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Can Mexico Turn Into Another Colombia?

Is the U.S. Mexican policy poised to turn its neighbor into another Colombia?

January 12, 2004

Is the U.S. Mexican policy poised to turn its neighbor into another Colombia?

Those who would argue that there is almost no chance that Mexico will replicate Colombia's slide into chaos point to some crucial differences between the two societies.

For starters, they argue, Mexico has had an ultra-stable political system.

That has been true historically — at least since the early years of the 20th century. But that difference may be less dramatic than it might appear.

Not long ago, Colombia was widely hailed as the model of a stable democracy in Latin America. It stood in marked contrast to many other hemispheric nations that seemed to oscillate between periods of civilian rule and authoritarian (usually military) regimes.

Moreover, Mexico's political stability may no longer be quite the same as it was during the decades of one-party domination by the PRI.

Competing political forces have emerged. And while, thus far, most of the competition has been expressed peacefully through other political parties, that may not always remain the case.

The potential at least for greater political instability now exists. The most obvious and significant difference between Colombia and Mexico is that Mexico does not face an armed insurgency remotely comparable to that afflicting Colombia.

Nor does the Mexican government face the challenge to its authority posed by armed, right-wing paramilitary organizations the way the Colombian government does.

True, Mexican officials have identified some 14 rebel groups operating in the country, but virtually all of them are small, prone to factionalism — and capable of only pinprick attacks.

One such attack occurred in early August 2001, when the small but noisy People's Armed Revolutionary Front (FARP) detonated bombs outside branches of a leading Mexican bank in Mexico City.

The bombs were crude and did little damage, but the incidents shook an already jittery public alarmed by the growing violence related to the drug trade.

One rebel faction that does have significant capabilities is the Zapatista rebels in the southern province of Chiapas. A serious rebellion flared there in the 1990s.

Despite talk of peace, reconciliation and reform, there is little indication that the insurgents are about to disband.

If that rebellion should reignite into full-scale warfare — much less if it should spread to other regions of Mexico with large indigenous Indian populations — Mexico could begin to face a threat comparable to that confronted by the Colombian government.

For the moment, though, the government in Mexico City exercises a degree of territorial control that the Bogotá authorities can only dream about.

As in Colombia during the 1980s and early 1990s, the drug trade in Mexico is dominated by a small number of tightly organized cartels.

Six regionally based cartels currently dominate the Mexican drug trade. They have divided the country into commercial territories.

Although there is some overlap in those territories, such an arrangement minimizes competition and the resulting struggles among the various organizations.

– The Gulf Cartel is so named because it operates all along the gulf coast of Mexico.

– The Juárez cartel operates mainly along the Caribbean coast, central Mexico and along the Texas-Mexico border.

– The Colima cartel operates in the western state of Colima and (in an isolated enclave) along the far eastern Texas-Mexico border.

– The El Mayo/El Chapo cartel is a relatively new gang formed by the merger of two smaller drug-trafficking organizations. It operates along the Pacific Coast and along the Arizona-Mexico border.

– The Valdez cartel is an organization of drug smugglers in Mexico's restive southern state of Chiapas.

Most Mexican gangs concentrate on the distribution of drugs produced elsewhere (primarily in Colombia) rather than on domestic production — although that is beginning to change.

Given their focus, those organizations are seen as important allies by the Colombian drug traffickers. Many times the Mexicans act as middlemen in the drug trade; in charge of ensuring that the product makes it to the United States.

U.S. policy seems to assume that if Mexico can capture the top drug lords, their organizations will fall apart.

That would then greatly reducing the flow of illegal drugs to the United States.

That is the same assumption that U.S. officials used with respect to the crackdown on the Medellín and Cali cartels in Colombia during the 1990s. But there is little evidence to support such an assumption.

The arrests and killings of numerous top drug lords in both countries have yet to have a meaningful impact in terms of decreasing the quantity of drugs entering the United States.

For example, the most wanted Mexican drug trafficker in the 1980s was Rafael Caro Quintero, who led a drug-smuggling organization based in Guadalajara.

After Quintero's gang murdered a DEA agent, the DEA tracked him down in Costa Rica and arrested him. He eventually received a life sentence in a U.S. federal prison.

However, his drug organization did not die. Rather, it was taken over by his brother, Miguel.

Today, the DEA still considers it to be one of Mexico's leading drug organizations. As was the case in Colombia, cutting off one head of the drug-smuggling hydra merely results in more heads taking its place.

In a curious way, U.S. drug policy in Mexico may therefore simply serve to increase the number of drug-trafficking groups. It is likely to decentralize the problem, not solve it.

Of all the similarities between Colombia and Mexico, the most troubling may be the increasingly pervasive violence in the latter. No longer is just the cocaine and heroin trade characterized by violence.

Even the marijuana trade, which traditionally had generated little violence, is now accompanied by gruesome killings. Indeed, the biggest and bloodiest massacres over the past three years have involved marijuana trafficking.

There is still time for Mexico to avoid going down the same tragic path as Colombia, but time is growing short.

If Washington continues to pursue a prohibitionist strategy, the warfare that has convulsed Colombia will increasingly become a feature of Mexico's life as well.

The illicit drug trade already has penetrated the country's economy and society to an unhealthy degree. U.S. officials need to ask whether they want to risk "another Colombia"— this time directly on America's southern border.

If they do not want to deal with the turmoil such a development would create, the United States needs to change its policy on the drug issue and do so quickly.