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When it comes to drug trafficking, don't compare Mexico to Colombia: Report

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Patrick Corcoran contributes to InSight Crime, which researches, analyzes, and investigates organized crime in the Americas. Opinions are the author's own.

A new report from a leading think tank makes the case that the challenges in the drug war facing Mexico are not the same as those in Colombia, and seeks to outline a new paradigm to serve as a replacement.

The new report titled Mexico Is Not Colombia: Alternative Historical Analogies for Responding to the Challenge of Violent Drug-Trafficking Organizations was published by RAND earlier this month. The main point made by authors Christopher Paul, Colin P. Clarke, and Chad C. Serena is clearly indicated in the title.

As the authors point out, the differences separating Mexico and Colombia are myriad and hugely influential: "[In Colombia], the circumstances and the threat differed from contemporary Mexico in several important ways: the nature of the perpetrators, territory, geography, targets, and tactics; the character of the violence; and the state's ability to respond." More specifically, Mexico has long had a stronger state that exercises greater control over the national territory than did Colombia in its worst moments; Mexico's gangs are far less aggressive toward state actors and the general public; and Mexican organizations don't have the vast sanctuary of the insurgent-controlled jungles.

At the same time, it is not clear that Colombia has bested its demons to a degree that it could serve as a threshold of success for Mexico. Colombia remains vastly improved from the late 1980s and early 1990s, but it is still rife with powerful and violent criminal groups. The murder rate in 2013 clocked in at 32 per 100,000 residents. In contrast, the most violent year in recent memory in Mexico was 2011, when it registered 24 per 100,000 inhabitants.

The causes of violence in Mexico have corollaries elsewhere, but they are largely specific to Mexico. The authors write extensively of the two Mexicos, in which a modern and large economy can coexist with areas of abject poverty, in which a robust democracy can have agencies whose venality and corruption is better suited to a banana republic. They discuss the persistent corruption, which has forced repeated purges of federal and local security agencies, and has limited the institutional knowledge and continuity. Mexico's recent challenges are also heavily influenced by the gangland shift away from vertically structured monoliths and toward smaller gangs with more diversified tactics for making money.

These represent issues in which other countries' experiences can help guide Mexican responses, but no other nation has lived through identical problems, nor consequently can any comparable nation offer a magic prescription. In other words, Mexico is unique, as all nations are.

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The analysis conflating Colombia and Mexico has shaped the US approach to its southern neighbor for years. It is evident in the mass of articles from influential analysts that argue for using the tactics that brought down Pablo Escobar to calm Mexico. It is evident in the comments of senior policy makers, including Hillary Clinton, who in 2010 said:

"It's looking more and more like Colombia looked 20 years ago, where the narco-traffickers controlled certain parts of the country...These drug cartels are showing more and more indices of insurgencies."

Most consequentially, the Colombia-equals-Mexico mindset helped guide the initial installment of the Merida Initiative, which President Bush [agreed to]  with President Calderon in 2007. As in Plan Colombia, the Merida Initiative relied heavily on the transfer of military hardware, such as Blackhawk helicopters. Such material is helpful in assaulting far-flung jungle hideouts but of limited value in rooting out corruption in a municipal police force, which is a far more pressing issue for Mexican policymakers.

Moving away from the Colombia model for Mexico has allowed and will continue to allow a more effective approach. Paul and his fellow authors also suggest alternative models for comparison with Mexico: the Balkans, Tajikistan, Somalia, Peru, the Caucasus, Burma, Afghanistan, Angola, and West Africa.

Collectively, these nations and regions provide a number of important lessons that have value in Mexico. Among others:

  • "Reform and improvement take time.
  • External supporters can really help.
  • Improving governance and government capability can help address multiple challenges.
  • Police reform can help reduce violence and support improved governance.
  • Effective efforts to fight organized crime balance both prevention and repression.
  • Prioritizing the most dangerous and violent organizations can help reduce violence."

These are all very wise conclusions, a deeper understanding of which would represent a step forward for Mexico.

However, as with Colombia, no other nation's challenges will provide an exact replica of what Mexico is facing. The peculiar fetish of Mexican executives, especially presidents, for overhauling their security apparatus upon taking office complicates efforts across a variety of categories. Prioritizing the most dangerous groups is likewise a logical step, but efforts in Mexico to do precisely that have been hampered both by difficulties in determining the most violent gang and the backlash when this leads to increased amounts of violence.

Clearly there are lessons to be learned from other nations' struggles with insecurity and criminal groups, but the RAND study makes the clear case for treating Mexico on its own terms. It is a lesson too often ignored.


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