Why Mexico is not the new Colombia when it comes to drug cartels


Car bombs. Political assassinations. Battlefield-style skirmishes between soldiers and heavily armed adversaries.

Across big stretches of Mexico, deepening drug-war mayhem is challenging the authority of the state and the underpinnings of democracy. Powerful cartels in effect hold entire regions under their thumb. They extort money from businesses, meddle in politics and kill with an impunity that mocks the government’s ability to impose law and order.

The slaying of a gubernatorial candidate near the Texas border this year was the most stunning example of how the narco-traffickers warp Mexican politics. Mayors are elected, often with the backing of drug lords, and then killed when they get in the way.


Journalists are targets too. After a young photographer was gunned down in Ciudad Juarez Sept. 17, his newspaper, El Diario de Juarez, issued a plaintive appeal to the cartels in a front-page editorial. “We ask you to explain what you want from us,” the newspaper said. “You are at this time the de facto authorities in this city because the legal authorities have not been able to stop our colleagues from falling.”

As the death toll from drug-related violence nears 30,000 in four years, the impression that Mexico is losing control over big chunks of territory — the northern states of Tamaulipas, Chihuahua, Nuevo Leon and Durango at the top of this list — is prompting comparisons with the Colombia of years past. Under the combined onslaught of drug kingpins and leftist guerrillas, the South American country appeared to be in danger of collapse.

The Colombia comparison, long fodder for parlor debates in Mexico, gained new energy this month when Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the tactics of Mexican cartels looked increasingly like those of a Colombia-style “insurgency,” which the U.S. helped fight with a military and social assistance program known as Plan Colombia that cost more than $7 billion.

But is Mexico the new Colombia? As the Obama administration debates what course to take on Mexico, finding the right fix depends on getting the right diagnosis.

Clinton cited the need for a regional “equivalent” of Plan Colombia. After 10 years, the rebels’ grip in Colombia has been reduced from more than a third of the country to less than a fifth. Violence is down and, with improved security, the economy is booming. However, tons of cocaine are still being produced and there have been widespread human rights abuses.

Clinton acknowledged that the program had “problems” — but said that it had worked. Irked Mexican officials dismissed Clinton’s Colombia comparison as sloppy history and tartly offered that the only common thread was drug consumption in the United States. And while the two cases share broad-brush similarities, there also are important distinctions, including Mexico’s profound sensitivity to outside interference.


Here is a breakdown of the two experiences:

The Nature of the Foe

Colombia’s main leftist rebels, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as the FARC, waged war in the name of Marxist ideology, calling for an overthrow of the traditional ruling oligarchy. Separately, the country faced a campaign of violence by drug cartels. To fund the insurgency, the rebels first took a cut from coca producers and traffickers – and then starting running their own drug labs and forming partnerships with the traffickers.

In contrast, the main aim of Mexican drug gangs is to move merchandise without interference from authorities. In many places, traffickers manipulate governors and mayors — and the police they control. Their ability to bully and extort has given them a form of power that resembles parallel rule.

But the goal is cash, not sovereignty. Drug lords don’t want to collect trash, run schools or pave the streets. And very often, the violence the gangs unleash is directed against each other, not the government.

Mexico also is a much bigger country. While its social inequities are glaring, there is no sign of a broad-based rebel movement with which traffickers could join hands.

“We’ve got a criminal problem, not a guerrilla problem,” said Bruce Bagley, who chairs the international studies department at the University of Miami in Coral Gables. “The drug lords don’t want to take over. They want to be left alone. They want a state that’s pliable and porous.”


At the peak of Colombia’s insurgency, the FARC controlled a large part of the country, including a Switzerland-size chunk with defined borders ceded to it by the government as a demilitarized zone known as the despeje, or clearing.

Mexico’s drug gangs have relied on killing and intimidation tactics to challenge government control over large swaths by erasing a sense of law and order.

In the border state of Tamaulipas, a gubernatorial candidate who was heavily favored to win a July election was gunned down less than a week before the vote. Violence in neighboring Nuevo Leon state prompted the U.S. State Department last month to direct employees to remove their children from the city of Monterrey, a critically important and affluent industrial center.

In Clinton’s words, U.S. officials worry about a “drug-trafficking threat that is in some cases morphing into, or making common cause with, what we would consider an insurgency.”

But there are no borders defining any drug cartel’s domain, making it difficult, even within regions, to say how much of the country lies outside effective government control on any given day. There is no force that appears anywhere near capable of toppling the government and, so far, no zone the Mexican army cannot reach when it wants.

Instead, cartel control is more fluid. It is measured in the extent to which residents stay indoors at night to avoid roving gunmen; the degree to which Mexican news media steer away from covering crime so they don’t anger the trafficking groups.

The sense of siege hopscotches across Mexico like windblown fire across a landscape.

Targets and Tactics

During the worst days of Colombia’s bloodshed, cartel hit men and guerrillas carried out spectacular bombings and assassinations that targeted judges, politicians, police and businesspeople.

Mexico, despite a steadily rising death toll, has seen nothing of that nature. Cartel gunmen have killed scores of police and some prosecutors. Police officers have been killed in the line of duty, or because they were moonlighting for one criminal group or another. But they have not been targeted as part of a sustained effort to topple the government.

Most of the killing stems from open warfare between heavily armed cartels.

The cartels have in a few instances resorted to car bombs and grenade attacks that raised fears they were turning to Colombia-style terrorist tactics.

U.S. officials were alarmed when a remote-controlled car bomb exploded in violence-racked Ciudad Juarez in July, killing a police officer and three other people. Two more bombs exploded in the weeks that followed. Attackers hurled grenades into an Independence Day crowd in Morelia, capital of the western state of Michoacan, in September 2008, killing eight people.

There have been no other such direct, terrorist-style assaults against civilians, but the drug gangs’ wanton use of muscle and extreme violence nonetheless has sown terror across much of the country. Gory images of beheaded victims left by feuding gangs have added to a feeling of impotence and mistrust of government authorities.

Even though many Mexicans support the government’s anti-crime campaign, the result is a society even more reluctant to join in.

State weakness

Colombia for years was outmatched by the power of foes who capitalized on porous borders, an army in tatters and weak government bodies. In his day, drug kingpin Pablo Escobar even managed to get himself elected an alternate member of Colombia’s Congress.

Mexico’s military, while stretched thin, is more reliable than Colombia’s was at the start. But its police and court system, for many years rife with corruption, have proved ill-equipped to confront drug cartels. Widespread graft means that the criminals and the authorities often are one and the same, blurring the battle lines.

Under the former ruling party, the Institutional Revolutionary Party, drug trafficking was allowed to flourish, and was at times even orchestrated by corrupt officials. Now, the federal government under President Felipe Calderon and his conservative National Action Party is purging corrupt police. But problems persist at the state and local level, and the justice system is overwhelmed by drug gangs armed with billions of dollars in profits and battlefield weaponry. Prosecutions have been few, convictions fewer.

Officials say it could take Mexico decades to create a trustworthy law enforcement system. In the meantime, Calderon has deployed 50,000 troops to take on the cartels. The troops’ actions have raised widespread allegations of rights abuses and suspicion that some units may have been penetrated by traffickers. Lopsided arrest figures have triggered accusations that the government is favoring some cartels over others, a charge the president denies.

Despite its weak institutions, Colombia had a stronger civil society that ultimately rose up to demand and support government action. Colombian newspapers stood up to the violence. In 2002, Colombians elected President Alvaro Uribe, who promised to defeat the insurgents and traffickers rather than compromising with them. The government’s willingness to tackle money laundering and seize traffickers’ assets was considered a turning point.

Calderon took a page from Colombia by extraditing record numbers of drug suspects wanted in the U.S., reducing the odds that they could buy their freedom from leaky Mexican prisons. But he has done little to tackle money laundering.

These deficiencies could contribute to a fundamental breakdown in the state more closely parallel to Colombia. However, Calderon’s government says that won’t happen because it is tackling Mexico’s institutional weaknesses head-on. “The important thing is we are acting in time,” security affairs spokesman Alejandro Poire said.

Designing a prescription

In Colombia, U.S. policymakers put military advisors and special forces troops on the ground to address a drug problem that was largely based on production — one that could be attacked in large measure through wide-scale eradication.

But in Mexico, where the problem is equally one of breaking distribution networks, a Plan Colombia-style military role seems far less likely.

Clinton appeared to suggest that the U.S. military could help, “where appropriate.” But sending U.S. troops would be anathema in Mexico, with its bitter history of foreign interventions and a wariness of the United States.

These are sensitivities well known to U.S. diplomats. In 2007, when Presidents Bush and Calderon negotiated the terms of a $1.4-billion U.S. security-aid program for Mexico, they called it the Merida Initiative to avoid echoes of Plan Colombia. And no U.S. officials have called for American boots on the ground in Mexico.

Although the Merida plan initially emphasized helicopters and other equipment aimed at fighting the drug trade, U.S. cooperation is now geared toward softer assistance, such as helping train and professionalize Mexican police cadets, prosecutors and judges.

Asked to lay out the probable next step in U.S. help, a senior American official here answered: “Institution building, institution building, institution building.”

Some experts take issue with Clinton’s upbeat characterization of the Colombia program, which has drawn numerous allegations of human rights abuses by the revamped Colombian army and right-wing paramilitaries.

The FARC may hold less than a fifth of Colombia, but it has not been eliminated. And while the country’s largest drug cartels, those centered on Medellin and Cali, were crushed, scores of smaller ones took their place. Colombian cocaine production remains robust, according to most studies.

Bagley regards Plan Colombia as an unsuitable model for Mexico, which he said should focus on cleaning up corruption and creating a trustworthy justice system.

“They’re misdiagnosing this,” he said. “They’re telling us Colombia was a success and you can export this to Mexico. And you can’t.”

Staff writer Tracy Wilkinson in Mexico City and special correspondent Chris Kraul in Bogota, Colombia, contributed to this report.