Editor’s Note: A Spanish version of this article was published by Reforma, a Mexican newspaper, on September 21, 2010.
Of all the fronts involved in President Calderón’s war against drug trafficking in Mexico, none is more consequential than that of the imagery invoked to describe the conflict. When Secretary of State Hillary Clinton publicly alerted Mexico to the resemblances between local cartels and the workings of an insurgency movement, and cautioned leaders that the situation in certain regions had become reminiscent of Colombia’s predicament 20 years back, she hit a very sensitive nerve in the Mexican President. So sensitive, indeed, that President Obama, most likely urged by Calderón, felt compelled to rectify Clinton’s statement the next day: the “Colombianization” analogy would no longer occupy a place in U.S. government rhetoric on Mexico.
In fact, the Secretary’s analogy hinders far more than it helps correct appraisals of the Mexican situation. Despite the gravity of Mexico’s current violence problems, and even taking into account their deterioration in the past few months in states such as Chihuahua, Durango, Guerrero, and Tamaulipas, they remain of an order of magnitude which is altogether dissimilar from Colombia’s. In 2009, Mexico’s murder rate (14 for every 100,000 inhabitants) was a mere fifth of Colombia’s rate two decades ago (70). It is, actually, well below Latin America’s average (22), which includes such cases of endemic violence as El Salvador (71), Honduras (67), Venezuela (49), Guatemala (48) and, still, Colombia (32). Even more remarkable is the fact that Mexico’s homicide rate in 2009 was lower than it was in 1997. Moreover, the country’s violence problems are highly localized, to the point that the murder rate in Mexico City, home to 20 million people, stands today at less than one third than Washington D.C.’s.
If the comparison to Colombia is readily objectionable from a numerical standpoint, even more debatable is the description of drug traffickers as insurgents. First, there is the obvious point that drug cartels are not seeking to overthrow the Mexican government. Surely, they do seek to control some of its decisions, insofar as they may relate to the protection of their illicit activities. However, their penchant for placing bombs does not make them an equivalent to the narco-army of FARC, but rather something more akin to the escapades of Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar two decades ago. This distinction is crucial. Military means are of very limited use to defeat a phenomenon like Escobar. You do not take down an Escobar with Blackhawk helicopters, but with high-quality intelligence, committed police officers, and incorruptible judges. This proved effective in Colombia, even if an unpredictable event soon ensued: FARC was ready to take control of the business.
Unlike Colombia, Mexico lacks a narco-terrorist guerilla group with a military structure equipped to replace the cartels. Mexico’s problems are different and relate more to its porous borders in the north and to its south. On its north, illegal arms trafficking reinforces Mexico’s cartels, making them harder to subdue than Colombia’s. The Mexican police forces certainly need more funding and equipment, but an essential part of the solution consists in United States action to adequately regulate gun sales. Looking toward the south, it is apparent that neither Mexico nor the United States can afford to ignore the increasing security travails of Central America, a region whose vulnerability to drug trafficking exceeds Mexico’s. Allocating less than 20 percent of Merida Initiative funding to this region is a mistake which must be corrected as promptly as possible.
To the extent that policy-makers start conceiving of Mexico’s war on drugs as a counter-insurgency effort, the tasks that are instrumental to resolving this issue will continue to be relegated further down the agenda. Dealing effectively with the problem at hand requires less short-term military operations and more patient, consistent, long term institution-building efforts. If the Mexican state does not rebuild its judicial institutions and police force from the ground up, it will not matter how many soldiers are deployed to fight the cartels. Failure to deeply reform law enforcement institutions will nullify all prospects to reverse the proliferation of organized crime and the violence which intimately shadows it.
While talking of Mexico’s “Colombianization” may capture the public’s ear, it is unfortunate and may well lead to mistaken policies. It is high time to rein in the hyperbolic tone that pervades statements on violence in Mexico, and to recalibrate the lens employed to analyze the region’s drug trafficking plight. While there’s hardly any doubt that U.S. demand for drugs and Washington’s misguided counter-narcotic strategies are at the heart of the problem everywhere, its concrete manifestations vary from country to country according to the history and the institutions which witnessed their emergence.
On December 6, 2017, Vanda Felbab-Brown joined a panel of experts to discuss her new book, “The Extinction Market: Wildlife Trafficking and How to Counter It,” and how new policy, program, and technological tools can help reduce the threats that illegal wildlife trafficking poses to vulnerable communities and to our national security.