Colombia is no Lesson For Mexico (Part II)

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The threat faced by Colombia two decades ago was very different to that faced by Mexico today, and the two countries’ governments, by and large, have had distinct aims in their battles against organized crime.

The two countries have had one similar goal: in the 1980s and 1990s, the Colombian authorities had to quell violence in mainly urban areas; a situation similar to that of Ciudad Juarez or Tijuana today. This is the one aspect of Colombia’s strategy that can be applied to Mexico today. Cities like Juarez, Tijuana and Culiacan, not to mention recently terrorized towns throughout Tamaulipas, need social reconstruction programs and community-building efforts as much as they need police reforms that will build security forces that residents can trust. But it was only possible to implement such programs in Medellin and Cali long after the cartels were totally disrupted; the same applies to these Mexican cities. Like it or not (and to this day, more than 80 percent of Mexicans appear to support the idea), the military is needed on the streets, until the violence has abated and adequate reforms have been undertaken.

Plan Colombia, developed with the cooperation of President Andres Pastrana and implemented in full once Alvaro Uribe assumed office in 2002, is often brought up alongside the Merida Initiative, also a Bush administration effort to provide counter-drug assistance, this time to Mexico. But the targets of the two initiatives are quite different. By the time Plan Colombia came into effect, the Medellin and Cali cartels had basically collapsed. (It’s important to note, as well, that at no time were both cartels equally powerful — unlike the situation in Mexico where during various periods, including today, cartels have effectively co-existed with or without tensions and bloodfeuds.) Uribe faced two primary challenges: securing the cities and main roads in Colombia·and bringing an end to a decades-long ideological conflict. The guerrillas had come to depend on drugs due to lack of support and financial resources; they were rapidly losing their ideological motivation and appeal. The cocaine trade was never going to end, but keeping it under control — effectively, well-managed — would be a realistic goal.

Those aims couldn’t be more different from those of the Calderon administration, which are as follows:

1) To quell violence in urban and rural areas where it had become uncontrollable and instilled terror in citizens.

2) To disrupt and/or dismantle the four primary organized crime syndicates operating throughout the country, as well as root out the institutional corruption that allowed them to thrive.

3) To break the organized crime syndicates into groups of independent — and competing — gangs.

4) To make it so difficult to traffic drugs through Mexico, either through law enforcement crackdowns or intimidation by rivals, that the trafficking organizations simply move elsewhere.

Mexico is currently at Stage Three of the overall strategy (with the exception of the Sinaloa Cartel, which still seems to operate as a cohesive unit — although there is increasing evidence that it is under threat from the Zetas in certain areas.) This is crucial vis a vis using Colombia as a model for Mexico, because at no time were the Colombian authorities ever battling as many as 10 different organized groups.

Since 2009, another new organized crime group has seemingly sprung up in Mexico every few days. Some of these groups appear to just be young, opportunistic thugs, trying to make a name for themselves in the wake of a weakened cartel. Others are simply gangs, operating under the umbrella of a cartel. Since the split between the Beltran Leyva brothers and Chapo Guzman in Sinaloa in 2009, for instance, various factions in the region and along the west coast have formed their own groups. But even though there have been serious clashes between them, there is no evidence that they are operating any differently than the various factions of the Federation, as the Sinaloa Cartel used to be known.

As a result of this mayhem, the authorities don’t even know exactly what they are currently fighting. The word “cartel” doesn’t really apply to many of Mexico’s drug gangs (academics would argue that it doesn’t apply even to the Sinaloa drug trafficking organization, as it is not responsible for setting prices of its product). In Washington, Congress is now being told about Mexico’s drug trafficking organizations (DTOs), its transnational criminal organizations (TCOs), its narco-terrorists, the possibility of paramilitaries operating in the region (the Matazetas in Veracruz) and even of the threat of a “spiritual insurgency.”

Some of these monickers can be crossed off the list. The Mata Zetas, while a paramilitary group in one sense of the word, is not a paramilitary unit like the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC). There is absolutely no evidence that they are highly-trained, or as cohesive as the Colombian paramilitaries. Nor are they as new as media reports would suggest — they emerged on the scene in Nuevo Laredo and Ciudad Juarez around 2003, and given that the name has not become a household one throughout Mexico since, it’s fair to argue that the Mata Zetas are not organizing into a full-fledged paramilitary force like the one Colombian authorities had to deal with.

As for a “spiritual insurgency” in Mexico, evidence that drug traffickers are increasingly linked to Santa Muerte, an alternative saint followed by thousands of disenfranchised Mexicans, is minimal. Some traffickers follow Santa Muerte, some Santa Muerte followers traffic drugs. The connections end there; there is no ideological or spiritual war being launched in Mexico. Alternative faiths and religion are simply being exploited by drug traffickers to enlist loyal employees. Likewise, serious links between Hezbollah and the Mexican cartels have largely proven tenuous at best.

In Colombia, the need to go after large guerrilla organizations was so immediate that innocent civilians were often considered collateral damage. Rural residents were caught in the crossfire and even killed by paramilitaries/guerrillas for having supported (often not by choice) the enemy combatant during a previous takeover of the region.

This has not happened to such an extent in Mexico, nor can it. Innocents have died in Mexico, there is no doubt about that, but not in such large numbers. Given the emphasis on human rights within Mexico itself (there are countless human rights organizations and activists operating throughout the country, with the government’s blessing) — not to mention Mexico’s proximity to the United States and its relatively free press — human rights atrocities in the name of the drug war won’t be tolerated by even the most callous politician. As a result, the heavy-handed military crackdowns witnessed in Colombia in the 1980s and under Uribe wouldn’t work or be tolerated.

Human Rights Watch recently submitted a report, after conducting extensive investigations, and found evidence of 170 cases of torture, 39 disappearances and 24 extrajudicial killings since Calderon took office. In most of these cases, Human Rights Watch found evidence that strongly suggested the involvement of security forces, be they military, or federal or local police. Atrocious, but compare these to figures from Colombia: an estimated 3,000 civilians killed by the military; as many as five million Colombians displaced by guerrilla and paramilitary operations; as many as 150,000 citizens killed by paramilitaries. In comparison, Mexico is a beacon of good-naturedness.

The model applied to Mexico must be one of urgent institution-building — effectively, leap-frogging many of the processes applied in Colombia and going straight to the final stages. Police and judicial reforms are underway, but either languishing in Congress or being put into effect too slowly. As a result, Mexico has seen a whack-a-mole strategy implemented against upstart groups: a new gang pops up, beheads a dozen rivals, strings up a bunch of narco-mantas (banners meant to intimidate rivals or expose corrupt authorities — in effect, a form of psy-ops) and the military is called in to deal with the problem, short-term. Community-building efforts — seen in Colombia, but only after the cartels were brought down — need to be implemented with the full support of the federal government, even before the police truly take control of the nation’s cities.

Lastly, the increasingly popular concept of winning hearts and minds must be applied in Mexico and thought through. In Colombia, citizens — especially the young — were initially recruited by the FARC and ELN under the precept of an ideology that would challenge the state. The state, in turn, had to win them over by offering a countering ideological motivation that they might find attractive. In Mexico, the state has been unable to win over many residents of areas like Sinaloa and Tamaulipas, but not because of their political agenda. In Mexico, it is a matter of money and economic prospects. In the country, a young man or woman does not join drug-trafficking organizations because they are rebels, but because they offer financial incentives in an environment where jobs are almost non-existent. The Mexican state, as a result, has to match the offers presented by the cartels.

Trying to convince people that the government are the so-called good guys isn’t enough; they have to put their money where their mouth is.

But figuring out exactly who the enemy is does pose serious challenges to the Mexican authorities and their U.S. counterparts; as a result, the Colombian model of going after one group with the full force of the state and then moving on to the next cannot be applied.

Read the first part of this article.

Malcolm Beith is a freelance journalist and author of a book on Mexico’s drug war, “The Last Narco.” He has written about the drug war for Newsweek, Slate.com, Jane’s Intelligence Weekly, Foreign Policy magazine and other publications. He can be reached at mbeithpublic@gmail.com.

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