Thursday, June 24, 2010

Emulating Colombia

From Jorge Fernández Menéndez:
Colombia during the Uribe did exactly the opposite [compared to Mexico's recent history]: it centralized power and its security agencies; it militarized its only police; it established deep cooperation with the United States, Great Britain, and France and their respective intelligence services, so as to work jointly; it accepted Plan Colombia because it knew that without the active participation of the United States, it couldn't defeat the Farc and the cartels that had over time become the same thing. In the context of the democratic security system, they began a frontal attack against corruption; carried out a judicial reform, so as to adopt an oral and accusatory system, which began immediately and has advanced in a progressive but constant form; negotiated with the belligerent groups, such as the paramilitaries, so as to demobilize them, as it did with many groups of the Farc. As was the case in Mexico, war was declared against drug traffickers and guerilla groups that controlled up to a third of the territory and that had support and bases in neighboring countries like Ecuador and Venezuela. But, unlike Mexico, this was taken up as a national commitment: the president made it, but also the parties, Congress, the media, big business, and the unions. And all of the national effort was concentrated on recovering lost territory: if eight years ago you couldn't travel on highways, today the state has complete control of them; if eight years ago Bogotá, Medellín, Cali, and Cartagena, to mention only the large cities, were subject to attacks, violence, kidnappings (which were in the thousands) and robberies, today they have absolutely normal levels of security. This is reflected in investments and in an open economy. Colombia today exports three times more than it did eight years ago, while inflation went from 7 to 2 percent, and the economy has grown consistently, even with the crisis.

What's the difference? The national project, a cleansed political class convinced that there exists a common cause, the decision of the authorities and the people that they couldn't continue on the same path, so they faced up to all of the reforms that they had carry and accept all of the efforts and combats, of all types, that this implied.

And from Robert Bonner (H/T):

There are several lessons to be drawn from Colombia’s successful campaign. First, since the cartels were vertically integrated, transnational organizations, the campaign against them required the involvement of more than one country. A multinational approach, with strong support and assistance from the United States, was essential.

Second, the goal must be clear. In Colombia, the objective was to destroy the Cali and Medellín cartels — not to prevent drugs from being smuggled into the United States or to end their consumption. Indeed, there are still drug traffickers in Colombia, and cocaine is still produced there, but these cartels no longer pose a threat to Colombian national security.

Third, a divide-and-conquer strategy can be effective. The Colombian government chose to attack one cartel at a time rather than fighting a two-front war. Importantly, Colombia and the United States used the “kingpin strategy” to dismantle the cartels; a strategy that hinged on locating, capturing and incapacitating the kingpins and key lieutenants, while vigorously attacking the vulnerabilities of their organizations, including disrupting their cash flow and sources of supply.

In the longer term, law enforcement and judicial institutions must be reformed. Success in Colombia required strengthening the capacity and integrity of the country’s policing, prosecutorial and judicial institutions.

Moreover, the limits on the usefulness of the military must be understood. The Colombian military played an important part in the defeat of the Cali and Medellín cartels, yet it did not play a decisive role — the Colombian National Police did. Militaries are ill-suited to carry out the law enforcement actions necessary to ultimately bring down criminal organizations, including investigations and the use of informants and electronic surveillance to gather evidence.

Finally, extradition is essential. Imprisonment in the United States was the only thing that Colombian traffickers truly feared. If Mexico takes these lessons to heart and continues to show strong leadership and firm political will, it will rid itself of the cartels for good.

Lots of points here (in the interest of space, I'll stick to the areas of disagreement, but there are points I agree with). First of all, it depends what you mean "rid itself of the cartels". Mexico can see to it that its smugglers in a generation don't have Chapo's wealth or power or fame, but it will most certainly not rid itself of drug trafficking organizations. As Bonner alludes to, Colombia could not provide a better example of this; it defeated Escobar and the Rodríguez Orejuelas, but Colombia remains the world's largest producer of cocaine, with more than 450 metric tons produced in 2008. Colombian drug traffickers are arrested on a regular basis in Mexico, to say nothing of Colombia. So Colombia may have rid itself of cartels if you define them as organizations resembling Pablo Escobar's, but in no way has it rid itself of people who perform the same function as Escobar's gang (albeit in a less threatening manner, which is an extremely positive development, as Bonner says).

Another thing that is as ever missing from the Mexico-Colombia comparisons is a little bit of context. For example, in Medellín, which Fernández somehow calls "absolutely normal" and which was hailed as a miracle of peace in 2008 by the Washington Post, more people were killed in 2009 than in Juárez. Medellín is more than twice as big as Juárez, so the Mexican border town's murder rate is higher, but post-miracle Medellín is still one of the most dangerous cities in the hemisphere. Even after eight years of Uribe's efforts, Colombia is still among the most violent countries in the region, with a murder rate of 36 per 100,000 residents in 2008. That's down from more than 60 in 2000, but still three times higher than Mexico's present murder rate. Murder isn't the only way to measure security, and I'm not trying to say that Mexico should ignore Colombia because the latter is so much more violent. Furthermore, each country has certain security problems that the other doesn't, but that just brings into starker relief the differences between the two nations, and makes all the more clear that we should be very cautious in advocating Colombian solutions for Mexico's problems.

Other countries' experience with similar challenges can be helpful, but the tone should not be, Colombia has made enormous progress and Mexico should imitate it, but rather, Despite vast differences between the respective circumstances, Colombia's (or Italy's or New York City's) efforts to improve security could be instructive to Mexico.


jd said...

Arrrrgggh. I agree with your conclusion, but more broadly, the reality is that the comparisons of Mexico to Colombia--at least in the media--are generally so distorted as to be useless or even counterproductive. I have no idea what level of realism applies in the discussions between the two countries' law enforcement officials, but the media portrayal is total bollocks. There's way too much to unpack here, but let's just focus on a few things:

1) the guerrillas sell drugs, but aren't drug cartels. Fernandez is completely conflating the anti-guerrilla effort with moves against narcotrafficking (to be fair, Plan Colombia does the same, but from the US govt. standpoint that's a feature not a bug). In fact, he's also conflating the 1990s and the 2000s, which were fairly distinct in terms of who the main targets were (cartels in the 90s, guerrillas under Uribe, in very crude terms).

2) As I've mentioned here before, a major part of the tide turning in Colombia was based on the paramilitary offensive (against both the guerrillas and the cartels - watch "The Two Escobars" for a decent summary of the links between the PEPEs and Carlos Castano, king of the paras). This is important in its own right, but also because, despite the demobilization of many paras, Colombia de ninguna pinche manera has "cleansed its political class." Only an Uribe spokesman could say such a thing with a straight face. And the idea that there was some grand coalition that came together in an embrace of reform is a sick joke for millions of rural Colombians - just look at the displacement numbers under Uribe. Writing about it is making me want to replace the Jabulani with las pelotas de Fernandez.

3) The Bonner piece is less...ignorant or ideological, not sure which is the bigger culprit in Fernandez's piece...but it too suffers from placing the state too strongly as the protagonist. The PEPEs, and then the paras, were absolutely vital players in first eliminating Escobar and then "de-cartelizing" Colombian trafficking. The state did some good things in the 1990s and even under Uribe, but other dynamics mattered too - and note that this was in a country where the criminal organizational structures until recently were more coherent than what Mexico faces.

There are a million other digressions to go on, plus the point you make - Colombia's still a super-violent country! - without even getting into human rights and other such quaint niceties. Suffice it to say that those who would Colombianize Mexico are caricaturists who base their vision on an uplifting narrative, not the messy reality.

pc said...

I figured you'd like these two pieces. Yeah the cleansed political class and the absolutely normal security levels were the biggest howlers for me in the JFM piece. If that's the characterization, we should all hope for Mexico to remain abnormally violent and politically uncleansed. There are just so many reasons that this comparison is inappropriate and misleading.

I dont really know what motivates all of this. Ideology certainly plays a role, and for Americans its probably nice to be able to point to a big role for Uncle Sam in the success. Of course there's also the similarity in both countries being Latin American and having drug gangs (though they are very different in type). But once you start digging, the differences in the challenges the governments face weigh more heavily than the similarities.

Cant wait to see the Two Escobars. I wish they had that stuff online. Or on espn deportes.