Friday, August 27, 2010

More on Colombia as Mexico

The Hoover Digest makes it two US policy journals arguing in recent months that the solution to Mexico's problems is to treat it as we did Colombia. As ever, this a bit silly, or at least narrow. Unlike the Foreign Affairs piece, Hoover article suffers from a lack of specificity and a manipulation of info that makes the whole thing suspect. On the latter score:
Uribe maintains the confidence of a vast majority of Colombians. In 2002 he released the Democratic Security Policy and his administration, with the support of the Colombian military and police force, focused on strengthening democratic institutions. By 2004, they had re-established a government presence in every one of the country’s municipalities. By 2007, Bogotá, Medellín, and Cartagena had murder rates lower than those of Washington, D.C., or Rio de Janeiro. Between 2002 and 2007, Colombia saw a decrease of 37 percent in homicides, 78 percent in kidnappings, 63 percent in terrorist attacks, and 60 percent in attacks on the country’s infrastructure.
Of course, 2007 isn't the most recent year for which we have murder data for Medellín. In 2009, almost 3,000 people were killed in Medellín, which makes it significantly more violent than any city in the United States. I don't want to dismiss Uribe's achievements out of hand, but they did have a cost, which goes unmentioned here, and, more to the point, they weren't all necessarily enduring.

Author Don Chipman also writes:
Why, then, are we not more concerned by the situation south of the border in Mexico, where all of these threats to our national security exist? The answer is that most Americans view the U.S.-Mexican border through the prism of the illegal-immigration issue, neglecting serious issues of drug trafficking, free trade, and national security.
US attention to Mexico neglects drug trafficking as an issue? Wow, he must be reading different media than I. The Post, the WSJ, and the LA Times all have longstanding, titled series about security problems south of the border, with names like Mexico under Siege and Mexico at War. I'd estimate the ratio of security to immigration stories in the major American publications at maybe 5 to 1, if not higher. One frequent complaint from Mexicans is that the US already views its southern neighbor not as a country but as a security problem (though you do also hear the complaint that the US isn't doing enough to address the problem).

Other articles, such as the Foreign Affairs piece, make the same comparison more persuasively, but I've yet to read why Colombia is a better model for Mexico than, for instance, Italy (which did a more comprehensive job eliminating organized crime as a threat to state and reducing violence than did Colombia). Mexico and Colombia both have drug traffickers and both are Spanish-speaking, but Colombia has vast swaths of the country where the government isn't in control, it has a long-simmering civil war, and it has thousands of paramilitaries, among other hugely significant differences with Mexico. And Colombia, while treated as a miracle of success, remains on the whole far more unstable and dangerous than Mexico. No one knowledgeable would seriously argue that the US would be better off sharing a border with Colombia than with Mexico.

There are of course broad remedies which would benefit both Mexico and Colombia: stronger anti-corruption controls, judicial and penal reform, a more honest and professional police force, et cetera. The thing is, these are obvious improvements that would benefit any developing nation. Mexico shouldn't improve its police forces because it worked for Colombia; it should do so because effective police are better than ineffective police, wherever you might be. Turning such a banal observation into a comparison with Colombia makes writing an article easier, but it doesn't really give us any special insight into either nation.


jd said...

Adelante, Gancho! You're really getting good at the down-with-Colombia-analogies posts. As for the Hoover piece, all I need to see is "Lt. Col. Don Chipman" to know that it's (yet another) case of US security forces embracing the "when you're a hammer, everything looks like a nail" logic, with Colombia as the hammer. This is an underrated problem in American security policy. Without getting into what happened between 2002 and 2008 in Colombia, let's just reiterate that it was complicated. Yet all we saw was unbridled success, such that US Amb. William Wood, who luuurves him some aerial spraying, was sent to Afghanistan based on his "success" with anti-drug policy. That's obviously gone swimmingly.

PS Adam Isacson's testimony to the House on US drug policy provides a great summary:

pc said...

Thanks. Yeah he was definitely biased toward the military approach. Lots of lines like, "Only the US can help", or "US military personnel can play a major role", without explaining why that would be a help, not to mention why such help would be worth the money and the risk for the armed forces themselves.

Thanks for the link, I'll be checking that out here in a second.