SPIEGEL Interview with Mexican President Felipe Calderón Build Roads, Not Walls

Mexican President Felipe Caldéron, 44, talks to SPIEGEL about the construction of a fence between his country and the United States 17 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Mexico's struggle against corruption and drug cartels that have infiltrated its institutions and the role populist Venezuelan President Hugo Chavéz plays in Latin America.

Gilberto Higuera Guerrero, the head of the Tijuana Cartel, is arrested by Mexican police. President Felipe Calderón: "We are striking in Tijuana, on the border, and soon we will strike in all places that have been infiltrated by the mafia."

Gilberto Higuera Guerrero, the head of the Tijuana Cartel, is arrested by Mexican police. President Felipe Calderón: "We are striking in Tijuana, on the border, and soon we will strike in all places that have been infiltrated by the mafia."

SPIEGEL: Mr. President, you took office seven weeks ago during a period of tumult, protected by your body guards and inside a barricaded parliament. Your rival Andrés Manuel Lopéz Obrador had proclaimed himself as the country's alternative president. Does Mexico now have two heads of state?

Caldéron: No. In a democratic election, there can only be one winner. I am the president.

SPIEGEL: The election result in July was very narrow. You led by barely 0.58 percent. Your detractors are complaining about electoral fraud. Why didn't you approve a recount?

Caldéron: Domestic and international observers strictly monitored the election. The number of ballot boxes checked was the maximum number allowed for by our electoral law. Fortunately an overwhelming majority of Mexicans now stands behind us.

SPIEGEL: The electoral result has shown how deeply Mexico is divided between rich and poor, between the industrialized north and the rural south. How do you intend to close this gap?

Caldéron: The state must intervene with public policies that even out differences. We need a better education system. We have to develop the healthcare system. We want to improve the supply of potable water and build new roads in the most backward rural regions. That way we will create preconditions for investment, which reduces inequality.

SPIEGEL: Almost half of the 105 million Mexicans live in poverty, and 11 million have no steady employment. How do you intend to create jobs for them?

Caldéron: That will only be possible if we attract investors to Mexico. Experts assume that Mexico can rise to the status of the fourth-largest national economy in the world by 2050. But before we can achieve that, we must first lower our production costs. Energy is too expensive, and the tax burden is too great. But above all we have to create legal certainty and curb crime. That's why I'm planning to increase public spending for combating crime by 25 percent.

SPIEGEL: The World Bank claims a group of 20 families rules Mexico.

Caldéron: Sure, we have a high concentration of economic power in Mexico. In the future we want to ensure that private persons or groups of companies enjoy no illicit privileges. We need a policy that is beholden to free-market competition and limits monopolies.

SPIEGEL: Recently, left-wing governments have taken power in many Latin American countries, and the Mexican left is also stronger than it has ever been before. Has neoliberalism failed?

Caldéron: I'm not a neoliberal. The free market is a condition for economic growth, but that alone is not enough. The state has to create equal conditions for all. Some Latin American countries are going too far though. In Venezuela, for example, the government now wants to nationalize important companies. The president wants to eternalize his power. That sort of thing contradicts the principles of democracy and a market economy.

SPIEGEL: Hugo Chavéz preaches a "Socialism of the 21st century" and peppers his speeches with anti-American comments. Are conservatives like you now isolated in Latin America?

Mexican President Felipe Calderón: "Reduce our dependence on the United States"

Mexican President Felipe Calderón: "Reduce our dependence on the United States"

Caldéron: I respect the sympathies and antipathies of other countries. Today anti-Americanism is thriving the world over. Some Latin American politicians are using that to their advantage. Mexico, on the other hand, can play a leading role in regional stability. Latin America stands at a crossroads: We have to choose between the past and the future. The past, that would mean a return to state-controlled systems and an irresponsible economic policy -- a return to authoritarianism. But our future lies in the strengthening of democracy, rule of law and economic competitiveness -- and in a policy that aims at equality of opportunity.

SPIEGEL: When you visited Nicaragua on the occasion of Daniel Ortega's inauguration, you said: Mexico's heart beats inside Latin America. Does that mean Washington no longer enjoys priority because more attention is being devoted to the south?

Caldéron: Yes, we want to reorient our foreign policy. At the same time, we are the only Latin American country that is geographically part of North America. We should take advantage of this location at the interface between North and South America, between the Pacific and the Atlantic. It's the best way to reduce our dependence on the United States.

SPIEGEL: About a half-million Mexicans migrate to the United States every year in order to try their luck there. Now the Bush administration wants to build a 1,100 kilometer (684 mile) barrier along the border.

Caldéron: It's hard to believe that a wall is now being built in Arizona and Texas only 17 years after the world celebrated the fall of the Berlin Wall. There are social and economic reasons for migration to the United States. It is a natural consequence of globalization. What is more, the North American and the Mexican economies complement each other in an ideal way: The United States has the capital, and we have the labor force.

SPIEGEL: Immigrants currently transfer about $24 billion per year from the United States to Mexico. This is Mexico's second-largest source of currency, after petroleum. Can the exodus still be stopped?

Caldéron: If the Americans would invest more here, the Mexican workers would stay at home. I told the American president that it makes more sense to build a single kilometer of road in a poorly developed Mexican state than to build 10 kilometers of his wall.

SPIEGEL: In some parts of Mexico, especially along the border to the United States, the drug cartels have infiltrated state institutions, the police and the judiciary. Nine thousand people died as a result of the war between drug gangs during the six-year presidency of your predecessor, Vincente Fox. The violence persists: The situation is comparable to that in Colombia.

Caldéron: Sometimes things are even worse here than in Colombia. But as long as the demand for drugs remains so enormous in the United States, we will be unable to curb the drug trade.

SPIEGEL: How can your government regain control of the country?

Caldéron: I have started a major offensive against the drug mafia. We are already able to report our first successes. In my home state of Michoacán, for example, violent crime dropped by 80 percent in December.

SPIEGEL: You've deployed the military and made spectacular arrests. But is this anything more than a show?

Caldéron: What's important is that we are once more taking matters firmly into our own hands. Now we are striking in Tijuana, on the border, and soon we will strike in all places that have been infiltrated by the mafia. It's a joint operation involving all the state's security forces. We're facing a long battle that will cost a lot of money, as well as lives, but in the end we will have to prevail.

SPIEGEL: But you can't even trust your own police. They often work together with the gangsters.

Caldéron: We now conduct regular drug checks on police officers. We conduct psychological tests, obtain graphological opinions -- and we look into their material situation (to make sure they aren't taking money from the cartels).

SPIEGEL: You're increasingly relying on the military. But can't soldiers be bribed to?

Caldéron: I can't guarantee it, of course, but we control them strictly.

SPIEGEL: Unrest is stirring in the bitterly poor south. Your predecessor mobilized the military police against striking teachers in Oaxaca. And the Zapatistas, who staged an insurrection in 1994, are still active. How do you intend to solve all these conflicts?

Caldéron: Only by the means provided for in the rule of law. No one can violate the law and go unpunished. That's true both for those who govern and for the people. When a teacher demands his rights, we have to fulfill the obligations of an employment contract. When demonstrators demolish cars, damage public buildings or assault property, they must be punished. But we now have the situation in Oaxaca under control. I've already withdrawn the troops from there.

SPIEGEL: On Thursday, you're traveling to Europe as president for the first time, and your first stop will be Berlin. What do you expect from the visit?

Caldéron: Now that Germany has the European Union presidency, this is an especially good opportunity to strengthen our trade relations. The Germans and other Europeans should invest more, especially in tourism.

SPIEGEL: German corporations are already well represented in Mexico. They contribute five percent of the gross national product. How much political common ground do you share with German Chancellor Angela Merkel?

Caldéron: I've known her for many years. When I was the leader of my National Action Party (PAN), she was just taking over the leadership of the Christian Democrat Union (CDU).

SPIEGEL: Two conservatives on the same wavelength?

Caldéron: In politics, the ideological spectrum is becoming more and more narrow. Voters are now to be found mainly in the political center. In any case, I regard myself as a centrist politician.

-- Interview conducted by Jens Glüsing, Christian Neef, Helene Zuber


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