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Colombia offers clues for solution to Mexico drug war

The Mexico drug war is pushing officials to take heed of Colombia, which made progress with social welfare programs and acknowledgment that force alone doesn't work.

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A skate park in Medellín, a Colombian city that was long the epicenter of the country’s vicious drug war, exemplifies government efforts to boost civil services in addition to police.

Raul Arboleda/AFP/Getty Images

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Medellín, once nearly synonymous with cocaine trafficking, used to be the epicenter of Colombia's decades-long drug war – and one of the most dangerous places in the world.

But with increased military pressure on drug traffickers, urban planning heavily focused on social welfare, and an acknowledgment from Colombia and its major aid donor, the United States, that force alone does not work, Colombian cities such as Medellín have turned around dramatically.

Now the drug violence that made Colombia so notorious has migrated to Mexico, where the army's July 29 killing of drug lord Ignacio "Nacho" Coronel was emblematic of escalating violence. Mexico is aiming to emulate Colombia's success by placing more emphasis on the "softer approach" to eradicating organized crime. It's a strategy that focuses not solely on sending in troops or disbanding cartels, but on arming communities with job opportunities and better education. But Mexico faces several challenges.

"In my view, if [the Mexican government] wants to succeed, it needs to have not just effective law enforcement but compete with cartels on the softer side," says Vanda Felbab-Brown, a fellow at the Washington-based Brookings Institution who studies drug-fueled conflict. "But between a good strategy and effective implementation, there is a universe."

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