Plan Colombia’s Lessons for Mexico

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U.S Air Force worker, helps unload tons of relief aid at Armenia's airport, Colombia (Str Old/Courtesy Reuters).

U.S Air Force worker, helps unload tons of relief aid at Armenia's airport, Colombia (Str Old/Courtesy Reuters).

Last week WOLA released the report “A Cautionary Tale: Plan Colombia’s Lessons for U.S. Policy Toward Mexico and Beyond.” The study is a useful reminder of the real differences between Colombia and Mexico. Unlike Colombia, where security forces fought to assert control over territory left to criminal groups, Mexico has had a strong state presence throughout the country for decades. Whereas violence in Colombia was concentrated in rural areas, in Mexico the highest rates of crime are in population centers and along drug trafficking routes.Their analysis also puts the Colombian experience into historical perspective. The real fight against drug cartels, as opposed to guerrillas and paramilitaries, happened in the 1990s – before Plan Colombia was even on the table. Successes here depended on police work by specialized vetted units, as well as a strong public prosecutor’s office – not sending the military into the streets or hills.

There are a number of good recommendations about how the United States and Mexico can apply these lessons to their joint policy on the drug war going forward.  A few stand out.

For Mexico (and other countries dealing with organized crime):

•             Don’t rely on the military, as it lacks the investigative capacity and the right training to provide public safety to civilians.

•             Measure what matters. Rather than process (e.g. how many arrests or drug kingpins captures) the government should focus on tangible results, such as how many cases are successfully prosecuted, or how much violence and other crimes decline.

For the United States:

•             Take on challenges at home – guns, money, and demand. Since the United States is asking other countries to implement politically difficult policies, policymakers at home should try it themselves – particularly because all these issues feed into the escalating violence Mexico (and other countries) face.

•             Make human rights a top priority, not an afterthought. Do more than just require police and military forces to take classes in human rights, and withhold bilateral security cooperation if standards are not met.

•             Let USAID take the lead in managing security  assistance, not the Department of Defense or even State’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, as these are likely to overlook the crucial socioeconomic side of the security problem.

For all involved: protect local populations first. In addition to safeguarding, these governments need to invest in people – protecting them through law enforcement, courts, and social policies, and creating economic alternatives to a life of crime for those that today remain on the margins.

Published in conjunction with Latin America’s Moment at the Council on Foreign Relations.