Shannon K. O'Neil

Latin America's Moment

O'Neil analyzes developments in Latin America and U.S. relations in the region.

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Plan Colombia’s Lessons for Mexico

by Shannon K. O'Neil
November 18, 2011

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 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.

Post a Comment 3 Comments

  • Posted by Michael Skol

    I find this report so biased toward a narrow (human rights) perspective that it’s “lessons” should not be trusted.

    The analysis certainly bears little resemblance to the Colombia I have known personally since 1985 (my Colombia-related activity began that year as Deputy Chief of Mission at the Embassy in Bogota). The direct participation of the military in the fight against drug traffickers and guerrillas, which actually started in the last half of the 1980’s, has been critical to the succcess of the program. Plan Colombia was the logical expansion of that military role (beyond the increased funding, new to Plan Colombia was the recognition — at last — that limiting the application of U.S.-provided military resources only to directly drug-related operations [and not to any solely guerrilla target] was ludicrous and not in the interest of either Colombia or the United States.) It is quite significant that Plan Colombia is widely considered one of the most effective (and cost-effective) U.S. assistance programs since the Marshall Plan: No wasted money on headquarters facilities in Bogota, just more brigades in the field and the creation of one of the world’s most professional anti-terrorist forces. U.S. military assistance, and the way the Colombians handled it, broke the backs of the ELN and the FARC. Human rights overall have been increasinglly better protected as a result. There are clear models here for Mexico; and we are fortunate that the Colombians are willing to help teach it.

    As for transfering the security assistance lead to USAID, I couldn’t fathom a worse choice. The USAID bureaucracy, its areas of expertise, its likely willingness to transfer funds from proven military activities to the kinds of developmental assistance that is neither needed nor wanted by a very competent Colombian government, make that agency inc apable of advancing U.S. interests (including human rights) in that country. INL and DOD have done a very good job here; the program is not broken, don’t let USAID break it.

    Bottom line: Beware of advice from special pleaders.

    Michael Skol

  • Posted by Gabriel Aguilera

    Shannon, I’m with Michael on most points. As for your last paragraph, I do think that it is spot on. My understandings is that one of the key ingredients for Colombian successes is precisely the attention given to social policy, the hearts and mind stuff, in addition to the points Michael makes. Cheers. -Gabe

  • Posted by Milburn Line

    Narrow human rights perspective? An aggressive military strategy in Colombia has produced terrible human consequences. Colombia now has 5 million internally displaced persons, more than any other country in the world, who have fled the rampant drug-related violence and fumigation in rural areas and live in squalor in urban shantytowns. For more than a decade more trade unionists are murdered than in any other nation. Forced disappearances, as many as 51,000, are as egregious as the worst historical cases in Latin America, Argentina and Guatemala. The Colombian courts are now investigating 2,547 cases of extrajudicial killings by the armed forces in which civilians were recruited, murdered, disguised as guerrillas and then announced as combat kills.

    Colombian security forces now number some 400,000 members and despite the massive investment required to create and maintain them, recent reports indicate the security situation is once again deteriorating.

    Central America is a region plagued with a legacy of human rights violations committed by national security forces. Deployment of the military in Mexico has resulted in a huge increase in rights violations. The President elect in Guatemala has announced he will deploy the kaibiles, shock troops associated with human rights violations of the civil war, to combat drug trafficking. El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala now have the highest murder rates in the world and standards of public health, education and human development remain amongst the lowest in the region.

    Applying a Plan Colombia boiler plate will not solve the problems in Mexico and Central America. If we get the same results as in Colombia the millions of people fleeing violence are not likely to remain in Central America as internally displaced but head north to the U.S. as during the civil wars of the 1980s. The real lesson from our war on drugs is that massive assistance for enlarging the security sector becomes self-sustaining and does not transform the underlying human security needs for a more stable hemisphere.

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