Failing states: is Mexico the new Colombia?

I’ve suggested in recent postings that Mexico and its cartel-spawned violence is coming to resemble Colombia’s war with leftist guerrillas and allied drug cartels, including the loss of state sovereignty over territory. Secretary of State Clinton made a similar observation, causing a minor diplomatic flap.

A recent article in the Los Angeles Times criticizes this comparison, arguing that the analogy to Colombia is flawed:

As the death toll from drug-related violence nears 30,000 in four years, the impression that Mexico is losing control over big chunks of territory — the northern states of Tamaulipas, Chihuahua, Nuevo Leon and Durango at the top of this list — is prompting comparisons with the Colombia of years past. Under the combined onslaught of drug kingpins and leftist guerrillas, the South American country appeared to be in danger of collapse.

The Colombia comparison, long fodder for parlor debates in Mexico, gained new energy this month when Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the tactics of Mexican cartels looked increasingly like those of a Colombia-style “insurgency,” which the U.S. helped fight with a military and social assistance program known as Plan Colombia that cost more than $7 billion.

But is Mexico the new Colombia? As the Obama administration debates what course to take on Mexico, finding the right fix depends on getting the right diagnosis.

The article then look at four facets of the comparison to see if the Colombian experience really does map to Mexico:

The Enemy: the authors correctly point out that Colombia’s problem originated with political rebellion – various flavors of Marxists trying to overthrow the state- while Mexico’s is, so far, more one of organized crime. Very bold and violent, but there is no political agenda. However, Colombia’s Leftist (and some Rightist) guerrilla groups eventually allied with the drug lords and even went into the business, themselves. There’s no reason to think the Mexican cartels couldn’t evolve in the opposite direction, to out and out rebellion, if the Mexican state weakens.

Land Grab: Journalist Ken Ellingwood is somewhat right when he asserts that, while the Colombian guerrillas at one time controlled vast swathes of territory from which Colombian authorities were banned, that hasn’t happened in Mexico. I say “somewhat,” because it almost seems like a distinction without a difference. Yes, no territory has been formally ceded to the cartels, as happened in Colombia. But what’s the practical difference when the Mexican Army gets blockaded in its bases; a newspaper gives up and says to the cartels “You win;” and the police chief of a major city has to live in an office closet with a gun under his pillow for his own safety? The cartels may not claim territory, but it’s clear who rules.

Who Gets Killed: Ellingwood  argues that the Colombian guerrillas attacked government officials and business men in an effort to topple the state. The Mexican cartels, on the other hand, while they they have killed cops and mayors (and even a gubernatorial candidate), are doing so as part of their war with each other. Yes, but the difference is… what? If government officials are getting whacked, it represents the breakdown of the state and civil society, regardless of whether it is part of an attempt to overthrow the government, or simply because they backed the wrong cartel. As with the territory issue, the end result is roughly the same.

A Weakening State: Here the article seems to argue that Colombia was in a better situation than that in which Mexico currently finds itself. State institutions fought back with the active support of the media and the public, particularly after an aggressive president, Alvaro Uribe, came to power. In Mexico, while President Calderon has launched his military against the cartels in some area, they’ve been largely ineffective. In addition, the police and court are notoriously corrupt. While Ellingwood describes the Mexican Army as more reliable that the police, it may be a question of relative positions on the scale of rottenness.

The article concludes with an argument, correct in my opinion, that Plan Colombia, which was tailored to specific Colombian needs, cannot be applied to Mexico as a “one size fits all” solution. Any solution (or solutions) will have to be designed with the particular qualities of Mexico’s problem in mind.

To come back to the original question, the analogy of Mexico now to Colombia of the 1980s and 1990s, while Mr. Ellingwood draws useful distinctions between the two nations, in my opinion they are largely academic. The essential quality of the situations in both countries is that rule of law, government, and civil society are under deadly assault by armed groups, whether directly targeted in an act of rebellion or as a byproduct of a war between criminal gangs. In that regard, the comparison is quite valid.

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