MEXICO CITY -- President Felipe Calderon, who leaves office Saturday, is all but certain to find his post-presidency bedeviled by the need to defend his decision six years ago to deploy troops to fight drug cartels, a move that unleashed a frenzy of horrific violence that’s only now beginning to ease.
Already Mexicans are asking: Was it worth it?
Calderon has crisscrossed Mexico in recent weeks in a race to cut ribbons on bridges, highways, clinics and schools in a fight to shape his image around issues other than the “drug war.”
But soaring death rates and extraordinary brutality between cartels during much of his six-year term, coinciding with his decision to send troops to combat gangsters, is likely to be his legacy, and keep him occupied, both in and out of court.
Once Calderon is out of power, a cloak of legal immunity will be removed from his shoulders, and he’ll have to contend with human rights groups eager to sue him for what they claim is a sharp rise in rights abuses under his watch – particularly torture – by soldiers and federal police.
“The human rights community will press so that there are judicial consequences for Calderon, both in Mexico and abroad,” said Ernesto Lopez Portillo Vargas, the director of the Institute for Security and Democracy, a nonpartisan group.
Calderon, a 50-year-old Harvard-trained economist, says he had little choice but to tackle crime groups head on because they’d gained control of parts of the country. Weeks after he assumed office, he deployed nearly 50,000 soldiers and federal police to northern Mexico.
“It was like a volcano that accumulated great energy and suddenly erupts,” Calderon said in an interview published last week in the Mexican newspaper Excelsior.
He went on with a different metaphor: “It’s like going into a house and seeing a couple of cockroaches on the floor. When one follows the trail, one realizes that they are in the rug, in the wall and everything is infested with cockroaches. One can’t just cover the carpet. You have to clean the whole house. And that’s what it was up to me to do.”
Calderon has talked only vaguely of what he plans to do after he hands over power Saturday, ending 12 years of rule by his center-right National Action Party, or PAN in its Spanish initials.
News reports say he’ll take up an academic position in the United States. Harvard, Georgetown University, Stanford and the University of Texas all have been mentioned.
He and his family will be safer in the United States from reprisals by gangsters, but he’ll also be far away as thousands of PAN loyalists lose their government jobs to supporters of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, which now regains control of Mexico.
“The tsunami hasn’t begun yet,” said Samuel Gonzalez Ruiz, a security analyst and former federal prosecutor. “All these Panistas are going to get thrown out of their jobs. This tsunami will hit 50,000 families.”
As his party drifts after a severe drubbing in July’s presidential elections and out-of-work party stalwarts steam about their unemployed status, Calderon no longer can count on it to defend him once he leaves office.
Among his worst political enemies is Vicente Fox, his PAN predecessor as president. Fox threw his weight behind Enrique Pena Nieto, the Institutional Revolutionary Party candidate, before the election, and he’s lambasted Calderon, asserting that his “drug war” was harmful to the party, the nation and the army.