Some see a Colom­bian par­al­lel to Mex­ico’s drug vi­o­lence. But as the U.S. con­sid­ers its op­tions, it’s the dif­fer­ences that will count.

Los Angeles Times - - Front Page - Ken Ellingwood :: re­port­ing from mex­ico city

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-traf­fick­er­swarp 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 10 days ago, 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 of 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 nearly $8-bil­lion mil­i­tary and so­cial as­sis­tance pro­gram known as Plan Colom­bia.

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 it had worked. Irked Mex­i­can of­fi­cials dis­missed her Colom­bia com­par­i­son as sloppy his­tory and tartly of­fered that the only com­mon thread was drug con­sump­tion in the U.S.. And though 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:

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 one an­other, not the govern­ment.

Mex­ico also is a much big­ger coun­try. Though its so­cial in­equities are glar­ing, there is no sign of a broad­based 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 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 re­mote­con­trolled 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, though 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.

What to pre­scribe?

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 Colom­bi­astyle 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 $1.4bil­lion 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 rightwing paramil­i­taries.

TheFARC may hold less than a fifth of Colom­bia, but it has not been elim­i­nated. And though the coun­try’s largest drug car­tels, those cen­tered onMedellin 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.”

Edel Ro­driguez


Marco Ugarte

A par­tic­i­pant walks over signs de­pict­ing missing or dead jour­nal­ists at a Mex­ico City demon­stra­tion last month against vi­o­lence to­ward the press.

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