World Citizen: Why Colombia Won and Mexico Hasn’t.
A closer look at the differences between the countries’ security problems and their strategy, tactics and execution offers useful glimpses into the demands of governance and the deep roots of the two countries’ security problems.
When Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto came to power last year, he sought to stanch the hemorrhage. His predecessor, Felipe Calderon, had fought with fierce determination against the drug cartels that had brought their horrifying violence to the country. But Calderon’s heavily militarized strategy was failing. Some 70,000 had been killed in drug violence since the government launched the anti-gang campaign six years earlier, and thousands more disappeared. Nothing seemed to stop the gruesome spiral of death. The drug gangs continued killing anyone who stood in their way. Decapitated bodies, sometimes dozens of them, were found on city roads, and children’s parties were interrupted by assassins. The most dangerous professions in Mexico were any that could possibly interfere with the work of drug lords; journalists, mayors and other politicians were frequently murdered by the gangs.
Pena Nieto decided to try a different approach. He chose Colombia’s former police chief, Gen. Oscar Naranjo, as his top security adviser, signaling he was pivoting from military to police action in his battle for security.
In Colombia, the emphasis on bringing security to the population was a key element of the country’s success, and to that extent Naranjo is applying an important lesson from the Colombian experience. But there is no question that Colombia turned the tide in its security crisis by relying heavily on the military.
The fact is that Colombia’s violence problem was quite different from Mexico’s. When Alvaro Uribe became president of Colombia in 2002, the country had endured nearly half a century of a Marxist insurgency that had become perniciously entangled with the booming drug business. The lawlessness had spawned private protection militias, creating a three-way war among the government, the leftist guerrillas and the paramilitary forces.
As intense as the violence in Mexico is, Colombia’s was far worse. It was swallowing the country. The government had lost control of big sections of the national territory; thousands of people were being kidnapped for ransom every year as Colombia became the murder and kidnapping capital of the world.
The year Uribe came to office, 32,000 Colombians were murdered, 5,500 of them for political reasons. Colombia’s population is less than half of Mexico’s.
Uribe’s election energized the population in the fight against violence in a way no politician has done in Mexico—perhaps anywhere. The Colombian people supported him for several reasons. First, the previous president’s peace process had ended in disaster, humiliating the peacemakers. Colombians were fed up with the soft approach. Second, Uribe won the presidency despite not belonging to either of the two traditional parties that dominated the country for decades, so he was not beholden to the entrenched powers. Third, Uribe’s own father had been kidnapped and killed by the guerrillas, so nobody doubted the genuineness of his passion.
With generous support from a post-9/11 Washington, Uribe transformed Colombia. He quickly worked out a controversial deal with the right-wing paramilitaries, who laid down their arms in exchange for judicial leniency.
He raised a war tax among the rich to help finance a huge military escalation that retook the country, bringing back a government presence to every province. And he insisted on accountability from the military, which was required to clearly show how it was spending the huge sums it was receiving.
The military relentlessly pursued the leaders of the main guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), killing one after the other. The rebel ranks grew thin, and the drug lords, losing protection, started relocating their operations to other parts of the hemisphere, including Mexico and Central America.
The murder and kidnapping rates were slashed to a fraction of previous levels. Colombia’s brain drain and capital flight started reversing direction as Colombians returned home from exile. The economy started growing and Uribe’s successor, President Juan Manuel Santos, launched peace talks with the FARC.
Uribe’s tactics are not without critics. Serious human rights abuse scandals emerged during and after his tenure.
But for most Colombians, the results are evidence enough of success. Uribe left office with 75 percent approval. Earlier this year, when a television network launched a contest to choose the “greatest Colombian” of all time, the winner was Uribe, ahead of Simon Bolivar and Shakira.
In Mexico, both Pena Nieto and Calderon come from established parties. Entrenched corruption is endemic. Coupled with poverty, it makes the country ripe for bribery of police officers and recruitment by drug gangs. The military is not under civilian control, and efforts to raise taxes to help fund new government activities have run into relentless opposition.
The people are not invested in the push against drug cartels the way they were in Colombia. Skepticism about the government’s abilities and true intentions are widespread.
Calderon’s military approach in some ways resembled Colombia’s, but the Mexican state does not face a threat from militias the way the Colombian military did. In Mexico the problem is one of law enforcement. In Colombia it really was a war.
There are signs that Mexico’s new approach is putting some pressure on the drug gangs, but it would be very premature to say that is a sign of true progress. The latest crackdown has caused a dangerous spike in extortions to replace other sources of income, and this time the targets are in the crucial tourist areas, threatening one of the biggest sectors of the economy.
The Colombian experience is different from Mexico’s, but it offers important lessons. It shows the need to engender strong support from the population. That requires creating faith in the trustworthiness of the government by fighting violence as well as corruption. And it demonstrates the importance of strong policing—of fighting the gangs while also protecting the people.
Frida Ghitis is an independent commentator on world affairs and a World Politics Review contributing editor. Her weekly WPR column, World Citizen, appears every Thursday.