A decade ago, before Tijuana, Ciudad Juarez and other Mexican cities became bloody front lines, the biggest battles in the drug war were taking place 3,000 miles to the south.
Colombia made headlines as a hotbed for violence, a large part of it tied to the cocaine trade. Drug money was fueling a long-running civil war, kidnappings for ransom were rampant and a general sense of lawlessness prevailed.
In the late 1990s, the Colombian government announced a plan to restore order. This evolved into a military-based effort, with U.S. backing, to curtail cocaine production and weaken insurgents.
Today, as Mexican troops enter their third year of deployment to destabilize the cartels that move drugs north, it is tempting to look to Colombia for a template. The streets of Bogota and other urban areas are safer, and tourism revenue has picked up.
But the drugs are still coming. The United States has spent several billion dollars since 2000 on anti-drug efforts in Colombia, including aerial spraying to destroy coca crops. Yet cocaine production in Colombia increased 4 percent from 2000 to 2006, according to a recent Government Accountability Office report. Colombian drug traffickers are not gone, just different.
Experts say that if there is a lesson to be learned from Colombia's experience, it is that as long as there is a demand for drugs, someone is going to provide the supply.
“The big cartels in Colombia, they got broken up,” said Larry Holifield, a former regional director for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration whose posts have included Bogota and Mexico City. “They are either dead or in jail. But what happens is that a thousand people crop up, and they have these little organizations that are probably more difficult to identify, but at least as dangerous as the big guys, because they are still fighting turf wars. And they are shipping the same amount that we require for consumption.”
The strategy initiated by Mexican President Felipe Calderón seeks to break down drug-trafficking organizations, a process that has led to bloodshed as leaders are arrested or killed, power vacuums are created and successors battle for control.
And as seen in Colombia, there is no guarantee such a strategy will work.
Colombia's drug trade dates to the 1960s, when marijuana was introduced as an illicit crop. By the 1970s, cartels had formed to process cocaine from coca plants grown in Peru and Bolivia for shipment to the United States. Soon, coca cultivation moved into Colombia, providing a lucrative crop for struggling farmers.
Meanwhile, armed conflicts had been occurring between left-and right-wing political factions since the late 1940s. Cocaine was introduced to rural areas where state authority was weak. These included areas controlled by left-wing guerrilla groups, which eventually began taxing the cartels. Right-wing paramilitaries, allied with the army, also became increasingly involved in controlling drug territories.
Throughout the 1980s, the Medellin and Cali cartels ran the bulk of the trade. Yet even after top cartel leaders were killed or imprisoned by the mid-1990s, drugs continued to flow. Splinters of the cartels continued to operate, and new players emerged. Guerrilla and paramilitary groups became entrenched in organized crime, with drug profits fueling a bloody conflict marked by kidnappings, civilian massacres and other atrocities.
Shortly after his election in 1998, President Andrés Pastrana proposed to address the socioeconomic causes of the conflict. What became known as Plan Colombia changed to focus on counterdrug and counterinsurgency efforts following negotiations with the United States.
Between fiscal years 2000 and 2008, the United States provided more than $6 billion to support the plan. Nearly $4.9 billion of that has gone to assist Colombia's military and national police, according to the GAO. Colombia received U.S. aircraft, advisers and other military aid, along with a small amount of economic and social aid.
Parts of the country have become safer, with military pressure weakening illegal armies such as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, the largest of the left-wing groups. A peace deal that sought to demobilize paramilitaries has met with limited results.
“These armed groups have been pushed to more rural, more isolated areas of the country, and it has opened up space in the major cities and the main highways to the coast,” said Eric Olson, senior adviser with the Woodrow Wilson Center's Mexico Institute in Washington, D.C. “So the general security situation for the vast majority of the people is somewhat better.”
But while urban centers are safer, violence persists in rural areas, as does cocaine. The aerial spraying of coca with herbicide has pushed coca farmers to more remote locations. Colombia remains the world's top producer of cocaine, generating an estimated 600 metric tons in 2007, according to a recent U.N. report.
The drug-trafficking operation in Mexico is different than in Colombia. While there is some marijuana and opium grown in Mexico, as well as methamphetamine manufacturing, the cartels aren't fighting over production. They are battling to control the smuggling routes used to move drugs, including Colombian cocaine, into the United States.
Last year, roughly 6,000 deaths, including 843 in Tijuana, were related to the drug war in Mexico. Some were innocent victims, but unlike in Colombia, the violence has been mostly contained to organized crime and law enforcement, said David Shirk, director of the Trans-Border Institute at the University of San Diego.
“That is becoming less and less the case as we have learned here, painfully, in the last few weeks and months,” Shirk said. “But it is nothing like what you saw in Colombia, where life became very cheap across the board.”
Mexico's murder rate remains less than one-fifth that of Colombia's in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Shirk said.
Mexicans received disquieting news in December when a study was published by the U.S. Joint Forces Command mentioning Mexico alongside Pakistan as candidates for “rapid and sudden collapse.”
Such an assessment of Mexico as a failing state is “a shoe that does not fit,” said Arturo Sarukhan, Mexico's ambassador to the United States.
“I don't think that we're anywhere close to this social, institutional meltdown,” he said. “In fact, I would probably argue that because the state is strong, it has had the ability to do what no previous Mexican president has in the past, which was take the fight to the heart of the drug syndicates.”
So far, U.S. intervention has been limited to assistance. Under the Merida Initiative, a multiyear security package approved by Congress last year, plans are to provide about $1.6 billion to Mexico and Central America to battle organized crime, with Mexico to receive helicopters, technology and training for drug interdiction.
The degree of intervention that has occurred in Colombia, with U.S. advisers and contractors on the ground, would not work in Mexico, Holifield said.
“The Mexicans are much more aware of big brother America trying to take more stuff away from them than we already have,” Holifield said. “The word that pops up is sovereignty. You can't go in there with a big package and buy their will.”
The strategy of Mexico's leaders is to break the cartels into smaller pieces, as happened in Colombia, where local police in urban areas were better able to get a handle on street crime once the larger criminal organizations receded.
The assumption is that smaller drug operations would be better handled by state and local police, Shirk said. But it is not clear such a strategy will succeed, and institutional corruption presents a challenge.
Some also question whether the relative peace seen in Colombia's cities has more to do with tolerance of organized crime than success against it.
“The big cartels were dismantled and smaller cartels emerged, and then there was less violence,” said Jorge Chabat, a political analyst from the Mexico City-based research group CIDE.
“But is there less violence because they are smaller, or less violence because the government does not combat them in a frontal manner?” Chabat asked.
Perhaps Mexico, he said “might find a middle ground between tolerance and a frontal attack.”
But even if the Mexican government is successful in breaking up the big cartels, neither Mexican soldiers nor U.S. equipment and training are going to stop the demand for drugs, Holifield said.
“The biggest lesson is for the U.S.,” he said. “And that is to stop using (drugs). Until that happens, nothing the U.S. does can prevent these people from doing this. There is absolutely no way to stop it.”
By Leslie Berestein
Sign On San Diego - Union Tribune
February 16, 2009