Speaking Thursday night at Trinity University, Calderón said he confronted his father, a founding member of the National Action Party, with concerns about their campaign against the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party.
His father responded, “We are doing this because it is the right thing to do,” Calderón said. “It is our moral duty to our country.”
Decades later, after his father's death, Calderón became the second president from his party, known by its Spanish acronym PAN. His six-year term, filled with controversy over his decision to use Mexico's military to confront organized crime, ended in November.
He's been accused of launching an unnecessarily bloody war against the cartels and allowing his forces to commit human rights abuses, but Calderón told the crowd that it was the same moral duty his father spoke of that led him to launch his war against Mexico's drug cartels.
Calderón acknowledged that abuses had taken place, but he insisted they happened against his orders and that perpetrators were prosecuted.
He characterized the cartels as criminal organizations involved in extortion and kidnapping, not just drug smuggling. He said that when he took office, criminals controlled the police in border states, such as Tamaulipas, the home state of one audience member who questioned his use of the military. Previous administrations, Calderón said, had chosen not to enforce the law.
“Either you enforce the law, which is your duty, or change the law,” he said in a news conference before the speech. “But you cannot ignore the law. In my opinion, enforcing the law is a very difficult task, but it is absolutely necessary. And if Mexico wants to be one of the developed nations, we need, as Mexican people, to have a rule-of-law country. Otherwise we will lose a lot of opportunity.”
One audience member questioned Calderón's characterization of the social and economic situation in Mexico, and another gently chided him for moving to the United States after his term ended. He's now teaching at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government in Cambridge, Mass.
The former president focused largely on Mexico's economic growth, especially in the manufacturing sector, and pension reform under his administration. Calderón also touted his expansion of the nation's education and health care systems. Such efforts, which Calderón characterized as “rebuilding the social fabric” of Mexico, were part of his effort to undermine the cartels.
Calderón said the U.S shares blame as well, allowing cash and money to flow south of the Rio Grande.
“What is crucial is to stop the flow of money going from the United States to Mexico,” he said. “In order to do that, the American society, Congress and government, have a moral obligation to find a way in which they could prevent the flow of that money.
“I don't want to say that the way to do that is to improve the money laundering regulations or to increase the strength of the American agencies or to explore market alternatives for drugs, but the point is as long as the American government and society are not able to stop the flow of money toward Mexico, Latin America, that will imply several years of violence ahead.”
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