Blog dedicated to reporting on Mexican drug cartels
on the border line between the US and Mexico

Monday, September 27, 2010

Why Mexico is not the new Colombia when it comes to Drug Cartels

A press member walks over signs depicting missing or dead journalists during a protest against violence in Mexico City, Aug. 7. Photo by: Marco Ugarte, Associated Press, Sept. 25, 2010.

by Ken Ellingwood,
Los Angeles Times

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."


  1. Excellent analysis, and thank your for putting things in the right perspective.

    I´d like to make a few observations if I may.
    First, while it is true that under the Merida Plan the US is supposed to contribute to the war on drugs in Mexico with some 1.4 billion, not all of it comes in cash or funds, but in equipment and Mexico so far has only received less than 300 million and while it is important to mention that Mexico appreciates this help very much it is also important to say that Mexico is spending more than 10 billion dollars, our own dollars in strenghtening our defense and security institutions to be able to face the challenges.

    When making a comparison with Colombia´s, you mentioned the weakness of the state of Colombia, not only is that worth mentioning, but also the fact that Mexico is the second largest economy in Latin America and has vast resources that we are now allocating to confront this threat. Colombia´s economic resources we limited when compared to those of the farcs and narco cartels that besieged that country for many decades and still do.
    Mexico is an industrialized society, one third of all exports from Latin America come from Mexico, we export as much as Brazil, Argentina and Colombia together.
    Mexico is the US second trading partner, we buy nearly 10% of all american exports to the world and hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of well paid american jobs depend on Mexican purchases of american products and services, in fact we buy more american goods than any other country in the world except Canada and we are catching up fast with that country as our middle classes expand, soon we will become the first market for american goods in the world.

    So Mexico has got plenty of resources. Sadly, our former presidents did not pay attention to the corruption and proliferation of cartels but President Calderon has launched an unprecedent war on the cartels and many drug lords have been killed or arrested.

    Also, when you mentioned the corruption in our police forces it is important to make a distinction here. We in Mexico have three different police systems and not all of them are corrupted. Our municipal police forces are badly paid, and untrained and unequipped in many cities, with some exceptions, and traditionally are very corrupted and in the past years the cartels developed networks of corruption with them.
    But our federal police has undergone important changes in its structure and staffing and they are better paid today, enjoy many benefits and also receive all kinds of certifications, including internationally recognized certifications.
    But there is a proposal in congress to eliminate all municipal police forces in Mexico and create a unique police for each state that will be supervised and coordinated by our federal forces, both the army and the federal police.

    A lot is being done also in terms of financial controls limiting the sale and purchases in dollars and establishing controls on sales of boats, special vehicles and suvs and large amounts of jewelry and other controls affecting economic activities of the cartels.

    There are also many programs to make police and security adminstration more transparen all over Mexico.

    So our society is also moving and making many changes to face the challenges we face.

  2. Mr Flores Thank you for your comments bravo I long for the day that I can take my family once again to enjoy the outdoors in Mexico.I truly believe things will improve,its such a shame it came to the present state.

  3. That Mexico is not in as bad shape as Columbia was is no excuse for any laxity. What the Columbians did worked, it is a model that works. That model does not require waiting until Mexico devolves into anarchy. Do it now.

    "Inexcusable" should be the declaration today. Authorities, stop the cartels now. Anything less that everything is inexcusable.


  4. Wow, that American reporter/analyzer goes to excessive links to compare apples and oranges. Mexico IS NOT Columbia,each have a different culture and history. Such an overly long-winded comparison is worthless. Don't try to bolt an ill-fitting "Plan Columbia" model onto Mexico. It doesn't fit; just quit.

    The only thing "Plan Columbia" demonstrates is installing a "Murder, Inc." model in Columbia works if you murder enough people and terrorize the peasants and other poor. That's what the US did in conjunction with the extremely vicious Alvaro Uribe regime, assisting and participating closely in the execution of the plan. Many more innocent civilians (peasants) were murdered than "bad guys" (narcos) thru "collateral damage" and misidentification. A similar model was installed in Iraq under the guidance of General David "I'm always positioning myself for a 2012 Presidential run" Petraeus re-branded as "COIN", COunter-INsurgency.

    I think trying to use a similar model in Mexico would trigger a backlash avalanche of protest against the massive civil and human rights violations concomitant with such a plan, long before "targeted killings" had succeeded in wiping out enough "bad guys" to be successful, whatever that would be defined as.

    Any new approach would have to include really tough measures on the US side, like the targeted overriding of "Second Amendment rights" to cut the flow of weapons from the US to MX. And targeted suspension of the "Posse Comitatus Act" to allow US military personnel to pursue and apprehend those involved in drug network operations on US soil. Plus the overriding of privacy of communications to intercept drug-related messages on phones and the internet. These measures could be put under review/control of a special judicial board or court to counter civil rights objections. Legalization of marijuana for personal use absolutely must be an integral part on the US side of the border.

    Don't expect the US to get sufficiently tough on itself to really make a difference any time soon.

  5. These Colombia versus Mexico analyses about what supposedly 'works' is fundamentally a bullshit discussion. Why? It's because the US government has used multiple devices in Latin America to control the people by creating high levels of violence. There is the Central America model of repression used in the '80s, for just one example. Did that 'work'?

    Or what about the Pinochet, Fujimori, or the Argentine generals model of repression? How did that 'work'? Or is it not that these multiple models of US sent repression are what has got the 'Drug War' going so hot all over Latin America, let alone just Mexico. 'Working'? I think not. (Or at least not working for anything good.)


  6. your slip is showing

  7. Ok Ernest, lets have it your way. Since America (Presumably your homeland) is so full of repression based models, (check out history of communism and facism in other countries), that we cannot possibly offer genuine solutions for Mexico to adopt, then let us back off entirely. Withdraw aid, seal our borders with our own military, call it done and wish them the best.

    We are one of the most generous countries in the world. We give away our hard earned money to help others and you call us repressive? It's a shame you hate your country so much...maybe the North Korean model would be better for you!

  8. 'We are one of the most generous countries in the world.'

    I love these totally ridiculous assertions of US Right Wing Americans.

    'It's a shame you hate your country so much...maybe the North Korean model would be better for you!'

    And then all they can ever do is red bait. I'm surprised this guy didn't come out with the classic one liner of the American Right Wing clown. which is...

    'America, Love it or Leave it.'

    Stupidity of this sort gets so tiresome. Mexicans just don't know what they miss by not living in the USA!


  9. commentatore.

    The chances of amending the US constitution at all are exceedingly slim. The chances of reversing or eliminating the 2nd are nil. It is a non starter. The Posse Comitatus has been revised before but going very far on it is unlikely as well.

    It is more likely and more useful for the US to legalize the drugs in question. This is just a Federal Law change and already has large support. It would undercut the financial incentive for the violence along with the drug trade itself.

    Unfortunately, money is also a prime motive for keeping the drugs laws on the books.

    It will take far more than the current sufferings in Mexico for Americans in general to take notice let alone be swayed to part with such a long standing prohibition.

  10. Why do so many of the posters continually make arguments claming the US is responsible for the mess in Mexico?? Drugs ,alcohol,Mexico has lived off of the US throughout modern history the non existance of integrity,govt institutions,dishonesty, lack of business ethics,is a home grown product of Mexico. Allowing the country to be taken over by criminals,is pure Mexican. Mexico is attempting to join civilized society ,only Mexico can do this,so quit whining and help out.

  11. we can't fix mexico and every other dysfunctional country....we need to fix our own country...american nationalism is the only answer...14.9 million americans out of work....15 million illegal mexican workers in the usa...give em a gun and send them all home to shoot it out...they need to fix their own problems ...we cannot do it...stop the drug war in mexico...shoot a crack hed today

  12. Legalizing Drugs debate...see below & read more on the link

    No country alone, (as the Dutch have found to their cost) can operate a policy which is substantially more liberal than neighbours, without suffering from “drug tourism” or, as in the Dutch situation, a larger pool of drugs-linked criminality than it would otherwise have.there is the big lie that legalising drugs will take the criminality out of supply. What nonsense. Illegal traders who pay no taxes of any sort can always undercut legitimate traders

  13. "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." and "Murder Inc."

    What was the level of abuse before the US assistance?

  14. @ Mr. Flores,

    First of all, Thank you for taking the time to respond and enlighten BB with many important facts.

    While Mexico is in the midst of a horrific "drug war" just as Colombia was before us, it is important to note there ARE differences between the two.

    One plan, such as Plan Colombia, can NOT simply be applied to any and all countries battling drug cartels..

    While there is no denying the chaos and havoc cartels are causing in Mexico, there is no such thing as black and white, and the "gray" areas must certainly be accounted for, each country as there own.

  15. @anonymous 8:18 am

    "we can't fix mexico and every other dysfunctional country....we need to fix our own country.."

    That comment, alone, is very true. Did you know drug abuse costs the U.S. roughly $500 BILLION dollars per year? (mind you these are fairly old numbers)

    While offering 1.7 billion in aid over 3 years in the Merida Initiative may be upsetting to you, the cost of financing the consequences of U.S. drug addiction should be more upsetting...

  16. The arguments of US drug use and spending 1.7 B in aid is off point and should not be the focus. Fact is drug use is down, what? Which drug is abused and used more? ALCOHOL. So what?

    Yes we are the most generous nation in the world. SO what? DOes that nulify our mistakes and weaknesses? Can we do a whole lot more to help Mx in this organized crime violence? of course. We can begin at home; bank transfer oversight; greater inspection departing the US at the Mx border (guns, money these are real solutions that can be done NOW.

    Those who complain of the $ given to Mx for equipment /advisors keep in mind it is a small fraction of what we gave Colombia..& Co is a long distance from our ya think it is a waste? not our problem? hmmmm guess you would rather back the pork spending of ridiculous projects such as the ones approved in congress;
    sea turtle research (33M) Blue crab research (pt of 42M ) or hows this one...THE WORLD TOILET SUMMIT (no bullshit I swear) and another of my favorites; building a teapot museum and a summit for Wood utilization research..
    assisting Mx is cruial and if you can not comprehend that by reading of the violence and destruction existing in Mx, then you are part of the problem.

  17. I have bever seen such love and lighty comments concerning ussues about the killing of innocents along oour border.The drug lords are fascists. They exercise theoir authority for the accumulation of power. It is not a drugs issue, its an issue of power and authority between those who wish to be free and thse who wish to eslave the country under a cadre league of associated cartels, each with its own little territory.

    The Obama administration is aiding and abetting this lawlessness by permitting the free movement of drug cartel agents across the border ito the safe havens of various federal lands in Arizona and New Mexico. The cartels control several access corridors and border crossinyone who attempts to move from Mexico into the USA without the permission of these cartels is summarily executed. Any Mexican or local official who initervenes is summarily executed, along with their families.

    How does that play out on the ground? Any Mexican who wants to cross the US border has to pay cash to the cartel, or become an indentured servant of the cartel for the purpose of muling drugs into the USA.After the comtract is fulfilled they can ask to be made into the cartel, or take the option of being transported to the USA as illegal aliens, along with family.They also must promise to help the cartel inside the USA in the future if ordered to do so.This is demographic warfare against the USA, in particular against the states of California, New Mexico, Texas and Florida.

    Ameican citizens are barred from travelling on federal reserve lands which now form safe havens for these cartels. The cartels are armed with military ordnance for future use inside of the USA.Why dos our federal giovernmentwant large cadres of armed Mexicans inside of the USA? To what purpose will they be put by the Obama administration in the future?

    We have 1000 Arizona national Guradsmen posted about 20 miles North of the Arizona border, who are not allowed to interdict this mass movement of armed Mexicans into the USA.They are mere observers, who are there to prevent a range war between Arizona and these lawless cartels.Why?

    The liberal fascism of the Obama administration has much in common with the cartels who may be of future use in fomenting public disorder at the beck and call of the federal government?Why the plan for the making of such future crisis?

    Few know of the violence perpetrated in this mass movement. If goes unreported. But if you want to see it, and how the cartels use violence it is available Mexican web site, operated illegally by a Mexican web security expert, who is constantly hunted( warning graphic violence):

    ( translation enabled)

    The video archive of cartel assassinations and beatings is here, some show decapitations live:

    Thats what is coming into the USA, and it must be stopped at all costs.Anyone who concludes that this is not a strategic problem, and a only a social problem is grossly ignorant and/or borderline insane.

  18. to Buela Chivis: do you know what you are talking about or are you just reading your biased news feeds? Amsterdam has a pb, right. It's due to drug tourism, right again. But we don't have to collect 10 sets of bodies pieces everyday like in Juarez. So, our pb is in control. Yours is not. I mean in the US of A, the consuming side of the pb.

  19. commentatore: Citations needed for all of that


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