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

Yet a traditional military solution would seem profoundly ill-suited to this new threat. The Colombian research institute Indepaz estimates that the various BACRIM groups, which have emerged and multiplied at a rapid clip, claimed 7,100 fighters in 360 municipalities by the end of 2010. In cities like Buenaventura, the gang names are so numerous that residents have stopped trying to learn them. Worse, they are integrated into civilian populations, meaning that no blunt military instrument can flush them out. “The BACRIM have more access and ability to operate in population centers,” explains the Washington Office on Latin America’s Adam Isacson. “They are far more able to infiltrate at the local level.”

Across many of Colombia’s cities and towns, the violence looks less like the end and more like a new beginning of conflict. “Lots of people think that Uribe ended the paramilitaries, that narcotics trafficking went down,” says Salcedo. “But when you look, it’s really only been a reconfiguration [of the armed conflict].”

To be sure, this reconfiguration has been kind to many Colombians in many parts of the country, especially elites, who no longer fear that FARC is about to topple the state. But residents in parts of Medellín and Buenaventura, among other places, now say that the calm of the mid-2000s was little more than a cruel illusion. “There is permanent dispute for control” of the narcotics trafficking routes, says Victor Hugo Vidal, an activist for the Process of Black Communities working and living in Buenaventura. “When that fight for dominance is ongoing, the violence increases. And when someone becomes dominant, the violence goes down.”

Colombia is still objectively less violent than it was ten years ago, but the statistics are beginning to slip. In the first three months of 2011, 8,245 people were displaced by fighting—1,000 more people than had been displaced in the entire previous year. Most of the displacement took place along the Pacific coast, increasingly the hub of drug trafficking, and hence armed group, activity. And Medellín’s homicide rate has doubled since 2007. Among the most ghoulish indicators of new trouble in Colombia is the rate at which criminal gangs are picking off human rights defenders. The activists—or anyone who speaks out against crime—have become a nuisance to the armed groups. And their deaths are reminiscent of nothing so much as the slaughter of journalists, family members of victims, and other activists in Mexico.

At a very basic level, Colombia circa 2002 faced a very different set of problems than what Mexico faces today—and Uribe’s “democratic security” strategy was tailored to the former. Drug trafficking was linked to an armed insurgency that, however corrupted over the years, still rested on an ideology and concrete political goals. FARC and the paramilitaries both cared about territory for its own sake. Mexican cartels, on the other hand, are less bothered by symbolic gains and are happy to operate near or even within state institutions.

The very natures of the two states are different as well. “Colombia had never been in control of its territory, so the real challenge was to assert state authority for the first time,” explains Shannon O’Neil of the Council on Foreign Relations. “In Mexico, that’s not the problem. The government has a presence in every small municipality; the question is, who do they report to? It’s a very different challenge; Mexico’s challenge is corruption.”

Mexican institutions are hollowed out in a way that Colombia’s never were. Colombia’s police are national, and were never terribly corrupt. The 400,000-strong police force in Mexico is divided between federal, state, and local jurisdictions, and the closer to the ground you get, the more the drug cartels have been able to infiltrate. Often unpaid, underequipped, and terrified by the security situation, the local police take bribes or work as informants. “The infiltration of cartels is everywhere,” says Walter McKay, a former Canadian policeman who has worked for the last three years as a consultant on security reform in Mexico. “It’s not just in the police. The entire apple is rotten.” When I corresponded with him in November, Uribe acknowledged Mexico’s challenges on this front.

Indeed, while Colombia was building institutions from zero in many of its most desperate communities, Mexico urgently needs to cleanse its state—a task that is impossible when it’s that very state that the government is trying to defend. “It’s as if you are fighting with your enemy only to realize halfway that the arm you’re using isn’t working,” explains Eduardo Guerrero, a political analyst and former advisor to the Mexican presidency. Calderón’s response has been to circumvent these troubled institutions by creating a federal police force that is more than 30,000 strong and heavily vetted to be clear of illicit ties.

In recent months, Guerrero has produced striking evidence of the mechanics of why military tactics are failing to stop—and perhaps are even exacerbating—the conflict in Mexico. One of the major tactics of the Calderón administration has been to decapitate the cartels, much as Uribe did with major FARC and paramilitary leaders. Yet just as the paramilitaries did, the cartels have reacted to the loss of their leaders by fragmenting, rather than disappearing. In 2006, there were just six major cartels operating in Mexico; by 2010 that number had doubled, wrote Guerrero in Nexos magazine in June. Local trafficking organizations exploded during the same time frame, from eleven to 114. Unsurprisingly, nearly every crime indicator—from kidnapping to theft to murder—also went up during that time.

In other words, for all the differences between the problems Uribe faced when he took office in 2002 and the problems Calderón started tackling in 2006, the violent challenges that threaten both countries right now are increasingly similar. And in both places, these are the very threats that have proven resistant to military solutions. Yet at exactly the moment when this orgy of violence is spreading, the United States and Mexico are looking to up the ante on the current tactics. As America’s role is winding down in Colombia, its role in security is being ratcheted up in Mexico, through the Merida Initiative, to fight the drug war there. The United States is training Mexican forces, providing them with helicopters, and helping with wiretaps. This summer, for the first time ever, officers from the Central Intelligence Agency started to work with the Mexican authorities—in Mexico—to organize and plan countercartel operations.

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?