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.
Perhaps this U.S. attention would be better appreciated if it were the only option. But many analysts insist that the Mexican drug war demands new approaches. It would go a long way if the United States itself would clean house; a U.S. Senate report concluded last June that nearly threequarters of the weapons used in Mexico’s conflict come from American dealers. Meanwhile, a recent report from the Washington Office on Latin America—which calls Colombia’s experience a “cautionary tale” for Mexico—argues that the focus needs to shift from attacking the bad guys to protecting civilians. That means, first and foremost, more and better police. Underfunded, corrupt, and disempowered by the military, the police today provide only a veneer of pedestrian security. The latter investigate an appalling 8 percent of the crime reported— including the murders of victims the Mexican government is tallying as criminals. In 2010, the United States started to explore ideas like cleaning up the police force and strengthening the judicial system—but when those items were cut in the 2011 budget, the focus shifted back to the military.
None of this is to say that the experience in Colombia provides no lessons at all, argues Michael Shifter. In some ways, Mexico’s failure to win with its Uribe-like strategy may have been partly a problem of misinterpretation, or mis-execution, rather than a refutation of the theory itself. Uribe, for instance, can truly claim credit for rallying national morale in Colombia around the country’s existential struggle with FARC. As president, he made the case to Colombians that their country was facing a do-or-die scenario: fight back or become a narco-state. With his rhetoric and resolve, Uribe won support both from paisas and from the elites, who had for years been prone either to flee the country or to purchase their security from paramilitaries. Calderón, by contrast, is walking a tightrope—telling his citizens that there’s a crisis while still reassuring tourists that there’s nothing unsafe about Mexico—and he is fast losing his country’s faith. “When they say in Washington, D.C., that Mexico should do what Colombia did,” says Adam Isacson, “I think they are just nostalgic for this country whose elite was all on the same page as Washington.”
On the morning of November 5, 2011, Uribe’s successor made a long-awaited announcement: the main leader of FARC, nom-de-guerre Alfonso Cano, had been killed. Colombian troops had bombed the commander’s location in the forested southern province of Cauca, an epicenter of the violence in recent months. His death was immediately hailed as the most significant blow to the organization in FARC’s decades-long history. And it was particularly timely: the eccentric former anthropologist had been the brain behind FARC’s recently updated strategy—the transition from army-like force to terrorist cells. (Fittingly, when Cano died, he appears to have been moving through the jungle with just a handful of fellow operatives.)
Ending Cano’s dark legacy was also a symbolic coup for President Juan Manuel Santos, who had taken flak early in his term for being soft on security. In fact, for months before, Uribe—under whom Santos had served as defense minister—had backhandedly accused his successor of letting the country slip. “What I have found from moving from town to town is that there are many people with the idea that there are some symptoms of insecurity,” Uribe told me in July. They felt “that instead of improving to some degree we are going a little bit backward from the point we had been.”
If Colombia is backsliding, Uribe believes it can only mean one thing: that the country has walked away from “democratic security.” I asked him if he thought Santos had done just that, and he hesitated to answer, saying that he needed to be diplomatic: “My impression is that they are the same [in their] determination but maybe they have changed some points.”
But perhaps continuity was exactly the problem, as Santos has found out the hard way. When the new president came to office, he drafted a defense strategy that looked much like his predecessor’s—as the electorate that elected him had come to expect. But as the indicators turned sour, the new president started to rethink. After a year in office, he swapped defense ministers and announced a new plan to combat the resurgent FARC. He named the BACRIM a primary enemy of the state, and created a new, more holistic defense plan that seeks to build up economic and social institutions in addition to security. He disbanded the national intelligence agency, which had been discredited by an earlier scandal that had revealed it was tapping the phones of journalists, opposition figures, and even then President Uribe. A victim’s compensation law also won Santos praise—a first step, perhaps, in redressing years of suffering. Yet whether the new government can keep pace with the changes in this conflict is now more than ever open to question. And for the first time in almost a decade, Uribe might not be the best person to answer it. If FARC melts away even further, that may mean one thing: more BACRIM, fighting for market share. Colombia is still the source of 80 percent of the cocaine that arrives in the United States, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency. Should the guerrillas’ trafficking machinery wither altogether, someone with a gun will inevitably pick up the slack. For the last several years, it has been not just the BACRIM but also the cartels to Colombia’s north—in Mexico and the weaker states of Central America—that have stepped in to fill the void. These states will have to fight back, one way or another.
In its time and place, democratic security was an inspired strategy, albeit far from a perfect one. Until the demand for drugs dries up, Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras— even far flung narco-conflicts like those in Guinea-Bissau and Afghanistan—will have to find their own medicine.
Yet if there is a lesson to be learned, perhaps it is as much for the United States as it is for these theaters of the drug war: the violence won’t stop until the narcotics trade does. Short of that, all that Washington—or anyone—can hope for is damage control. Off the main streets of Bogota and Mexico City, the damage is real. And not even Uribe knows the cure.
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