Mexico's President Calderon Struggles

Talk about coming back from the dead.

After spending nearly a decade in the wilderness, Mexico’s disgraced and near-defunct Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) has risen from the political ashes. With a strong showing in that country’s recent elections, the PRI captured the majority in the 500-member Chamber of Deputies and won five of six governorships by taking 36.8 percent of the vote. The National Action Party (PAN), which produced the last two presidents and controlled the legislative branch since 2000, suffered heavy losses across the board with only 27.9 percent of the vote. Political observers on both sides of the border interpret these stunning results as a rejection of President Felipe Calderon’s bloody war against the nation’s drug cartels. Calderon -- who represents the PAN -- is halfway through a six-year term and must now work with a hostile legislature.

Americans should pay attention to all this since, unlike Las Vegas, what happens in Mexico never stays in Mexico. It spills into the United States. It impacts the three policy areas that form the backbone of the relationship between the countries: trade, immigration, and drugs. Besides, the United States has pledged, via the Merida Initiative, $1.4 billion to help Calderon fight the drug lords. And we must protect that investment.

The presidency in Mexico is up for grabs in 2012, and commentators south of the border insist that the fact that the PRI dominated the midterm elections puts it in a good place to retake the top job. The PRI held the presidency for 71 years through a potent mixture of corruption and intimidation.

In 2000, the PAN’s Vicente Fox broke that streak. Shortly after Calderon was inaugurated in 2006, he declared war on the cartels and sent soldiers across the country in a crime-fighting campaign that has resulted in the arrests of more than 60,000 drug suspects and the deaths of more than 10,000 people.

This is a high-stakes and dangerous game for the traffickers, but also for Calderon. Aside from personal safety issues -- i.e., a member of Calderon’s inner circle was arrested last year for feeding the cartels information about the president’s whereabouts -- it’s also not clear that Mexico’s army is the right tool for fighting the drug war. As reported recently in the Washington Post, there are serious allegations of torture, abductions, and other forms of abuse by the Mexican military, much of it supposedly in retaliation for the torturing and killing of soldiers by drug cartels engaged in acts of terrorism.