Applying Lessons from Colombia to Mexico

Nathan Jones, AL DÍA: News and Analysis from the Mexico Institute,* 12/3/2010

Mexican elites are naturally reticent when it comes to comparisons with Colombia.  They view their organized crime problem as very different from that of Colombia’s problems with the Medellin and Cali Cartels in the 1990’s and the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarios de Colombia (FARC) guerrillas of the last decade.  For example, they say Colombia faced insurgency, not purely narco-violence, Colombia is more a drug producing state than a drug transit state and Colombia’s violence was largely rural not urban.  For Mexican elites the diagnosis of “narco-insurgency” is incorrect and thus the prescription of “counterinsurgency,” which embodied Colombia’s national security strategy under President Alvaro Uribe, known as “Democratic Security,” is also wrong for Mexico.

Quibbling about proper diagnosis may be a moot point.  Just as antibiotics can cure different ailments, counterinsurgency strategies can address a myriad of social ills. In the Mexican context, counterinsurgency should be viewed as a national institution-strengthening strategy that will remove the underpinnings of drug trafficking violence in Mexico.

Mexico will need to improve its security and social institutions over the long term to succeed in its struggle against drug cartels.  This will include improving the military and police forces, rooting out corruption, ending impunity, improving the educational system, providing jobs and, most importantly, providing upward social mobility.  In the short term, Mexico can team up with the United States to target the heads of cartels, but over the long term it must address its social institutions if it is to reduce the never-ending supply of new cartel recruits and slow the rise of street gangs in Mexico.

The most important lesson Mexico can take from Colombia is the importance of a willingnes to pay.  According to Professor Samuel Gonzalez Ruiz of UNAM and the 2010 Index of Economic Freedom, Mexico generates less than 9% of GDP in tax revenue.  Only one country in Latin America does a poorer job: Haiti.  Upon entering office in 2002 Colombian President Alvaro Uribe raised taxes to improve and expand the military and national police forces.  The funding also paid for social programs like Familias en Acción, which paid for poor children in rural areas to attend school and get basic nutrition.  Without a willingness to pay for better state institutions, any reform plan will fail regardless of its strategic orientation.  There can be no more relying on the state oil company PEMEX to generate 40% of government revenues.  Those profits should be distributed to taxpayers and taxed back by the government to increase transparency, accountability and swell the ranks of official taxpayers.

*AL DÍA: News and Analysis from the Mexico Institute is a periodic series of exclusive commentaries by respected U.S. and Mexican analysts and scholars on key issues in binational security cooperation.  The opinions expressed here are those of the author.  To contact the author, email mexico@wilsoncenter.org. Nathan Jones is a graduate student at UC Irvine writing his dissertation on border security in Mexico.  He is currently in Mexico doing fieldwork on an Institute for Global Conflict and Cooperation (IGCC) fellowship.  He has also received funding from the department of political science at UC Irvine and the UC Irvine Center for Global Peace and Conflict Studies (CGPACS).

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