Lately, I’ve seen several articles holding up Colombia as some kind of model for how to deal with drug war violence. The latest one is this piece in Foreign Affairs in which Robert Bonner claims that Mexico should follow Colombia’s example.
Really people? Colombia?
Colombia is ranked number 138 on the Global Peace Index. That makes it the most violent country in Latin America, one notch above North Korea. Colombia is the only Latin American country where the gap between rich and poor is increasing. Union members in Colombia are routinely murdered with impunity. According to Human Rights Watch:
Colombia presents the most serious human rights and humanitarian situation in the region. Battered by an internal armed conflict involving government forces, guerrilla groups, and paramilitaries, the country has one of the largest populations of internally displaced persons in the world.
I think it’s pretty safe to say that Colombia should not be held up as anyone’s example. But more importantly, I would like to point out that the problems in Mexico are, in part, the result of the drug war ramp up in Colombia. And the massive drug trade in Colombia was, in part, the result of Mexico’s drug war ramp up in the seventies.
In 1971, Tricky Dick declared his war on drugs. Shortly after, the U.S. put tons of pressure on Mexico to do something about the Mexican weed that was coming into the United States. Mexico obliged and started the first eradication program. They dumped paraquat on the marijuana crops. Reports surfaced that paraquat tainted marijuana was being sold in the U.S. Of course, nobody stopped smoking marijuana. They just started growing it in the U.S. or buying it from marijuana growers in Colombia. Marijuana production and distribution lines shifted.
Colombia is a huge country with a tumultuous political history – including years of violence and a tendency toward private armies. In the 1960s, in response to a pact between liberals and conservatives that screwed most poor/indigenous/Afro-Colombians, armed guerrilla groups started operating in large swaths of Colombia’s territory. The government had no ability to enforce laws in those areas. Smugglers didn’t have to worry about government interference in their business.
Marijuana growers and guerrillas had a somewhat symbiotic relationship at first. A little piece of the action for the guerrillas and they left each other alone. And then cocaine got popular. Colombians had the supply lines set up already and were conveniently situated between the Andean coca producers and the U.S. market. The money made in cocaine was insane. The more wealthy the cocaine dealers got, the more they became the enemy of the guerrilla groups. Naturally, the drug cartels started their own armies – paramilitary forces. And then the bloodbath really began.
By the 1980s, the Colombian and U.S. governments decided they were going to crack down on the drug cartels. If your criteria for success is that the government of Colombia did not completely disintegrate, than I suppose you can say that their efforts were a “success”. But as I pointed out above, Colombia is hardly a peaceful paradise.
More importantly, as the heat was turned up in Colombia and in the Caribbean, the drug corridor moved back to Mexico and Central America. It’s like the most vile game of ping pong. The violence doesn’t go away. It just ebbs momentarily and springs back worse later, often with an even more corrupt and totalitarian government in place.
The next time you hear someone say that Mexico should follow Colombia’s example, smack em on the head for me will you?