How to Defeat the Drug Lords at Last

Friday, July 2, 2010

In the years after 9/11, American society has become mesmerized by the threat of terrorism, while U.S. foreign policy has been dominated by security concerns posed by nations with rampant government corruption, a weak state presence, widespread poverty, and powerful drug lords.

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.

A host of U.S. domestic sensitivities and a mishmash of strategic interests will continue to threaten any long-term solution to the Latin American narcoterrorism problem. Not the least of these sensitivities is our unwillingness to deal with the demand side of the drug problem. Meanwhile, the United States seems to have little political stomach for aggressively pursuing counternarcoterrorism efforts in Latin America while we are fighting two wars in the Middle East and struggling to deal with an economic crisis.

However, all is not lost in this security dilemma in our own hemisphere. In fact, we need look no further than the impressive results in Colombia, where the United States pursued an aggressive, indirect counternarcoterrorism policy. The Colombia model holds the solutions for Mexico’s multifaceted violence problem, and it is time to act before the situation deteriorates further. The stakes could not be higher: our national security and our ability to safeguard our own borders.


Around the turn of the twentieth century, an imbalance of economic prosperity and power started to emerge in Colombia as gold and coffee created vast concentrations of wealth. Following the internal “War of the Thousand Days” from 1899 to 1902, tensions remained high between the haves and have-nots. Then, in 1948, after the assassination of Liberal leader Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, a second bloody civil war erupted. It became known simply as la violencia. During the bloody decade-long conflict, an estimated 300,000 Colombians were killed and many more displaced from their homes. The roots of Colombia’s largest guerrilla group, best known by its Spanish-language acronym FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia), date back to armed peasant self-defense movements formed during this war.

FARC understood Colombia’s democracy was vulnerable. Fueled by narcotics revenue, the guerrillas began defeating the army in large battles and even attacking and capturing military bases.

The origins of modern U.S. security policy in Colombia can be traced back to the CIA Special Team Survey of 1959. After observing la violencia, the team concluded that military force alone was incapable of ending the bloodshed in Colombia and that an integrated political-military policy was needed. To this day, this and other strategies highlighted by the team remain relevant. These include “professionalizing the armed forces, building respect for human rights, improving social and economic conditions for a marginalized peasantry, and fashioning competent, widely trusted government institutions,” as listed in a 2002 monograph by Dennis M. Rempe, The Past as Prologue: A History of U.S. Counterinsurgency Policy in Colombia, 1958–1966.

In 1980, the United States began its “war on drugs,” and by 1984 the Colombian government (with U.S. aid) had launched a crackdown on drug trafficking. However, this campaign lost momentum in some regions as drug traffickers and rebels joined forces. Part of the problem in the ’80s and ’90s was that U.S. aid was supporting one of the most repressive governments in the hemisphere.

Defeat drug lords

FARC had a clear understanding of the vulnerabilities of Colombia’s democracy, and by the late 1990s, in large part because of additional revenue generated by coca cultivation in the southern Amazon region, FARC was able to better train and equip its fighters and to increase its troop strength to 18,000. The guerrillas began defeating the Colombian army in large battles and even attacking and capturing military bases in southern Colombia. Thousands of people abandoned the country, foreign investment nearly stopped, and Colombia’s most basic human right became personal security. Colombia was rapidly approaching a point of no return, and something needed to be done.

“Colombia has been the most successful nation-building exercise by the United States in this century,” Ambassador William Brownfield declared last December.

In response to the dire situation, in 1998 President Andrés Pastrana Arango implemented Plan Colombia: a six-year plan intended to “combat narcoterrorism, spur economic recovery, strengthen democratic institutions with a respect for human rights, and provide humanitarian assistance to internally displaced persons,” in the words of a State Department publication. His successor as president, Álvaro Uribe Vélez, not only continued the work of Plan Colombia but increased the emphasis on security concerns and brought with him a clear mandate of bringing the country out of its political, economic, and social crisis.

Plan Colombia’s multipronged approach also focused on disarming paramilitary and guerrilla groups and finding alternative employment for coca farmers. U.S. aid focused on helping the Colombian military regain control and increase eradication activities in the southern coca-growing region dominated by narcotraffickers and FARC insurgents. Then in 2002, in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks, Congress approved the Bush administration’s request for expanded authority to use U.S. counternarcotics funds for a unified campaign to fight both drug trafficking and terrorist organizations in Colombia.

According to Stuart Lippe, a contractor with the Colombia desk at the U.S. State Department, the keys to Plan Colombia’s success were that institutional jealousy was lacking, funding was not a problem in the beginning, and senior officials tended to agree on basic goals. An executive committee of the National Security Council was established as the coordinating mechanism to pull together the various departments within the U.S. government to gain consensus on a coherent interagency approach. “Colombia has been the most successful nation-building exercise by the United States in this century,” Ambassador William Brownfield declared to the Weekly Standard last December.

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. The Colombian government has also made progress on issues such as expanding international trade, supporting alternative means of development, reforming Colombia’s judicial system, and reducing poverty.

Like Colombia in the late 1990s, Mexico has a functioning state and a decent economy, despite suffering from a weak state presence and a deteriorating rule of law.

This new environment has resulted in the demobilization of paramilitary forces and caused FARC to retreat into a defensive posture. Random acts of indiscriminate terrorism and open violations of human rights by the guerrillas have contributed to a steady erosion of popular support for their cause, while their numbers have diminished to half their peak strength.


Although cocaine still flows from Colombia, the days of drug lord Pablo Escobar and the Medellín cartel are over. Mexican drug cartels have now become the dominant cocaine traffickers in the world. Closure of the cocaine trafficking route from Colombia into Florida via the Caribbean has pushed traffic through Mexico, increasing the role of Mexican cartels in trafficking. According to the Mexican press, there were 7,600 deaths in the 2009 drug war. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency maintains that Mexican cartels are starting to show all the hallmarks of organized crime and that they have organized into distinct cells with subordinate cells that operate throughout the United States.

The problem Mexico faces is eerily similar to, if not worse than, the problem Colombia faced in the 1990s. Mexican drug cartels openly conduct horrific acts of violence in major cities in broad daylight with little fear of retribution. Mexican drug cartels do not retreat into jungle safe havens or seek sanctuary in neighboring countries as FARC does in Venezuela; instead, they blatantly remain on the streets of border cities, blending into the population and relying on corrupt officials to turn a blind eye.

But there is reason to be optimistic. Like Colombia in the late 1990s, Mexico has a functioning state and a decent economy, despite suffering from a weak state presence and a deteriorating rule of law. As with Colombia, restoration of government institutions and state-strengthening measures are needed to combat narcoterrorism. This can be achieved in Mexico, but it will take the assistance of the United States.

The lesson learned from Colombia is that Mexico must implement oversight mechanisms that detect and deter corruption, and also engage in counternarcotics efforts to address the systemic problems that enable drug cartels to gain power and influence. Restoring public order in Mexico must begin with the goal of bringing about judicial reform, re-establishing the sanctity of government institutions, and fostering efforts to improve law enforcement and military capacity.

U.S. state-strengthening efforts in Mexico need to be expanded in order to cut cartel revenue, reduce violence, and restore the rule of law. The United States can, and should, focus on the demand side of the drug equation by examining all options from harsher punishment to legalization. The United States also should work to reduce arms trafficking into Mexico. But the most meaningful assistance we can provide would resemble that of Plan Colombia: a combination of intelligence-gathering and -sharing efforts for counterterrorism and anti-crime purposes as well as military and technical assistance for counternarcotics operations such as border interdiction.

Together with Mexico, we need to develop a common vision of security that collectively denies narcoterrorists the ability to gain entry into our countries, spread corrupting influence, and intimidate populations. The United States can no longer afford to ignore an unstable nation-state on its southern border.