Features

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.”

Now almost sixty, Uribe speaks in a voice that is at once brash and familiar. When he talks—as he does almost constantly—his words come out as simple sentences, clean and well crafted without an extraneous word. His considerable charisma is of an austere variety. He doesn’t smoke or drink, which is unusual in a country proud of its rabblerousing parties. He is famously demanding, but often refuses to delegate. While in office, he won a reputation for calling his force commanders’ cell phones at five a.m. when he wanted an update. “Security policy needs strong direction,” he told me as we drove.

Behind Uribe’s sense of conviction, and his public persona, is a harrowing personal history. While most of Colombia’s presidents have come from a small group of Bogota elite, Uribe came from the countryside, where his family lived in intimate proximity to the country’s endemic violence. His father was killed by FARC guerrillas in 1983 on the family farm, not far from Támesis, when Uribe was thirty-one years old. Uribe dedicated his presidency to making sure the guerrillas paid for his loss—and the losses of so many of his countrymen. Many Colombians seem to regard him with the kind of gratitude you might reserve for someone who has pulled you back from the edge of a cliff.

As Uribe made his way by car from Medellín, hundreds of people from the countryside around Támesis were converging on a sniper-guarded gymnasium in the town, where the former president was scheduled to take part in a meeting of local civic leaders. Just after ten a.m., a tanned coffee farmer named Pedro Antonio Restrepo sat expectantly crouched near the edge of the bleachers there, his skin crinkled from years working outside in the sun. His eyes were wide with excitement. “I am an enemy of politics 100 percent,” Restrepo told me. “But I had to come to see Uribe.”

A decade ago, Restrepo lived under the gun. His land fell under the purview of the paramilitaries, which ran a mafia-like protection racket in the area. While their official name, the United Autodefense Forces of Colombia, suggested that these armed groups were a cohesive liberating force, freeing the countryside of the guerrillas that had pillaged, kidnapped, and massacred for so long, the paramilitaries had become as oppressive and dependent on the drug trade as FARC. Restrepo paid “taxes” to that local regime. If he didn’t have the cash, the paramilitaries who knocked on his door would wait, guns in hand. “Go to town and sell a bag of coffee to get the money,” they would tell him.

When Uribe came into office, his security strategy began with the recognition that the paramilitaries and guerrillas were taking advantage of the many spaces in his country— places like Restrepo’s coffee-farming community—where the state simply didn’t have a presence. If Uribe wanted to eliminate these illicit networks, Colombia needed to impose sovereignty over its own territories. It had to go in with troops, smash the rebel or paramilitary presence, and establish control. Then, with the rebels chased to the bush, the military assault would shade into a regime of police patrols and institutions—in a word, a state. He called his strategy “democratic security.” (If he had crafted it later, after the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, perhaps Uribe would have simply called it counterinsurgency, or COIN.)

The task Uribe had set before himself was essentially one of nation building, something he knew would be neither cheap nor easy. Making aggressive use of American aid was essential. Uribe’s predecessor had already secured a $1.4 billion aid package from the United States as part of the Plan Colombia policy, a legacy of the Clinton era; the new president worked to make it his own. “Plan Colombia was essentially an antidrug policy,” explains Michael Shifter, president of the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue. “The trick in the Colombian case was to take aid intended to go after the drug war and to use it in a much more rational way: to build the strength of the state.” The whole aid package eventually grew to the size of $8 billion.

Uribe found a willing and like-minded partner in George W. Bush, who often referred to the Colombian president as “mi amigo.” A true coproduction of American aid and Colombian strategy, Uribe’s “democratic security” became the centerpiece of the U.S. government’s international counter-narcotics plan. America supplied helicopters, weapons, intelligence equipment, expertise, and military trainers, and even footed some of the bill for gas. It also helped fund new military and police brigades created specifically to root out traffickers and interdict drugs. The military streamed into every corner of the country, burning cocaine labs and catching guerrilla leaders in its path. One of the biggest legacies of Uribe’s time in office is sheer military manpower: today there are nearly 270,000 soldiers patrolling the country, as well as 162,000 police officers— meaning that the total number of security forces has been bumped up by more than 100,000 people since 2002.

As the aid poured in, Colombia reciprocated by going out of its way to cooperate with U.S. goals. In a move that would have made many South American governments squirm, Colombia let the United States vet and polygraph certain military recruits. Even more controversially, between 2002 and 2008 Colombia extradited 951 of its citizens to face criminal charges in the United States. Previous presidents had balked at foisting off their problems, and citizens, on a foreign justice system; Uribe embraced it. On American soil, the suspects often found themselves locked up on trafficking convictions with stiff sentences. Frequently, this was helpful for Uribe—his government was relieved of having to try some of its most contentious and despicable cases—but it also meant that many of the perpetrators of Colombia’s worst human rights violations, including massacres, murders, and rapes, would likely never be held accountable for those crimes at home.

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.

By the time Uribe left office, FARC had been forced to go back to the drawing board. Driven out of urban areas, short on manpower, and increasingly reliant on narcotics trafficking, the group’s then leader, Alfonso Cano, decided that FARC couldn’t contest the Colombian military anymore. So the group returned to its terrorist origins, undertaking high-profile attacks executed by small cells of guerrilla fighters called pisa suaves, or “light-treading” units. In other words, the government’s all-out war on FARC was a success, but a qualified one. “It was very effective— democratic security and the U.S. assistance with Plan Colombia—against a guerrilla force made up of entities resembling an [army] battalion,” says León Valencia, executive director of the Colombian think tank Nuevo Arco Iris, which released a study on FARC last August. Now the rebels have adapted—but the government’s strategy largely has not. In the first six months of 2011, FARC undertook 10 percent more military operations than they did in the previous year, many of them headline-making massacres and bombings.

Still, setting FARC back by more than a decade, and sending it packing into the jungles, is undeniable progress. It is the vacuum created by the formal dissolution of Colombia’s paramilitary force, the AUC, that has sent parts of the country into wrenching bouts of instability. In a complex demobilization process aimed at disbanding militias of some 35,000 men between 2003 and 2007, Colombia attained visible success in clearing out the upper ranks of the paramilitaries. Top leaders were often extradited to the United States to face tough, drug-related sentences. But when it came to draining the middle and lower ranks, the results were more murky. A significant number of the fighters, it is widely believed, simply returned to their work under new, criminal auspices. Others passed the reins to relatives or friends, leaving illicit networks essentially intact. What’s clear is that Colombia, once riven by clashes between FARC and the AUC, has seen a wild proliferation of smaller violent groups that behave very differently from their forebears.

Where there was once a single, cohesive political entity representing paramilitary groups—the AUC—there are now innumerable criminal bands competing over the same objective: to terrorize their way into controlling the drug trade. Like the paramilitaries before them, they thrive when they can infiltrate local governments and become territorial barons. But unlike the paramilitaries, these new groups have neither political aims nor ideologies to control or direct their violence. They have even been known to make alliances with FARC when convenient.

In Medellín, I met a middle-aged woman named Doli Posada who described this new landscape. “There are so many people who are afraid to leave their neighborhoods these days,” she told me, referring to the barrios that creep up from the mountainous city’s high line. In the community where she lives, her neighbors are being asked, once again, to pay armed groups taxes to provide “security.” After a few brief years of calm, today they feel anything but safe. According to many accounts, violence in the barrios took off when Medellín’s once dominant crime boss, a former paramilitary known as “Don Berna” (his real name was Diego Fernando Murillo Bejarano)—was extradited to the U.S. in 2008. After Uribe’s military had beaten back FARC, Don Berna had been able to solidify his control over the city and pacify it. Now that he’s gone, new, smaller gangs have sprung up to fight over who gets to fill the vacuum. “By seriously crippling the competing guerrillas, the government had given a monopoly to Don Berna,” wrote Francis Fukuyama and Seth Colby in a recent article in Foreign Policy magazine. “It was peace achieved through market dominance, not demilitarization.”

And the problems are not just in Medellín. An hour’s flight from Bogota, on the Pacific coast, the town of Buenaventura is reeling. During the height of summer, gangs held frequent gun battles to control several of the barrios that have access to the ocean in this seaside port town—the knotted creeks of the coastline are perfect for getting cocaine out of the country fast. In the licit markets too, prices here are much higher than in even the posh areas of Bogota, and the armed gangs control every market, from cocaine all the way to eggs, milk, and ripe plantains.

To make matters worse, many of these mid-level criminals with roots in the paramilitaries have a long history of infiltrating and co-opting local governments. For years, the paramilitaries’ political aims conveniently aligned with those of the state: both groups wanted to defeat the guerrillas. So in many places, the price for security gains against FARC was a blind eye toward paramilitary criminal networks. By 2006, the AUC had become so powerful and so influential that its fingerprints were everywhere in the state itself. High-level representatives, including governors, congressmen, senators, and mayors, had all signed electoral pacts with the AUC that year, with the paramilitaries promising to guarantee a certain number of votes in exchange for influence with the new candidates in office. “When you have that level of penetration, demobilization isn’t going to work completely,” says Eduardo Salcedo-Albarán, a political scientist who worked as a consultant for an anti-corruption commission during Uribe’s tenure and is coauthor of the forthcoming book Drug Trafficking, Corruption, and States. “You can’t destroy all the relationships.”

Officially, the government of Colombia doesn’t buy into the story that remnants of the paramilitaries have become the new torment of the nation. The government calls the post-AUC groups “BACRIM” (an acronym for “bandas criminales emergentes,” or “emerging criminal bands”)— a categorization that portrays them as separate from the past. Joshua Mitrotti Ventura, general manager of the current president’s high council for reintegration, says that less than 10 percent of BACRIM members who have been apprehended can be traced back to the demobilization process: “The BACRIM don’t necessarily correspond with the AUC; the majority are new people.”

Yet Uribe saw the BACRIM coming, according to an American diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks that recounts a conversation he had with the U.S. embassy back in 2004. “Uribe speculated that splinter groups of narcotrafficking organizations will follow in the wake of the paramilitaries,” the document says. And when I asked him about the BACRIM in November, he acknowledged the link to demobilization in an e-mail: “In accordance with police reports, 11 percent of BACRIM members and 50 percent of kingpins come from demobilized people.” Then and now, Uribe believed that the same military strategy could combat these new groups. “I consider that these organizations must be confronted the same as Colombia does against narco terrorist guerrillas,” he wrote to me in November.

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.

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.

Comments

  • 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:

    @LarryK

    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:

    @Wyatt

    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?