As president of Colombia, Álvaro Uribe triumphed over a fierce narco-insurgency. Then the U.S. helped to export his strategy to Mexico and throughout Latin America. Here’s why it’s not working.
The sun was barely setting over a colonial villa in rural central Colombia as Álvaro Uribe Vélez, by any measure Colombia’s most transformative modern president, recited lines of poetry to a small crowd beside a courtyard fountain. The former head of state, who left office in August 2010, projects the air of a financier in his official portraits. But today he was dressed like a paisa—with a traditional sombrero, a white handmade cloth draped over his shoulder, and a walking stick given to him by citizens of a nearby town.
On that perfect summer evening in early July, Uribe liked one particular verse—about a beautiful woman with enchanting eyes—so much that he recited it over and over to the dozens of locals seated in a circle around him. Also in the audience was the Colombian celebrity Catalina Maya, an actress and model, who sat perched on an armchair, her body twisted over its back to regard Uribe. Women and girls were crammed onto the villa’s steps, and housemaids pretended to continue working as they peeked for glances at the expresident, who every so often locked eyes with a new member of the crowd.
Álvaro Uribe is a well-loved man. During the eight years in which he led Colombia, he won the hearts of millions of his countrymen, from those in small villages to the most elite urban circles. And the reason why these millions adore Uribe largely boils down to one word: security. Uribe still casts a powerful spell over his former constituents because he used his time in office to smash a four-decades-old guerrilla insurgency with an overwhelming show of force—and in so doing made countless Colombians’ lives immeasurably safer.
When Uribe took office in 2002, Colombia was the murder and kidnap capital of the world, the source of nearly all global cocaine, and an economic weakling. The government had staggered through four decades of armed conflict with leftist rebels, most notably the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), and had tried everything—even negotiations—to end the strife. Nothing seemed to work until Uribe came along. Unlike previous presidents, Uribe believed—and managed to convince the country—that if Colombia fought with all its military might against the guerrillas, it could win. Determined to make a hard break from the past, he ended a fraught peace process that his predecessor had initiated with the rebels. Then he dispatched tens of thousands of troops to retake control of Colombian soil, focusing on securing the cities and highways. Uribe found an eager partner in the United States, which supplied state-of-the-art weapons and intelligence to aid in the dismantling of armed groups. Eventually, he also convinced the United Autodefense Forces of Colombia (AUC)—a private paramilitary force of some 30,000 fighters that had emerged to protect local elites and landowners from the guerrillas, only to become just as wrapped up in drugs and violence as its enemies—to demobilize.
By the time Uribe was reelected in 2006, a conflict that had long threatened to break the Colombian state suddenly seemed as if it might be drawing to an end. The murder rate had fallen by 45 percent, and the kidnapping rate—which hovered near 3,000 people per year in 2002— plummeted more than fourfold. Even drug interdictions were up to the point that traffickers started looking for alternative routes into the United States (though Mexico) and Europe (through West Africa). By the end of his second term, Uribe began talking about “the end of the end” of the guerrillas.
Colombia’s incredible turnaround and the strategy credited with bringing it about have become not only a rare success story in the drug war, but also its most formidable brand and export. The governments of Mexico and several other Central American countries that have been plunged into violent confrontation with drug gangs have tried assiduously to replicate their South American peer’s strategy. With U.S. support, Mexico has deployed troops, militarized its police, and fought tooth and nail to regain control of its farthest-flung states. Honduras, which has the world’s highest murder rate, and Guatemala are flying in Colombian experts to advise them. Even in far-away conflicts such as Afghanistan, U.S. policy makers have looked for a model in the Andes.
There are two problems, however. The first is that none of these places, despite years of effort, has yet seen the kind of transformation that Uribe brought about in Colombia. In fact, so far, the momentum runs in the opposite direction. The case of Mexico is particularly striking; roughly 50,000 lives have been lost since the country’s experiment with a Colombian-style militarized drug war began in 2006. The Citizen’s Council for Public Security in Mexico recently estimated the kidnapping rate at three times that of Colombia’s darkest days. Cartels are growing more sophisticated and violent, not less, despite the numerous leaders the government has picked off. By November 2011, 80 percent of the population polled by the public opinion firm Consulta Mitofsky said they believed security to be worse than just a year ago. A mere 14 percent believed that the government could beat the drug gangs.
The second problem is that, in Colombia itself, Uribe’s strategy has reached a point of sharply diminishing returns. Having largely defeated what was, at bottom, a sweeping leftist insurgency against the state, and having decapitated a relatively cohesive paramilitary force, Colombia now faces a hydra-headed, apolitical, essentially criminal set of groups vying for turf and control over what’s left of the drug trade. None of these groups is as powerful as its precursors, but nor do they seem to be susceptible to the same strategic countermeasures. And violence is starting to drift upward. “If you look at the trend lines on homicides and kidnapping, it looks like a backwards J,” explains Adam Isacson, director of the Regional Security Policy Program at the Washington Office on Latin America. “They drop really sharply from 2002 to 2006, then there’s a stagnation. In 2008 and 2009 several of those measures start to creep back up again.”
The idea that sheer military might and political will can beat back the narcotics trade is a powerful one. Uribe’s ideas and tactics have spread to every corner of the globe marred by the drug trade and nearly every institution that is fighting organized crime. Which means that if those ideas are misguided—or, perhaps more dangerously, misunderstood— then so too is nearly every fight in the drug war.
On the day of his visit to the countryside, Uribe woke well before dawn, driving off in his motorcade at six a.m. to make the three-hour trip from Medellín to a small mountain town called Támesis. On the winding road through alternating alpine coffee fields and orange trees in the tropical plains, Uribe pointed out the results of his time in office. “During the first years of my presidency, I received news twice a day about this road and kidnappings,” he told me. “Eight years ago, it was impossible to cross.”
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