An outspoken politician mysteriously disappears from his country home over the weekend, a blurry photo, depicting him blindfolded and gagged, circulates through social media sites; his family begs authorities not to get involved in the manhunt and disrupt “negotiations” with unknown kidnappers – just another series of scenes from a true-life, Colombian political drama?
Wrong. Last week’s disappearance of former Mexican presidential candidate, Diego Fernandez de Cevallos, has jolted the country’s social elites, who previously may have thought they were immune from the drug war that’s claimed 3,000 lives so far this year. Mockus still has to worry about FARC-ETA assassination plans and threatening Facebook groups, but really, on some days Colombia’s security prospects look like a walk through a field of sunflowers compared to the extraordinary violence gripping Mexico.
President Calderon spent the last week asking U.S. Congress to denounce Arizona’s immigration law and to re-install an assault weapons ban. I wonder if his next visit should be to the Casa de Nariño before Uribe’s term ends in August, where he should ask, “what – if anything – can Mexico learn from Colombia’s experience in battling drug cartels?”
In the next five to ten years, Mexico needs to make the same kinds of security gains achieved by Colombia over the past decade. That being said, Colombia is still hardly a model for good security, let alone a successful counter-narcotics strategy. And while the comparison between the two countries feels easy – they’re both fighting the war on drugs, aren’t they? – the differences between the two conflicts are worth noting.
In Colombia, one of the biggest suppliers of cocaine is an insurgent group, the FARC, who according to some counts may be supplying up to 70% of Colombia’s cocaine. In contrast, Mexican insurgents like the Zapatistas or the EPR guerrillas have totally failed to cash in. So, while it’s true that Colombia has made huge security gains in the past ten years, these were gains against the FARC as a military organization, not gains against the drug trade. In Mexico, the army will not be fighting a uniformed, visible, armed group like the FARC, but rather is confronting an invisible army (much like Colombia’s neo-paramilitary bands, which are also proving extremely difficult to persecute).
That being said, what kind of lessons can Mexico draw from Colombia? I would say the first is not to underestimate the need for well-trained security forces, but yet not to apply the military as a quick fix. Colombia achieved much of its security gains by upgrading the army, receiving $4.5 billion in counter-narcotic and military aid from the U.S. between 2000 and 2008. The Merida Initiative, technically set to expire this year, awarded $1.4 billion to Mexico and its neighbors. While the Associated Press has reported that due to bureaucratic tie-ups, Mexico has only received $161 million of that money, the State Department is already planning to expand the aid package in 2011. This means more Black Hawks, more sniffer-dogs, more lie detector machines and more police training for Mexico. Providing such basic equipment is a good first step.
But as the case of Colombia shows, you can’t just throw military technology at a problem and expect it to be fixed. Even with its expanded army, Colombia has not been able to deliver the final blow against the FARC and other drug trafficking groups, not without consolidating state presence in rural areas that have only known guerrilla rule. And said final blow probably will never happen, if the Colombian government doesn’t tackle the socio-economic incentives that drive people into illegal economies into the first place. Accomplishing this is not the military’s role.
Nowhere is this clearer in Mexico, where the deployment of more than 45,000 troops to places like Tijuana, Juarez, and Morelia did little to reduce the power of the cartels, let alone quell the violence. A more useful example for Mexico would be the province of La Macarena in Colombia, a previous FARC stronghold that the government first secured militarily, then implemented a series of successful alternative development programs to keep narco-trafficking at bay. The new phase of the Merida aid package, which places renewed emphasis on a socio-economic approach, is another encouraging step forward.
The second lesson from Colombia for Mexico would be never underestimate a “divide and conquer” strategy when it comes to drug cartels. Trying to follow the international alliances between Mexico’s drug trafficking organizations is more confusing than an episode of “Lost.” So let us clarify: there are about six major cartels currently operating: the Sinaloan federation, the Gulf, its military arm, Los Zetas, Beltran-Leyva, Juarez, Tijuana and the Familia Michoacana. Notably, almost all of them have alliances with either the FARC or other Colombian drug traffickers. Within the FARC, the 10th and 16th Fronts traffic mainly with the Beltran-Leyvas, the 48th with Tijuana, and the 27th with Los Zetas and the Juarez cartel. Other alliances include Los Rastrojos with Sinaloa, and their rivals, the Urabeños, with Sinaloa’s rivals, the Gulf cartel.
With so many actors on the stage, you can hardly blame Mexico for favoring the dismantling of certain cartels over others, whether intentionally or not. This appears to be what is happening with the Gulf cartel and Los Zetas over the Sinaloans, who are widely perceived as the most sophisticated and powerful organization in Mexico. Reports have emerged showing that since 2006, most arrests have been of Gulf operatives, rather than Sinaloans. There have also been widespread accusations that the Mexican government is “standing back” and letting the Sinaloans ruthlessly drive La Linea cartel out of Juarez, with support from some military and police elements.
Through such a “divide and conquer” strategy, Mexico would “permit” the Sinaloa cartel to emerge as the new hegemonic power in the region, by investing most of the state’s resources in persecuting its rivals. It was precisely this kind of approach which, in the early 1990s, successfully took down one of the most violent and ruthless groups in Colombia’s history, the Medellin cartel. As hard and as long as the Colombian government worked to take down Pablo Escobar, they only really began to see results when serious infighting broke out between Medellin and its former ally, the Cali cartel. It is an ugly truth, but the Cali cartel was able to go after Escobar’s henchmen in a way that government troops simply could not. And much to Escobar’s fury, the government (obviously) did little to quell the anti-Escobar violence.
As the case of the Medellin cartel shows, the Colombian government was able to take down a major terrorist, drug-trafficking organization by carefully playing the cartels’ turf wars to the state’s advantage. Mexico could conceivably do the same thing – although the situation is complicated by the fact that Mexico is struggling with at least six major cartels, not two like Colombia in the 1990s.
It also bears pointing out that such “divide and conquer” strategies are really only short-term solutions. If Mexico “allows” the Sinaloa organization to emerge triumphant as the new drug-smuggling superpower, violence will probably drop, as all competition would have been eliminated or greatly reduced. Much like the Cali cartel in its heyday, Sinaloa prefers bribing and corrupting government officials to killing or kidnapping them.
The presence of one or two all-powerful cartels over five fiercely competitive rivals is not exactly the ideal solution. However, it may mean that incidents like the Diego Fernandez de Cevellos disappearance would again be few and far between, and when it comes to the world of organized crime, such uneasy compromises may just be the nature of the beast. You don’t need to look any further than Colombia to know that.