Mexico's Colombianization'

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LISA MULLINS: I'm Lisa Mullins and this is The World, a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI, and WGBH in Boston. The Mexican drug lord dubbed �El Grande� has been captured. His arrest yesterday and the recent capture of another drug kingpin known as �La Barbie� dealt serious blows to one of Mexico's top cartels. But the government still faces challenges as it tries to rein in the drug trade. More than 28,000 people have died since a crackdown on the cartels was launched four years ago. The drug violence in Mexico has given birth to a new buzz word, �Colombianization.� We go to the Colombian capital, Bogota, for that story from John Otis.

JOHN OTIS: Massacres, car bombs, assassinations, all pulled off by powerful Mexican drug cartels. Sound familiar? It does to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Last week, Clinton likened Mexico today to Colombia of the 1980s.

HILLARY CLINTON: These drug cartels are now showing more and more indices of insurgency. All of a sudden car bombs show up which weren't there before. So it's looking more and more like Colombia looked 20 years ago where the narco-traffickers control certain parts of the country.

OTIS: Mexican officials angrily rejected the comments. But to many Colombians, Clinton was simply stating the obvious.

ALFONSO CUELLAR: Well, I think Hillary is kind of right about what she's saying.

OTIS: Alfonso Cuellar is an editor at Semana, Colombia's most influential news magazine.

CUELLAR: 20 years ago we were in the war against the Medell�n cartel and that was a case where you had some criminal organizations based urbanly who had the ability to put bombs, to assassinate people and who wanted to intimidate the state. And that's where I think she's right.

OTIS: Pablo Escobar was killed in 1993, the Medell�n and Cali cartels were dismantled, and most of their smuggling routes were then taken over by Mexican traffickers. But Mexico's current efforts to break up the cartels have been hamstrung by the traffickers' ability to infiltrate and intimidate government institutions. Alfredo Rangel is a Bogota security consultant.


ALFREDO RANGEL: In the 1980s Colombia had a weak and corrupt police force. The judicial system incapable of stopping drug traffickers. It seems to me that these are problems that Mexico must now resolve.

OTIS: That said, Rangel points to some major differences. In Colombia, the massacres and kidnappings were mostly due to battles among the guerrillas, the army, and paramilitary death squads. There is no major rebel insurgency in Mexico. And despite all the grisly headlines, Mexico's annual murder rate is lower than in Brazil and Venezuela today and comes nowhere near Colombia's peak murder rates of the 1980s and �90s.

RENEE SCHERLAN: I worry about policy making by analogy.

OTIS: Renee Scherlan is a political science professor at Appalachian State University in North Carolina. She's studied the drug wars in Colombia and Mexico. And she thinks Hillary Clinton was way off base when she spoke of Mexico's drug gangs morphing into an insurgency.

SCHERLAN: The cartels clearly pose a significant threat, the level of violence is quite high, but an insurgency implies kind of an uprising of people for kind of a political reason and that's not what's there at all. This is all about, you know, making money.

OTIS: Even so, experts say Mexican authorities should take note of what worked, and what didn't, in Colombia. Colombians, for example, didn't take the threat of the cartels seriously at first and some even saw the drug trade as a boon for the economy. But after hit men gunned down an attorney general and a presidential candidate, Colombians rallied behind their government's war against the cartels. By contrast, Mexicans still seem divided about what to do, says Alfredo Rangel.


OTIS: �In Mexico, there's a lot of criticism of the government's head-on war against the drug traffickers,� Rangel says. �What's lacking is a unified national consensus to take on the cartels.� Another problem is that many Mexicans don't think the war on drugs is winnable. After all, Colombia took down its major cartels but the country still produces tons of cocaine. Alfonso Cuellar says Colombian authorities knew they'd never eliminate the cocaine trade. Instead, they focused on destroying the cartels which were becoming a huge menace to the government. Today, smaller criminal groups still move tons of drugs but they pose no major threat.

CUELLAR: You have to reduce these criminal organizations to a situation where they can be managed, and not in a sense where they continue to grow. And I think that's what they were facing in Mexico was that these organizations were growing and growing and nobody was putting a stop to it.

OTIS: For The World, I'm John Otis in Bogot-, Colombia.