The Worst is Yet to Come in Mexican Drug War

Analysts talk of the “Colombianization” of drug-trafficking in Mexico. If that’s the case, what we’ve seen so far is only the beginning

By Jorge Garay and Eduardo Salcedo-Albarán - Fundación Método, Colombia.

Paramilitary leaders in Colombia, Adolfo Paz (aka Don Berna), Ramiro Vanoy and Salvatore Mancuso


     The notion of the “Colombianization” of Mexico supposes that the situation now evolving on the United States’ southern border is comparable to what Colombia experienced during the 1980s and ‘90s.

 Many in Mexico imagine that this was the worst period of Colombian drug-trafficking, a time when Pablo Escobar paid $500 for each murdered policeman, imposed curfews, detonated bombs in Colombia’s principle cities, financed guerrillas, assassinated ministers and kidnapped journalists.

Today, the similarities between Colombia 20 years ago and the situation in Mexican states like Michoacan, Tamaulipas—and lately Nuevo León (see story, p.38)—is starkly evident: murdered mayors, countless decapitations, bodies hanging from bridges, corpses found with signs hanging on them.

However, the history of drug-trafficking in Colombia had only just begun when Pablo Escobar arrived on the scene. After him came greater sophistication, and worse, an attempt to capture the state. This last development in the history of Colombia is a phase with which few people are familiar.

The possible “Colombianization” of Mexico does not refer only to Escobar’s violent reign, but to a complex history of manipulating and reconfiguring the state. When Escobar’s bullet-riddled body collapsed on a Medellín rooftop in December 1993, many celebrated in Colombia. They mistakenly thought that his death meant the end of drug-trafficking. This belief ignores that drug trafficking is the work of criminal networks, not lone individuals. These networks learn and often react more quickly than the state, so that when a drug lord disappears there is always somebody ready to replace him. And worse, drug-trafficking networks are fully aware that taking on the state with guns isn’t necessarily the most intelligent approach for them to take.

For example, after 30 years of battling the state, Colombian drug-traffickers have learned that infiltrating, co-opting and using the state is more beneficial than fighting it. This last development marks the most sophisticated and complex phase for Colombian drug-trafficking—one that the nation is still going through. The Mexican cartels will very soon learn that confrontation with the state can’t last forever, and that the best thing to do is strike a deal. The more “legal” those agreements look, the more useful they will be to them.

La Tuta, the leader of the Michoacana Family, said as much in July 2009 when he phoned a television program to pay his respects to President Felipe Calderón and to express his interest in seeking an agreement to end the war. La Tuta didn’t ask for an agreement because his cartel was weak, but rather because he seemed to anticipate that in the long run agreements would prove less costly than waging war.

Under-the-table agreements between drug-traffickers and local government in Mexico have a long history. Experts say it is thanks to those unwritten pacts that the country avoided the violence being witnessed today. But changes to the political structure resulted in those accords being broken and the present chaos in which rival cartels compete for control over drug distribution routes to the U.S. and Europe.

At first glance it appears as if Mexico has arrived at a point of no return. The declaration of war on drug-trafficking has made it impossible to return to the old deals. That is why Mexican drug-traffickers, after being openly confrontational, may now seek lower level deals, likely financing municipal electoral campaigns and promoting social and political movements.

By co-opting the political class drug-traffickers can get the law on their side, which is every drug-trafficker’s most desired goal. It’s possible that something like this took place during the last elections. [In September, Julio Cesar Godoy was sworn in as a federal congressman for the leftist Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) despite facing 2009 drug-trafficking charges for alleged ties to La Familia. As a member of Congress Godoy has immunity from prosecution.]

In Colombia, the Cali Cartel sought to finance the Colombian presidency’s electoral campaign in 1998, believing that it could later influence executive decisions. The cartel was mistaken. U.S. pressure forced the elected president, Ernesto Samper, to go after its would-be financiers in the cartel. In the end, the leadership of the Cali Cartel was eliminated and extradited to the U.S.

Mexican drug traffickers will likely do just as their Colombian counterparts did: concentrate on securing local power, not with crude and simple bribery but through long-term agreements. At the local level better conditions exist for impunity, or sealing deals by force. By taking over and co-opting local administrations, drug traffickers can gain power without increasing their criminal exposure.

In Colombia during the mid-1990s paramilitary drug traffickers took advantage of this. They supported the election of congressmen, mayors and governors, not only through bribery, sending suitcases filled with cash to candidates’ and officials’ homes, but fundamentally by establishing agreements, sometimes even in writing.

In 2001, 36 individuals, among them paramilitary drug trafficking leaders, candidates, mayors, governors, congressmen and business owners, signed a secret document—the Ralito Agreement—in which they agreed to “remake the state” in Colombia.

At that time, they wanted to establish a new political system useful to criminal and selfish interests, to create a parallel state or “para-state.” The means for doing so were clear: support electoral campaigns, infiltrate institutions, do favors for public officials and, when necessary, carry out massacres. Some of the signers of the agreement were later elected to Colombia’s Congress and are now in prison. The narco-paramilitaries formed local armies, taking effective control of some regions of Colombia, including local government authorities.

A similar phenomenon seems to be occurring in Mexico with the mass arrests of municipal mayors in Mexico with ties to La Familia. According to a recent report by the Mexican Congress, close to 8 percent of the municipalities are under control of narco-cartels, and almost 73 percent under some degree of their influence.

If Mexico is indeed living through a “Colombianization,” then various phases of sophistication—institutional erosion, and disintegration of moral boundaries—are yet to come for Mexican society.

In Colombia, the nation has gradually learned to live with illegality. A number of institutions, rules and regulations have been transformed as a result. Still worse, in Colombia many elected congressmen backed by drug-trafficking paramilitaries have legislated and promoted laws that must be obeyed and enforced, but whose legitimacy and social benefits remain questionable. Fortunately, the Colombian Supreme Court is judging severely the indicted congressmen, developing a new international jurisprudence and reinforcing the rule of law.

If Mexico is really on the same road as Colombia, the lines between illegality and the law will probably become equally blurred. Cartels, frequently in alliance with local authorities, will seek to claim ownership of justice hoping to co-opt institutions and reconfigure them for their own interests. If that is the case, the worst may be yet to come in terms of the deterioration of the rule of law.


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JOSE Castro
2010-10-22 00:43:55

HOW IGNORANT IAM A MEXICAN and i tell you mexico has had "agreements" under the table and did in fact isntutinalize illigal activitties during 75 years and this wars is not the begginig of the colombianization of mexico but rather the agonic ending of an abecense of law and order finally mexico is going to the rigth path and is cutting ties with the drug cartels

2011-03-03 03:19:29

HOW IGNORANT IAM A MEXICAN and i tell you mexico has had "agreements" under the table and did Read more: http://www.poder360.com/article_detail.php?id_article=4865#ixzz1FuiWHlX0

2011-03-03 03:24:16

HOW IGNORANT IAM A MEXICAN and i tell you mexico has had "agreements" under the table and did Read Read more: http://www.poder360.com/article_detail.php?id_article=4865#ixzz1FulLS9qo

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