ReVista

Lessons from Colombia for Mexico? Caveat Emptor

Editor's note: This article was originally published in ReVista magazine.

One of the things that struck me most on my last trips to Colombia in January and June 2011 was the great level of optimism regarding the country’s security accomplishments after several decades of civil war. Many of my interlocutors were brimming with confidence that Colombia was the model to be emulated by other countries facing the witches’ brew of insurgency, organized crime, poverty, and marginalization of social sectors. Government officials especially have been touting the many things Colombia can train other countries in, offering to teach Afghanistan how to conduct counternarcotics operations, the Philippines how to demobilize former fighters, the countries of Central America how to carry out police reform, Mexico how to suppress organized crime.

Mexico especially has been an eager believer, as I discovered during my research in March 2011. The mood there was the opposite: people were gripped by fear of criminal groups and communities ached from the drug-related violence that topped 47,000 dead since President Felipe Calderón came to power and declared a war on Mexico’s drug trafficking groups (DTOs). Despite a steady parade of arrested drug traffickers displayed to TV cameras, few believed that Mexico was making progress against organized crime. But from government offices in Mexico City to NGO meetings in Michoacán and business conferences in Ciudad Juárez, many were latching onto the Colombia model. Businessmen in Ciudad Juárez and Monterrey have hosted delegations from Medellín; Colombian intelligence and police officers have been advising the Mexicans on police reform and intelligence gathering.

Los Pinos, Mexico’s White House, was among the very early buyers of the Colombian way. Its strategy against Mexico’s organized crime had been based on the premise that the threat posed by organized crime will be reduced from one of national security to one of public safety if Mexico’s drug trafficking organizations (DTOs) are broken up into smaller groups as they were in Colombia and that the way to accomplish this was to arrest the groups’ key leaders—the so-called high-value targets. As part of the strategy, Mexico’s law enforcement institutions were to be reformed, cleansed of corruption and strengthened in their capacity. Meanwhile, the military was sent to the streets of Mexico to replace or reinforce the overwhelmed police.

But drawing incomplete or distorted lessons, glossing over the complexities of the Colombian story and ignoring particular contexts can deeply undermine the effectiveness of the emulated policies and at times even backfire. To some extent, that has already happened in Mexico.

Take, for example, the central premise of the Mexican strategy that if the DTOs are broken up into smaller entities, security in Mexico will improve. The effect of Colombia’s anti-crime policies in the early 1990s was indeed the emergence of many small groups instead of the two large Medellín and Cali cartels that until then had dominated Colombia’s and the Western Hemisphere’s drug trafficking. None of the smaller groups has managed to accumulate the same level of coercive power and corruption capacity that the Medellín and Cali cartels had. But Colombia’s context was different from Mexico’s, and the break-them-up policy came with different, but in each case highly negative side effects.

The Colombian government finally decided to go after the Medellín cartel with its gloves off in the early 1990s after a decade of on-and-off confrontation and negotiations with its leader, Pablo Escobar, and his cohorts. During the decade, Escobar progressively escalated violence—killing scores of judges and prosecutors, assassinating leading politicians, and blowing up an airliner and major government security agencies.

Critical to the success against the Medellín cartel was cooperation from the Cali cartel, which provided intelligence and eliminated many of Escobar’s people. Although neither DTO was a true “cartel” in the sense of controlling the market price of cocaine, and both operated more as two large franchises under whose umbrella smaller DTOs and traffickers functioned, the market was essentially dominated by the two groups. The Cali cartel, always far less violent and far more integrated into Colombia’s political and business circles than the Medellín cartel, expected that after the demise of its rival, it would be able to take over most of Colombia’s drug market. The Cali cartel was in fact for a while the unchallenged cocaine supplier. It was only the revelation that the Cali cartel contributed vast sums of money to the presidential campaign of Colombia’s President Ernesto Samper and the great pressure from the United States on the Colombian government that ultimately motivated the Samper administration to target the Cali cartel as well.

When President Felipe Calderón decided to take on the DTOs, the Mexican drug market did not have such a neat “bipolar” structure of being divided into two predominant groups. Instead, there were at least six large DTOs. Thus Mexican law enforcement moves against the groups weakened them but did not clearly transfer power to either the state or another criminal group. Instead, the state’s actions disturbed the balance of power among the DTOs and their ability to control territory and smuggling routes and project power to deter challengers. This lack of clarity about the balance of power on the criminal market tempted the DTOs to try to take over one another’s territory and engage in internecine warfare. It has also given rise to highly fluid and unstable alliances among them. Continuing hits by the state against the DTOs without much prioritization have also led to the splintering of the DTOs, giving rise to many new offshoots and new DTOs. They too have been drawn to the fight to survive and expand their power and territorial control. Many have also diversified their operations into other illegal rackets and extortion. The groups may be smaller but the criminal market is far more violent.

Moreover, in neither Colombia nor Mexico did the state effectively fill in the vacuum. In Colombia, the state continued to be unable and often uninterested in providing security and other public goods to its many marginalized citizens. The deficiencies in multifaceted state presence in large parts of country and the power vacuum on the criminal market were filled by other violent non-state actors—the paramilitaries who later in the 1990s created an umbrella political organization, Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC), and the leftist guerrillas Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC). The two groups were able to take over Colombia’s cocaine market, with many independent drug traffickers buying positions of power and military commander titles in the AUC. They also escalated Colombia’s civil war to one of its bloodiest phases ever during the latter half of 1990s and early 2000s.

The lesson that Mexico should have drawn from the Colombian case is that merely breaking up the cartels is insufficient; the state needs to increase its presence in a multifaceted fashion and strengthen not only its authority, but also its legitimacy.

Similarly, the simplistic notion that the Medellín cartel was destroyed when Escobar was dramatically shot on the city’s rooftops reinforced Mexican security officials’ fondness for high-value-target (HVT) decapitation. Also practiced in counterterrorism and counterinsurgency operations in Iraq and elsewhere, HVT interdiction is based on the assumption that the destruction of a group’s key leadership will make the group lose its operational capacity. Yet there are two flaws present in this assumption and its application to Mexico’s anti-crime efforts. One is that the ability of DTOs to replace fallen leaders is far greater than the ability of insurgent and terrorist groups to do so, in part because the leadership requirements for a drug trafficker tend to be far lower than for a terrorist or insurgency leader. A DTO’s capacity to regenerate leadership is great. Second, the Medellín cartel was destroyed well before Escobar died. Colombian security forces, the Cali cartel, and Los Pepes (an anti-Escobar militia and a core of the future paramilitaries) killed hundreds of Escobar’s lieutenants and foot soldiers before they got Escobar. Essentially, the entire middle-level of the Medellín cartel was eliminated beforehand.

Focus on the middle layer is highly prominent in U.S. and British interdiction operations precisely to prevent an easy and violent regeneration of the leadership of the targeted criminal group. Thus, U.S. interdiction operations often run for months or years and the goal is to arrest as much of the middle layer at once as possible—often hundreds of people are arrested in one sweep. But the Mexican government has been deeply challenged in conducting interdiction in this way— lacking both tactical and strategic intelligence on the DTOs and fearing that sitting on any intelligence piece or asset too long risks its leaking out and going cold.

The story of the so-called Medellín Miracle of using socio-economic policies to combat organized crime that several Mexican cities seek to emulate is also complicated. During the 1980s reign of Escobar and the 1990s reign of the paramilitaries and the FARC, Medellín was one of the world’s most violent cities. In many ways, it was the epitome of drug violence. Colombian president Álvaro Uribe made restoring Medellín a key priority and sent the military to the city in 2002 to retake the poor comunas (slums) ruled by the FARC. The success of “Operation Orion” in defeating the FARC in Medellín was followed by the adoption of a set of progressive social policies by mayors Sergio Fajardo and Alonso Salazar. They took advantage of the greater security in the city and extended a host of development activities to the poor comunas, including infrastructure and public spaces such as libraries. Homicides and kidnapping dropped dramatically.

The policies that Fajardo and Salazar implemented deserve a lot of praise. They connected the poor neighborhoods to the economically productive center, increasing access to jobs and education for the poor population of the crime-ridden comunas. They also restored some hope among the comunas’ residents in a better future and increased the bonds between those marginalized areas and the state that had long ignored them.

But for all these accomplishments, the effect of the policies on violence reduction should not be overstated. More than reducing violence, the policies were enabled by a prior reduction in violence. The FARC defeat in Medellín allowed the crime-lord-cum-paramilitary leader Don Berna to consolidate his control over the city’s criminal markets. His firm grip on the poor comunas and on the city’s criminal rackets drove the significant drop in homicides during much of the first decade of the 2000s. In the latter part of the decade, Don Berna was imprisoned and extradited to the United States, ending his narco-peace, as emerging criminal groups began to fight over drug smuggling and other criminal enterprises in Medellín and the surrounding state of Antioquía. Homicide levels rose close to the pre-Don Berna era. Socio-economic policies have been unable to fully compensate for the persisting lack of public safety in the city and the continuing deficiencies in police capacity to go after the city’s criminal groups.

Over the past decade, also reflecting the results of U.S. assistance, Colombia has experienced very significant progress. Nonetheless, the success is incomplete. It is thus important not to be blinded by the achievements and uncritically present policies adopted in Colombia as a blanket model to be emulated in other parts of the world, including Mexico. While its accomplishments, including in police reform and strengthening of the judicial system, need to be recognized and indeed may serve as an example, the limitations of progress equally need to be stressed. And as with all public policies, molding anti-crime strategies to local institutional and cultural context continues to be a critical determinant of their effectiveness.