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

According to his critics, this wasn’t the only compromise Uribe made on human rights in his all-or-nothing quest to quash the guerrillas. In October 2008, for example, it emerged that the Colombian military—under intense pressure to crack down on FARC—had been murdering civilians to boost its body count. (Declassified CIA files have since revealed that the practice of killing “false positives” dates back as far as a decade before Uribe’s term.) In rural areas too, there were concerns that the military’s all-out assaults on the guerrillas were displacing and killing far too many civilians. To this day, Colombia is home to the largest single population of internally displaced people—between 3.5 and 5 million in a population of 46 million. Union and community leaders have also been targeted by armed groups of every sort for their activism, and Uribe, in his brash style, often came off as complacent about this fact, or even complicit. “Uribe called us terrorists,” remembers Franklin Castañeda, a spokesman for the country’s National Victims’ Movement. That kind of rhetoric made their activists targets of paramilitaries eager to weed out any potential leftist or guerilla influence. A number of U.S. senators and congressmen raised concerns about human rights abuses, and for five years they held up a free trade agreement with Colombia because of it. But others in the U.S. government were more interested in the dramatic reversal that Colombia seemed to be pulling off—and the example it might set for a world of newly troubled battlegrounds. By 2009, homicides in the country were down 40 percent, kidnappings were down more than 80 percent, and terror attacks were down 75 percent. “I know that Plan Colombia was controversial. I was just in Colombia, and there were problems and there were mistakes, but it worked,” U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton commented a month after Uribe left office. “And we need to figure out what are the equivalents for Central America, Mexico, and the Caribbean.”

Today, Restrepo says that the paramilitaries in his area are gone—a fact he attributes to the former president’s security policy. After I interviewed him at the gym in Táme- sis, he beseeched me to thank Uribe for him. “If there’s any way that you can relay the message,” he pleaded. When I later pointed him out in the crowd to Uribe, Restrepo’s smile glowed with bashful pride.

Many of the Uribe government’s admirers today are in Central America and the Caribbean, where a new front of the drug war is roaring, and again, U.S. counter-narcotics assistance is ratcheting up. There’s a tremendous amount of interaction between Colombia and these countries, says Shifter of the Inter-American Dialogue. “If you talk to the ambassadors here, they’ll tell you that there’s just a lot of Colombians coming through and playing a helpful role.”

For America’s neighbor to the south, Uribe’s success story is particularly of interest. Speak with Mexican analysts of almost any political stripe about the drug war these days, as I did on a recent trip to Mexico, and Colombia almost always comes up. Mexico, it is often said, is passing through the same difficult phase that its Andean peer overcame. “I do think it would be possible to lower the violence—look at what happened in Colombia,” Arturo Borja, an economist at Mexico’s Center for Economic Research and Instruction, told me. “In Colombia, they resolved the problem of violence and took away the power that the drug-trafficking organizations had.… [Colombia was] a fragile state in the 1980s and 1990s, but now they’ve turned things around.”

In many ways, that sense of admiration has led to imitation. Indeed, when Mexico’s president, Felipe Calderón, explained his strategy to the New York Times in October it read like a page straight from a “democratic security” handbook. “Essentially, our strategy has three main components,” he said. “The first is to fight, debilitate, and neutralize armed groups…. [T]he second component is more important, which is the recuperation of the institutions of security and justice such as the police, the public ministers, the judges…. [T]he third element is the reconstruction of the social fabric [in a] society marked by a lack of opportunities.”

The tactics are similar as well. Much as Uribe did with the Colombian military, over the last four years the administration of President Calderón has dispatched 50,000 soldiers across the country to break up organized crime. He has also upped extraditions to the United States and tried to rebuild the country’s army and police forces. Colombia is even training Mexican policemen and prosecutors, based on their decades of experience fighting the war on drugs. The United States, keen on these changes, has begun to help Mexico in many of the ways it did Colombia: with intelligence, law enforcement expertise and training, and equipment.

On June 8, 2011, the governor of Chihuahua— Mexico’s most violent state—welcomed Uribe to Ciudad Juarez, ground zero for the drug war, and vowed to follow the Colombian model in cracking down on organized crime. In office, Uribe was a vocal supporter of Mexico and Calderón; now he writes in their favor on his prolific Twitter feed. The two presidents signed an accord in 2009 affirming their commitment to ending organized crime.

And yet, for his trouble, Calderón has wound up with crashing public approval ratings and a growing protest movement that has questioned his tactics. It’s not hard to see why. Elevating casualty figures have topped 50,000 over the last five years, and states that never saw significant cartels before are now falling like dominoes to the drug lords. The violence has also taken a particularly gruesome turn; bodies often turn up mutilated, bearing messages of warning for anyone who dares cross the assailants’ paths, said Antonio Mazzitelli, head of the U.N. Office of Drugs and Crime in Mexico City. “In Mexico—and this is unique— those criminal organizations are using violence … with the aim of terrorizing and sending a clear message to everybody: ‘Here we rule, and if you don’t abide by my rule, this is what’s going to happen to you.’ ” Journalists and human rights activists who ask troubling questions are often among the first targets for armed groups.

Why has Mexico’s experiment in Uribismo fared so poorly? One way to answer that question is to take a closer look at how “democratic security” has worked out over the long run in Colombia—and, more importantly, how it hasn’t.

Uribe left Támesis by midafternoon that day in July, stopping to make a surprise visit in another small town on the way back to the city. After nightfall, on the last leg of the drive back to Medellín in his motorcade, a radio report relayed the dispiriting news that FARC had just bombed a rural police station. The report was consistent with the group’s newfound penchant for low-cost, high-impact terrorist attacks.

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?