Calderón should have cleaned out his government before confronting the cartels


By Fredo Arias-King, HBS ’96, GSAS ’98, Correspondent

President Felipe Calderón did what most Mexicans only dreamed of—he struck with force at the organized crime taking over the country.

Why, then, is he so disliked? When Harvard invited the now ex-president to serve as a fellow at the Kennedy School, this created a small uproar among our community. Some accused the former alumnus (he spent a year at the Kennedy School as a Mason Fellow twelve years ago) of massive human rights violations, disappearances and over 60,000 dead; a result of his war on organized crime.

But these specific criticisms are a stretch, even unfair. After all, one of the main obligations of a democracy is to defend itself against external and internal threats—and that can get bloody (think Winston Churchill and Abraham Lincoln). And Mexico was indeed being taken over by cartels.

What was different with Calderón, and the reason why some consider his strategy (and even presidency) a tragic failure, was the strange way in which he went about his war.

As a Harvard student, Calderón should have skipped an econometrics class and instead gone upstairs to the Belfer Center. There, he should have asked the scholars to share the groundbreaking lessons published in the journal International Security by Edward Mansfield and Jack Snyder (1995), who state that democratizing states are quite prone to war.

Looking at the mechanics of this tenet as outlined by the authors, one sees that this happens when the new democratic leader fails to purge the elites of the former regime from key areas of government. These elites have an incentive to sabotage the new order so they can regain the threatened privileges of the old regime.

When other democratic leaders worldwide inherited a dysfunctional and corrupt government, they sought to clean the institutions and the police forces first, before street-fighting the mafia. Colombian president Alvaro Uribe purged the mafia-penetrated police and even the Congress and the courts, creating special structures to protect democratic institutions from the corrosive power of the cartels. The results were pretty dramatic, rescuing Colombia from a quasi-failed status to a success story of state capacity and even development.

Despite his admitted admiration for Uribe, Calderón forgot this crucial step.

Calderón accused his predecessors of tolerating cartel-sequestered institutions. But then, just a few days after his inauguration, he used these very institutions to declare a street war on the cartels.

To head the powerful Security Secretariat (SSP) he appointed a former political-police operator of one of the most notorious former governors from the previous regime (the PRI, which ruled Mexico until 2000), who in the 1990s allegedly protected the mafias. Calderón ignored multiple pleas to change course.

To the even more powerful Finance Secretariat, he appointed a “technocrat” groomed in the PRI, a regime responsible for numerous economic crimes.

Calderón therefore spent his six years smashing cockroaches – yet failed to shovel out the pile of rotting garbage in the living room, which was producing those vermin. The courts would release capos hauled in by the army; entire state governments cooperated with organized crime, as did chunks of the federal government; the Finance Secretariat declined to prevent banks from laundering billions in drug money.

There was no geopolitical space for Mexico to engage in foreign aggression, but Mansfield and Snyder’s theory explains quite well why Mexico plunged into an internal war.

Calderón’s failure, in other words, was entirely predictable. In fact, I foresaw such an outcome in The National Interest shortly before Calderón won that election in 2006.

If only Kennedy School faculty had shared the research by Mansfield and Snyder with ambitious foreign politicians washing up on their lawn; or, better yet, designed a course on such politically incorrect subjects as lustration (draining the previous regime) during transitions of power. Since Jeffrey Sachs left Harvard, I doubt anyone is teaching this anymore.

But I have a candidate: Maria Gaidar, who was also a Mason Fellow, suffered first hand her father’s political tragedy when reforming Russia in 1992. Later, former Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar reminisced on the need for housecleaning before a major task, such as his “shock therapy” reforms, sabotaged at every step by the Soviet nomenklatura he unwittingly left in office.

Because of this reluctance to teach its own controversial research, Harvard has produced yet another mediocre president for Mexico (that’s three out of three), while Yale produced a more-or-less decent one. If this were the football game, we’d be losing badly. And it’s all because someone neglected to tell our quarterback not to keep passing the ball to the opposing team.

The author (HBS ’96, GSAS ’98) was senior advisor on international relations to the PAN party and its presidential campaign in 1999-2000. He also founded the academic quarterly Demokratizatsiya: The Journal of Post-Soviet Democratization.

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