Ken Ellingwood, Los Angeles Times, 9/25/2010
Car bombs. Political assassinations. Battlefield-style skirmishes between soldiers and heavily armed adversaries. Across big stretches of Mexico, deepening drug-war mayhem is challenging the authority of the state and the underpinnings of democracy. Powerful cartels in effect hold entire regions under their thumb. They extort money from businesses, meddle in politics and kill with an impunity that mocks the government’s ability to impose law and order. 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 is prompting comparisons with the Colombia of years past.
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? Comparisons took on a new urgency after the statement by Hillary Clinton, but a careful look at tactics, targets and the nature of the foe shows they’re apples and oranges. As the Obama administration debates what course to take on Mexico, finding the right fix depends on getting the right diagnosis.
Colombia’s main leftist rebels, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as the FARC, waged war in the name of Marxist ideology, calling for an overthrow of the traditional ruling oligarchy. In contrast, the main aim of Mexican drug gangs is to move merchandise without interference from authorities.
During the worst days of Colombia’s bloodshed, cartel hit men and guerrillas carried out spectacular bombings and assassinations that targeted judges, politicians, police and businesspeople. Mexico, despite a steadily rising death toll, has seen nothing of that nature. Cartel gunmen have killed scores of police and some prosecutors. But they have not been targeted as part of a sustained effort to topple the government. Most of the killing stems from open warfare between heavily armed cartels.
In Colombia, U.S. policymakers put military advisors and special forces troops on the ground to address a drug problem that was largely based on production — one that could be attacked in large measure through wide-scale eradication. But in Mexico, where the problem is equally one of breaking distribution networks, a Plan Colombia-style military role seems far less likely.