Failing states: is Mexico the new Colombia?

September 28, 2010

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.


Colombian military sends FARC terrorist to Hell in style

September 27, 2010

The American military (and it’s rumored, the Israelis) have been training the Colombian military since the 1990s under Plan Colombia to improve their professionalism and effectiveness in their battle with various guerrilla groups and their allied drug cartels. They’ve learned well, having made great strides in the last decade: several terrorist groups have disarmed, while the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) have suffered serious setback and are on the run. They’ve also greatly improved their human rights record.

And they’ve also developed a sense of style. First it was the daring rescue by helicopter of Ingrid Betancourt, and now they’ve killed FARC’s second-in-command, tracking him down via a GPS device hidden in his boots:

The implanting of the GPS chip was possible after authorities intercepted a communication from the guerrillas requesting special shoes for the guerrilla leader, reported Colombia’s El Expectador.com (in Spanish).

According with the version of a security agent interviewed by RCN Radio (audio in Spanish), Briceño was suffering of diabetes that affected the blood circulation in his feet which, in recent months, caused him serious sores forcing him to use special footwear.

  • “The Colombia Security Agency intercepted the communication from the guerrillas requesting special shoes and was able to intervene in the delivery of the boots, which were shipped to him with a GPS microchip. The device allowed establishing the precise location of Mono Jojoy,”


said the unnamed security official.

When the guerrilla leader received the boots did not notice the tracking system installed, which was broadcasting his position for several days. Briceño’s location was determined in a jungle area of the Macarena Mountains, Meta Department, in central Colombia.

Briceño then awoke a few days later to find over 30 Colombian Air Force planes and helicopters raining flaming death on his camp.

I bet they got this trick from the Israelis. It just sounds like a Mossad tactic. Regardless, well done, Colombia.

(via Fausta)