Fresh off this week’s capture of a notorious drug lord, Mexican President Felipe Calderon declared Wednesday that his sustained assault on organized crime and efforts to clean up the police were paying off.
In the president’s annual state of the nation report, delivered in writing to Congress, Calderon cited a string of drug kingpins arrested or killed during the last year as evidence of success in his nearly 4-year-old offensive against the cartels.
Although not mentioned specifically in the president’s report, the arrest Monday of Edgar Valdez Villarreal, an accused trafficker and hit man known as " Barbie,” was another big one.
The annual report, or informe, depicts a nation rebounding from a series of hard knocks in 2009, including an economic tailspin and the H1N1 flu crisis that crimped tourism and commerce. Calderon touted gains in employment and healthcare and longer-term public works improvements, such as highway construction.
The report, posted on the Internet, leads with a section on security issues in Mexico, where cartel feuding has been mainly responsible for more than 28,000 drug-related deaths since Calderon took office in December 2006.
Calderon said his administration had sought to clean up Mexican police, long known for rampant graft, and address poverty and other social factors that are believed to contribute to violence in hot spots such as Ciudad Juarez. Strict new standards to root out corruption and modernize police have led to the firings this year of about 3,200 federal officers for poor performance, while around 1,500 others failed periodic screening tests or face criminal charges.
The government’s crackdown “has achieved significant results as far as breaking up the leadership, financial, logistical and operational structures of organized crime,” the report says.
The government has arrested 34,515 people suspected of drug trafficking during the last 12 months and seized more than 34,000 weapons, the report says. It says authorities seized the equivalent of $2.5 billion in drugs — a figure that, by most estimates, represents a fraction of the illegal narcotics trade involving Mexican groups.
The informe lists more than two dozen top-ranking or local drug bosses taken down since last September. The most significant were kingpins Arturo Beltran Leyva and Ignacio “Nacho” Coronel, both killed by Mexican troops.
But growing cartel firepower and runaway violence in a number of regions have left many residents feeling besieged by criminal groups that kill rivals and politicians, kidnap or extort money from business owners and block streets as a public expression of their muscle.
Polls have shown majority support for Calderon’s crackdown on organized crime, but also skepticism about the government’s ability to prevail.
Calderon’s conservative National Action Party has been battered in elections during the last two years and appears at risk of losing the presidency in 2012 to the former governing Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI.
In a new poll by the Demotecnia firm, a majority of respondents said Mexico was worse off than before Calderon took office. More than two-thirds agreed with the statement that, in general, things were slipping from his control.
Despite worries about rising violence, jobs and the economy are cited in most polls as the issues that most worry Mexicans.
Calderon cited economic improvements during the last year, saying more than 500,000 jobs had been created this year.
The economy is projected to grow by up to 4.5%, a rosier picture than 2009, when it shrank by 6.5%. But recovery will hinge on the health of the U.S. economy because most Mexican exports are destined for the United States.
“After facing a global economic recession comparable to that experienced in the early 20th century, in 2010 the Mexican economy returned to the path of growth,” Calderon said.
Interior Secretary Jose Francisco Blake Mora delivered the 4-inch-thick report to Congress as it opened its autumn session. This is the third straight year Calderon has provided the informe in written form without going to Congress.
Mexican presidents traditionally made a speech to Congress at its Sept. 1 opening. But the law was changed to allow a written report after opposition lawmakers prevented Calderon and his predecessor, Vicente Fox, from delivering an address in person.