number of drug-related homicides tallied during Mexican President Felipe Calderón’s six-year administration.

He’d probably rather be associated with the number 140, or 20,000: The former is the number of universities he built in six years; the latter the kilometers of highways constructed in the same time period.

President Calderón, of the conservative National Action Party (PAN), made fighting drug cartels the cornerstone of his administration – a calculation he made clear by donning army fatigues and telling the nation he meant business in January 2007, just a month after taking office. While Mexicans largely hailed this courageous move to send thousands of military personnel to root out organized crime from urban pockets and tiny pueblos alike, they quickly wearied from the unthinkable slaughter and its impact on society.

If Mexico has been in the news during Calderón’s term in office, far more often than not it’s because of beheadings, arson, mass graves, and body dumps. He has spent six years forging forward with his military-led tactic, trying to show that it’s not a failed effort, and convince citizens that he’s done plenty of other good things for Mexico in the meantime.

The chances of the world remembering Calderón for anything other than this bloody time in Mexico’s history has, for most of his administration, seemed slim. Death tolls have gone up: by 60 percent, 70 percent, and one year even by 110 percent, at the same time that the global financial crisis of 2008 plunged millions more into poverty.     

But lately the winds seem to be shifting, as Calderón gets ready to hand the presidency to Enrique Peña Nieto of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI).

Calderón’s latest approval rating measured by the firm Buendía & Laredo, at 64 percent, is not among the highest in Mexico or Latin America for outgoing presidents. But it’s far ahead of the low 50s he was garnering in previous polls. Hopeful headlines about Mexico are emerging: The Financial Times asked in August “Is Mexico the new Brazil?” The Economist’s special section on Mexico this month is just as optimistic. Ask any economist and they all agree that Mexico, at the macroeconomic level, has done it all right, a message Calderón is furiously trying to communicate as he steps down.

At a September talk at the Council on Foreign Relations, Calderón told the crowd that in his first inaugural speech, “I said that we could transform Mexico into a more prosperous nation with a dynamic and competitive economy,” he said. “I was convinced, as I am now, that we could transform Mexico into a safer nation with a strong rule of law. I can tell you today that we have made great strides and have put Mexico on track to making this vision a reality.”

The 'jobs president'

In the sunny offices of Ernesto Acevedo, in Mexico’s Ministry of Economy, the top government official lists what he considers Calderón's successes on the economic front. Average annual inflation, Dr. Acevedo says, is at historic lows. Debt as a percent of GDP is in check, especially compared to other OECD countries.

Much of the work in maintaining a healthy economy began before Calderón took office, but Mr. Acevedo says he considers this administration a potential turning point for the country. Calderón has consolidated Mexico’s export platform, particularly in the automotive industry. Mexico is attempting to become a leader in the areospace industry, what Acevedo calls an example of the evolution of its industrial potential. Mexico is today graduating the same number of engineers as Germany, the government says, and trade with the US is at all-time highs.    

“We are seeing a boom in Mexico,” Acevedo says.

But that optimism is not necessarily reflected on the streets. While Calderón is hailed by academics for shepherding the Mexican economy remarkably well throughout the global financial crisis, the head-of-state who campaigned as the “jobs president” has done little, they say, to make the lives of Mexicans more tenable.

In fact, the number of poor has increased under Calderón's term, with national figures showing 12 million falling below the poverty line between 2006 and 2010. The government itself argues that the ranks of the poor swelled across the globe, and that in Mexico they swelled much less than in previous financial crises.

This is little solace to Juan Centento Reyes, who has sold lottery tickets for 40 years and says that transportation and food costs have gone up but salaries have not. Meanwhile, his 25-year-old son, the eldest of four, graduated as an engineer but has not found work in two years. “I wish politicians would talk to people in the streets and not in offices,” Mr. Reyes says. “Maybe Calderón has been good for the rich. But for the rest of us, there is a lack of money, a lack of jobs, even a lack of food.”

Mexico’s growth was much slower than that of Brazil for most of Calderón's term, averaging just under 2 percent a year. But it’s also been steady, and has surpassed Brazil: It’s expected to grow at 4 percent this year, compared with 2 percent in Brazil.

“I think Mexico has a huge opportunity: It has the basic macroeconomic fundamentals right,” says Shannon O'Neil, a Mexico expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. But, she says, while Calderón has made positive steps forward, they have not been big enough “if Mexico wants to be this big globally economic powerhouse.”

'The war on drugs'

A prime example of an important step forward, if only on paper, not in practice, is on justice reform. Calderón was able to get the Congress to agree to revamp one of the world’s most dysfunctional systems. By many reputable counts, the impunity rate in Mexico stands at 98 percent. However, the reforms have virtually moved nowhere at the federal level (some state systems have blazed ahead). Without a legal system that works, many say the fight against organized crime is futile – one of the top criticisms that Calderón has faced on the drug front, which has overshadowed all economic news in the past six years.

It remains to be seen how his “drug war” will be perceived in future years. The criticism of Calderón's drug strategy, while largely supported by Mexicans when polled, has also garnered him relentless criticism. From many points of view, with at least 60,000 dead and thousands fleeing their home cities, that is a failure, plain and simple.

But as he leaves office, it appears that his promise of forging forward to take down top cartel leaders, citing violence as a necessary byproduct, could finally be reaping some benefits. Although the government stopped citing drug-related homicide figures in 2011, when the number stood near 50,000, Calderón told the Economist that the national homicide rate is down by 8 percent in the first half of this year compared to the same time period in 2011. Local media counts show similar trends for drug-related murder.

“No matter what he does, people will remember his government as being the one that started the war on drugs, and the big question will be if they reward Calderón for that, or if they will think that the Peña Nieto government will be the one who finally got it done,” says Jorge Buendia, a pollster in Mexico City.

Indeed, if the homicide trends continue to decrease, it could be the next administration that celebrates a calmer Mexico. And it is not only on the drug front that Calderón's legacy runs the risk of being overshadowed by that of Peña Nieto.

While Brazil’s former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva got the credit for a booming Brazil, it was his predecessor that actually laid the groundwork for Brazil’s success in the first decade of the 2000s. Acevedo sees a parallel with Calderón and Peña Nieto, especially if their two parties are able to work together to push through reforms in finance and energy that eluded Calderón (in many cases because of Peña Nieto’s party, the PRI).

Yet, precisely because Mexico seems to have turned a corner, there is also a risk of stagnation, says Ms. O’Neill. “My fear about where Mexico is going to be six years from now, if it starts growing at 3 to 4 percent … it may be easy for Peña Nieto to ride it out,” she says, “and not make the push or spend the political capital for the big changes needed.”

That would hurt Mexico, she says, and, ultimately, the way Calderón is viewed in hindsight: marked by a legacy bloodied by the drug war, or as the turning point in Mexico’s history.

RELATED: Think you know Mexico? Take our quiz and find out!

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