January/ February 2012 Fighting the Last War

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.

By Elizabeth Dickinson

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.”

Elizabeth Dickinson is a freelance journalist. She previously served as assistant managing editor of Foreign Policy magazine and Nigeria corespondent for the Economist.


  • Wyatt on January 10, 2012 1:33 PM:

    Fantastic article--Ms. Dickinson is an excellent journalist and got pretty deep into the brush for this one.
    The problem with strategy export is always in the circumstances; the FARC has been dwindling for decades, having alienated most of its leftist Latin American allies years ago and compromised its ideology in aligning itself with not just coca growers but cocaine pushers. The FARC, in essence, was a single entity partly responsible for its own downfall.
    Calderón faces not one diminutive self-styled arch-enemy fighting for hearts and minds, but rather at least a dozen apolitical, amoral, and inhuman groups hell-bent on control and money, nothing more. The motivating factors are different, the nihilism is quite different, and disparities among relevant factors like terrain and development are huge.
    Our collective misunderstanding of Latin America is something so vast and constant that it's worth at least a book or two--and generic false equivalences like the aforementioned are just the most obvious symptom.

  • LarryK on January 12, 2012 1:33 PM:

    The solution is obvious - LEGALIZE IT! ALL of it. Take the money out and the BACRIM has to go get real jobs.

  • Miles on January 14, 2012 1:04 PM:


    If we were to legalize it today, who would supply it? Would cocaine be made in Britain? The US? No. Columbian cartels would still supply it, just as they always have. Prices might go down, but demand would go up at the same time. If we try to tax it to the point that its more expensive than it is now, they'll just go back to smuggling. Legalization doesn't get rid of the violent gangs. A better solution is for the end users of the cartel's product to demand an end to the violence - a boycott of Mexican drugs.

  • Realsteak on January 15, 2012 10:17 AM:


    It is not true that the FARC has been dwindling for decades, as recently as 2002 they had a very strong position just outside of Bogotá and were able to fight as a regular army. The ELN (another leftist guerrilla) held a significant part of Medellín, Colombia's second largest city, it took the army and the police with tanks and helicopters to take them out, it was quite frightening to tell the true.
    It is also no true that it has alienated his leftist allies, it still holds campments in Ecuador and Venezuela and the FARC's current lider, Timotchenko, holds a sort of friendship with Venezuela's defense minister.

    I liked the article, it is well researched, however it does have certain inaccuracies. First of, saying that Uribe comes from the countryside is quite an overstatement. While it is true that he does not come from Bogotá, he is from Medellín and his farm is 10000 acres big.

  • Bryan on January 19, 2012 4:24 PM:

    It seems a controlled regulatory system might be worth some consideration here. The repetitious cry of "democratic security" could be sung a little louder in the U.S don't you think? Covert operations like "The Fast & The Furious" routinely and pathetically cast the DEA and ATF in their usual ineffective, manipulative and military-bravado roles. In a frantic, and arguably failing state of damage control, it seems a stubborn backing of the status-quo fight will continue, claiming more civilian lives and resulting in negligible downsizing of narcotics across the border. Is the U.S. helping?