5 Years Later: Calderon's War On Cartels

Sunday marks the fifth anniversary of Mexican President Felipe Calderon's declaration of all-out war against drug traffickers in his country. In 2006, he vowed to use all the powers of the state to take down the drug lords. The narco-war has left a stunning toll — more than 40,000 people dead.

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This Sunday marks the fifth anniversary of Mexican President Felipe Calderon declaring all-out war against the drug traffickers in his country. On December 11th of 2006, he vowed to use all the powers of the state to bring the druglords to heel. The narco-war of Calderon´s presidency has left a stunning casualty toll - more than 40,000 people dead.

NPR's Jason Beaubien joins me from Mexico City to talk about the Calderon administration's battle with the cartels. Good morning, Jason.

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: Good morning, Linda.

WERTHEIMER: So, how bad is it for regular people? Has the drug war changed Mexico or the way Mexicans have to live?

BEAUBIEN: I think this is going to be remembered as a historic moment in Mexico. You've had some incredibly dramatic moments all across the country. You've had massacres in which 72 migrants were killed in Tamaulipas. There's been a spread of kidnappings, a spread of extortion in this vacuum of security as the security forces battle these cartels.

So it really has permeated society. People are very aware of it and very afraid, even if they aren't directly involved in these shootouts between cartel members or cartel members and the state.

WERTHEIMER: Jason, I understand that this was not a prominent issue during Calderon's presidential campaign. So how and why did this become the defining action of his presidency?

BEAUBIEN: His critics have basically said that after a really contested election in 2006 in which he barely won the election that he went forward and took a very dramatic move to sort of distract people from this contested election. To give him credit, he said that this was a cancer that was growing inside of Mexico, that he had to go after them.

He came in on December 1st of 2006 and then two weeks later he sent thousands of federal troops into Michoacan to take on the cartels there. So it was a bit of a surprise, and then it came to dominate his presidency.

WERTHEIMER: Now, one of the things that I've found so interesting looking from the outside is that there are places like the border city of Juarez and increasingly Vera Cruz and other cities where civil order has completely broken down, and then there are other places where life seems to be going on relatively normally.

BEAUBIEN: Even in places that have been heavily affected by this war life goes on. I mean I was in Monterrey just this week and, you know, this is a major city in Mexico. It's basically the industrial capital, but it's also a place that's been really hard hit by this drug war.

You had 52 people killed in a casino when an extortion attempt went wrong and they torched the casino. It's a place where this war has really had an impact. But I was also struck by – you've got tractor trailer trucks heading up towards the border, the airport was really humming full of people, kids in school uniforms, you know, heading off to school every morning. And very much a sense that life goes on amidst this social problem which has spread across much of Mexico.

WERTHEIMER: Is anybody winning?

BEAUBIEN: At this point certainly you cannot declare a winner, and President Calderon would say that no one is going to win this war until the demand for drugs in the U.S. stops. And that is unlikely to happen anytime soon. He has taken down some major figures. I think one of the most significant things of this is he's managed to break up some of the smaller cartels.

But what's happened is that you've basically got two super cartels that have sort of grown up: the Sinaloa Cartel, run by Joaquin El Chapo Guzman, the most wanted man in Mexico; and then you also have the Zetas Cartel, has grown up and they're formed by this group of former Mexican special forces. So these two cartels have basically really grown in power while a lot of other cartels have splintered into really tiny pieces.

WERTHEIMER: NPR's Jason Beaubien reporting from Mexico City. Jason, thank you.

BEAUBIEN: You're welcome.

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