Six is the most-discussed number currently circulating in the latest news cycle. This is reportedly the percentage by which Green party candidate Antanas Mockus would beat the conservative favorite Juan Manuel Santos during a second round of voting – 50% of votes to 44%, respectively.
But polls come and go, and personally, I’m more interested in another number that so far has received depressingly little attention during Colombia’s presidential race: 22,700.
Said amount is inexorably linked to another key figure that deserves some discussion – 68,025, the number of hectares of coca reportedly cultivated in Colombia last year. And another: 714, the number of drug cartel members apprehended since January, according to Colombian police.
Put the two together and, according to the weird arithmetic which is the 21st century “war on drugs,” you get 22,700 – the estimated number of Mexicans killed by drug-cartel violence since 2006.
But what does the mayhem in Mexico – bodies cut up in black plastic bags, bombs tossed at U.S. consulates, pregnant women and children shot and killed – have to do with Colombia? Everything, if you see these two conflicts as separate battlegrounds in the same war. Both countries are struggling to deal with mob violence caused by U.S. and European demand for cocaine. And Colombia’s presidential candidates need to better explain their proposed strategies for fighting this war – or better yet, rebooting it.
Official estimates say that 90% of the cocaine exported from the Andean region to the U.S. arrives via Mexico. There has been a fair amount of intelligence suggesting that many of Colombia’s narco-trafficking groups – including at least five fronts of the FARC – have established business relationships with Mexican gangsters, such as the Sinaloa or Tijuana cartel, or Los Zetas. As Jay Bergman, the Andean regional director of the DEA tellingly observed last year in a media interview, “there are more Mexican drug traffickers in South America today than at any time ever, period.”
Colombian capos have used Mexico as a transit route for drugs trafficking for decades, but things only got really ugly circa 2006, when President Calderon actively began persecuting the country’s powerful cartels. And thus the gruesome headlines continue week after week, and thus Mexican middlemen continue to pour into Colombia’s port cities and across Central America and the Caribbean.
Both Mexico and Colombia have employed a similar strategy to combat drug trafficking, and thus far it has done little to reduce violence or cut back on the overall availability of drugs. The first pillar of this strategy was military and defense aid, in the form of helicopters, intelligence software, technical equipment and so forth, a lot of it funded with U.S. dollars. Colombia had Plan Colombia, Mexico, the Merida Initiative. Both have been criticized for heavily funding the military, as opposed to employing a more comprehensive approach to counter-narcotics.
The second pillar of this strategy was focused on nabbing the top guns of the drug trade. At first glance, this seems to make a lot of sense – spend time and effort capturing the Pablo Escobars and the Don Marios and the Alvarez Vaquezs of the underworld, rather than arresting the underlings, and you’ll be cutting the snake off at the head. The problem with this approach is that while it is perfectly legitimate, it has the unfortunate side effect of creating even more chaos and violence. With the arrests of the leaders of the drug cartels, many of the trafficking organizations in Mexico and Colombia have been forced into succession wars. Thus, not only do you have criminal gangs fighting the state, but you have criminal gangs fighting each other for control over premium trafficking areas. And amidst the uncertainty, civilians are increasingly caught in the crossfire.
Colombia’s presidential candidates need to have a good, long think about what a post-Uribe drugs policy will look like. Luckily, the second phase of Mexico’s Merida Initiative provides some good examples. The revised strategy no longer emphasizes arming the military; instead the focus is more on training the local Mexican police force, and includes more funding for social programs. In both countries, the first stage of the anti-drug war is taken care of – thanks to U.S. Congress, both Mexican and Colombian security forces are much better armed and equipped than they were before. But now comes the time for the more nuanced (and difficult) phase of the war.
So, from Santos to Mockus to Sanin, all would do well to answer the following questions – if elected, how would their government work on purging the judicial system and building the rule of law, so that people arrested for drug trafficking would be successfully prosecuted and successfully contained in prison? How would they better root out corruption in police and intelligence forces? How would they crack down on money laundering and arms trafficking?
Fundamentally, Colombia (and Mexico) will not start seeing more concrete results in the “war on drugs” until more is done to strengthen local institutions, and weaken the links between drug cartels and the government. A serious underlying problem is that in both countries, there are politicians – mayors, legislators, governors and so forth – who maintain ties to the cartels. Infiltrating the state basically grants impunity for traffickers, so bribing low and mid-level government officials (as well as judges and police officers) is widespread and endemic in both nations. The state can’t beat the cartels if the cartels have already co-opted the state.
True, as long as North Americans and Europeans want to put white powder up their noses, the drug war is never going to end. But what can be done, is to reduce the amount of power and control that the cartels exert over Colombian (and Mexican) society. How do Santos, Mockus and company exactly aim to do this? I hope it becomes a more profoundly discussed topic in the next few weeks.