A Cautionary Tale: Plan Colombia's Lessons for U.S. Policy Toward Mexico and Beyond

A Cautionary Tale

In December 2006, Felipe Calderón began his presidency with a virtual declaration of war. As the new President of Mexico, his electoral mandate was weak after having barely won a plurality of the vote, less than a single percentage point over his opponent, Andrés Manuel López Obrador. Seeking to bolster popular support and legitimacy, he seized on a political initiative engineered to take on one of Mexicans’ central concerns—violence linked to drug trafficking and the country’s deteriorating public security crisis.

More cocaine was transiting through Mexico from Andean source countries to U.S. drug users, and Mexican criminal organizations had taken over the highly lucrative business of transporting the drugs to the United States, supplanting Colombia’s weakened cartels. Violence between these organized crime groups, and their deep infiltration and corruption of government institutions, were approaching emergency levels in several regions of the country.

Drug and organized crime-related violence killed over 2,000 Mexicans in 2006, roughly doubling the annual number of killings attributed to organized crime just 5 years earlier. Opinion polls routinely showed security outranking the economy and corruption among the Mexican people’s concerns. The impact of drug and gang violence on people’s lives, and the likelihood of being extorted or kidnapped by criminal groups branching out from the drug trade, was growing rapidly.

President Calderón announced that his administration would turn to Mexico’s armed forces to fight the country’s criminal networks. Mexico’s military had been assigned this internal policing role decades ago, but its engagement had never been as far-reaching as what the new president proposed. Recognizing that Mexico’s federal, state and local police forces were outgunned and hobbled by their own corruption and lack of professional training, equipment, and capacity to carry out complex operations, Calderón’s government deployed what would grow to about 45,000 federal troops, supplemented by federal police, to the streets of cities and the roads of regions hard hit by drug trafficking-related violence. This was a dramatic expansion of the military deployment through Operativo Mexico Seguro (Operation Safe Mexico) initiated by Calderón’s predecessor, Vicente Fox.

In Washington, the Bush administration applauded President Calderón’s effort. By the end of 2007, the U.S. and Mexican governments had agreed on a $1.4 billion, three-year package of U.S. aid, three-quarters of it for Mexico’s military and police forces. The package was called the “Mérida Initiative,” named for the southern Mexican city where

the two presidents met in March 2007 to commit to deeper anti-drug cooperation. Due to long-standing sensitivities about sovereignty and distrust of U.S. intervention in Mexico, the Calderón and Bush administrations took pains to present this package not as U.S. meddling in Mexican affairs, but instead an acknowledgment of co-responsibility by the United States and a Mexican-initiated request for intensified cooperation.

Yet at first, the U.S. and Mexican media
called the package “Plan Mexico.” They were referring to a 2000 aid package to Colombia, a contribution toward an anti-drug strategy known as “Plan Colombia,” which provided a framework for $8 billion in mostly military-police aid to that country over the following decade. Plan Colombia has been controversial because of its mixed results and the severe human rights abuses that Colombia’s U.S.-aided security forces committed. With another heavily military package on the
way to Mexico, it looked like the Plan Colombia experience was about to repeat itself.

Indeed, both the Calderón and Bush administrations may have had Colombia in mind. The Mexican president was doubtless aware of the results that Colombian President Álvaro Uribe had achieved—on the battlefield and in the polls—with a military offensive he launched against guerrilla groups after his 2002 election. But the Mexican government and civil society groups alike were wary of a name that suggested direct U.S. intervention in Mexican affairs. In Washington, meanwhile, many officials and analysts portrayed Plan Colombia as a “success” to be replicated in U.S. policy toward Mexico.

Nearly four years after the “Mérida Initiative” launched, meaningful improvements in public security have not been achieved. Rather than stemming the violence, the capture or killing of dozens of major organized crime leaders has made violence more generalized. Organized crime groups, their numbers proliferating from approximately six national confederations to twelve today, have taken on the state and each other in a war of all against all. The removal of cartel leaders has caused the groups to fragment, triggering new power struggles that have multiplied the violence. 

To read this report in Spanish, click this link: http://www.lawg.org/storage/documents/Mexico/lawgef%20cautionary%20tale%20sp%20f.pdf

Para leer este informe en español, haga click aqui: http://www.lawg.org/storage/documents/Mexico/lawgef%20cautionary%20tale%20sp%20f.pdf