Commentary

Mexico’s Unwinnable War

Some experts on the drug wars in Latin America have argued for years that Colombia is a great success story and U.S. leaders should try to apply the same model to neutralize the drug-related violence that continues to convulse Mexico. Robert Bonner, who directed the Drug Enforcement Administration during President George W. Bush’s first term, makes one of the stronger arguments that Mexico can dampen the drug-related violence the same way Colombia did — with a vigorous, sustained country-wide offensive by security forces as the centerpiece:

Destroying the drug cartels is not an impossible task. Two decades ago, Colombia was faced with a similar–and in many ways more daunting–challenge. In the early 1990s, many Colombians, including police officers, judges, presidential candidates, and journalists, were assassinated by the most powerful and fearsome drug-trafficking organizations the world has ever seen: the Cali and Medellin cartels. Yet within a decade, the Colombian government defeated them, with Washington’s help.

Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos agrees. “Mexico has what we had some years ago, which are very powerful cartels,” he stated. “What we can provide is the experience that we have had dismantling those cartels.” Over the past few years, some seven thousand Mexican security forces have received training from their Colombian counterparts, with the United States paying much of the expense.

But the assessments of Bonner and Santos are overly positive. Although both the Cali and Medellin cartels were broken by the mid-1990s, the extent of drug trafficking in Colombia and the surrounding region did not diminish. Indeed, the amount of illegal drugs coming out of Colombia is not much different today than what it was two decades ago. The only significant shift is that instead of two dominant organizations, the trade is now fragmented, with several dozen outfits being significant players. The violence has subsided, but that trend did not begin until nearly ten years after the Cali and Medellin cartels were dismantled, and it is increasingly uncertain how lasting the more quiescent setting will be.

The record of the post-Cali and Medellin offensive that Washington and Bogota have conducted is decidedly mixed. Recent revelations have not only cast doubt on the extent of the success of the Colombia model, they have also underscored some unsavory aspects of that campaign. Washington invested a great deal of time, energy and money in “Plan Colombia,” the multi-year measure adopted in 2000 to bring down the drug traffickers and their Marxist insurgent allies in the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). The United States and Colombia accelerated their joint effort during the administration of President Alvaro Uribe (2002-2010), when the United States distributed some $6 billion in Plan Colombia funds.

But a widening investigation by the Colombian attorney general’s office has uncovered some disturbing information about Plan Colombia and the conduct of Uribe’s administration. An August 20 story by Karen De Young and Claudia J. Duque in the Washington Post states:

American cash, equipment and training, supplied to elite units of the Colombian intelligence service over the past decade to help smash cocaine-trafficking rings, were used to carry out spying operations and smear campaigns against Supreme Court justices, Uribe’s political opponents, and civil society groups.

Indeed, six former high-level officials of Colombia’s Department of Administrative Security have already confessed to such abuses of power, and more than a dozen others are currently on trial. The investigation keeps expanding, now bringing several top political aides of Uribe and even the former president himself under scrutiny.

The burgeoning scandal in Colombia should be a cautionary tale to those who advocate using the same approach to bring down the Mexican drug cartels. Human-rights groups have already accused Mexican police and military units of serious abuses as President Felipe Calderon’s offensive against the drug traffickers is about to enter its sixth year. According to the Wall Street Journal in July 2010, the number of complaints about human-rights abuses had climbed to nearly four thousand , up from just two thousand a year earlier and a few hundred in previous years. The human-rights office in Chihuahua (one of the front-line theaters in the drug war) was investigating 465 complaints in that state alone.

As early as December 2009, a scathing Amnesty International report created a public-relations black eye for Mexico’s military; Not only did the Amnesty report document extremely serious cases of unlawful detention, torture, and murder, but it indicated that Mexican authorities were covering up such violations.

A comprehensive or detailed analysis of human rights violations committed by members of the military is not available for two significant reasons. First, deficiencies and unnecessary restrictions in the gathering and publishing of data on human rights related complaints received by both military and civilian authorities against military personnel prevent reasonable scrutiny. And second, intimidation and threats against some victims and their relatives mean that an unknown number of abuses are never officially recorded.

The parallels between this situation in Mexico and the abuses and attempted cover ups that the investigations in Colombia have revealed regarding the drug war in that country are more than a little troubling. To cast further doubt on the desirability of trying to apply the Colombia model to Mexico, the level of violence in Colombia is beginning to rebound. According to a February 2011 UN report, there was a 40 percent rise in massacres in 2010, mostly attributed to new drug gangs that have arisen in recent years. Thus, Colombian authorities may have sullied their country’s democratic institutions and values without even achieving lasting gains in the drug war. Mexico’s military seems well on its way to doing the same thing.

The reality is that there will be no sustained decline in drug-related violence in Mexico as long as the robust demand for drugs continues in the United States and other consumer markets and as long as the trade remains illegal. That combination creates an enormous profit potential for the most ruthless organizations and individuals. The names and numbers of the most prominent trafficking operations will change from time to time, but the extent of the trade and the willingness of participants to coerce or kill rivals will not change.

That is the real lesson of the Colombia model. The Cali and Medellin cartels are long gone, but the illegal drug trade still flourishes in that country, and the accompanying violence is rebounding after a temporary lull. Likewise, the distribution of power among the competing cartels in Mexico may be shifting, with previously dominant players such as the Juarez and Tijuana cartels fading and newer competitors such as the Zetas on the rise. But the overall trade goes on, and the bloody gun battles among traffickers and between the traffickers and Mexican authorities go on as well.

Proponents of the Colombia model have always oversold its alleged success and either downplayed or ignored its deficiencies and ugly side effects. Those officials in Mexico and the United States who want to apply that model to the drug war in Mexico are selling a decidedly defective product. Analysts need to look for other solutions to that unfortunate country’s plight.

Ted Galen Carpenter, senior fellow for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, is the author of eight books on international affairs, including Bad Neighbor Policy: Washington’s Futile War on Drugs in Latin America.