This essay was translated by Alfred Mac Adam.
In December 2006, a few days after taking the oath of office, the new president of Mexico issued a bland order that was also a brazen provocation. Felipe Calderón directed the army to join forces with the police in cracking down on the drug cartels operating in many parts of the country. These collaborations were called “combined operations”; the first was launched in the president’s home state of Michoacán, and it was quickly followed by others in the states of Chihuahua, Durango, Guerrero, Sinaloa and Baja California. The next year, during the swearing in of the National Council of Public Safety, Calderón described the strategy by using two words that would alter the life of the nation: crusade and war.
The president caught many Mexicans off guard. While crime statistics in Michoacán were among the highest in the nation that year, the number of homicides at the national level was at its lowest in a decade. At no time during his campaign had Calderón suggested that he would unleash the military against the country’s drug cartels. Moreover, Mexico was still embroiled in a series of street protests led by Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the former mayor of Mexico City who, as the candidate of a coalition of left-wing parties, rejected the results of the national elections: in the official recount, the difference between him and Calderón was less than 1 percent. López Obrador proclaimed himself the country’s “legitimate president” in a massive demonstration at Mexico City’s main square, the Zócalo.
Numerous critics quickly pointed out that Calderón’s measures seemed designed to legitimize his presidency and curb his rival’s attacks instead of efficiently combating organized crime. In the drug cartels, Calderón also appeared to have discovered an enemy that could plausibly be treated as the incarnation of absolute evil and thereby justified his use of ominous terms like “crusade” and “war,” both derived from his own militant Catholicism and the 9/11 rhetoric of George W. Bush, as well as the United States’ longstanding “war on drugs.” (Events in Colombia may also have emboldened him: in 2002, Álvaro Uribe was elected to office with 53 percent of the popular vote and went on to become one of the country’s most popular presidents by taking a hard-line stance against drug traffickers and guerrilla forces.) On September 12, 2008, during the opening ceremonies for the courses of the Military Education System, Calderón reaffirmed his declaration of war: “It is absolutely necessary that all of us join this common front, that we all move from words to deeds, that we honestly declare war on the enemies of Mexico, and that we pursue the victory the nation demands and which is its right.” These military metaphors, employed repeatedly by the government, depicted the conflict as a fierce struggle between good and evil: on the side of evil, naturally, were the drug traffickers, opposed by the heroic forces of good commanded by Calderón, who had no compunctions about being photographed wearing a military uniform, something unprecedented in the past century of Mexican history. The forces of law and order were determined to annihilate the drug traffickers, no matter the cost.
This Manichean mind-set quickly collided with a more ambiguous and complex reality: when the drug traffickers, or narcos, enter a community, they alter all aspects of its productive life. On the one hand, they infiltrate the police force and the judicial system; on the other, thousands of people who are victims of drug violence get identified as being members of a criminal organization, whether or not they were really involved in the drug trade. The government’s use of the term “war” gave the impression that it had a well-defined strategy with precise objectives, that at some point it would defeat the narcos. But it soon became obvious that Calderón’s government lacked a strategy; nor would the president make his goals clear, even as the number of deaths in the war grew exponentially and the human rights violations committed by the security forces began to tarnish their image.