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

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.

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?