Colombia’s So-Called Successful Drug Policy Provides the Bait for a Mexican Disaster: A Perspective on President Calderón’s Militarized Drug “Conflict”

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By Elsa Treviño, Research Associate at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs

Colombia’s never ending conflict with the country’s drug dealers has demonstrably decreased since the mid-1990s, although the U.S. public’s demand for foreign narcotics has not.1 While Washington’s anti-narcotics efforts have succeeded in reducing the tempo of drug production and transport out of Colombia, it at the same time has facilitated a massive boom in Mexican drug trafficking. Although the face of the drug conflict in Mexico is similar to that which has been seen in Colombia, the causes and the probable solutions to Mexico’s tectonic drug-eradication problem remain distinct and ever pressing. Mexico’s meteoric rise in drug trafficking deserves to be seen as the result of the successes and failures of a U.S. drug model that originally was applied to Colombia and later moved on to Mexico.

A History of the Conflict

Prior to 1984, almost all illegal drugs smuggled from Colombia entered the United States on small propeller airplanes that characteristically landed in Florida and the Bahamas.2 Mexican drug cartels mainly limited themselves to cultivating marijuana and opium, and moving the product to market. Controlled by three prominent cartels, the Gulf, Juarez and Sinaloa, Mexico’s narcotics trade operated in different geographical areas of the country and pragmatically collaborated with each other to render their business more profitable. At the time, none of these cartels represented a major threat to Mexican society. The original three prevailing cartels had been established during the 1970s and it was not until 1989 that several more of them nudged their way in an increasingly crowded field.3

After 1984, illegal smuggling through Florida became more difficult and Colombian cartels found it harder to deliver cocaine directly to American consumers. This was in part due to a harsh but increasingly successful Washington strategy that called for stricter border control and sector regulations. Over time, crop eradication programs, which consisted of fumigation utilizing hazardous and often toxic chemicals, were used to destroy marijuana, cocaine, and opium plants, but proved unsuccessful in permanently damaging the drug-bearing parcels of arable land. This common strategy, supported by both Colombian and U.S. officials was a key factor in the systemic destruction of much of the Colombian drug operations. Nevertheless, the cartels continued to process large volumes of cocaine suitable for distribution to their North American clients.4

Where there is demand, there will also be supply. Because U.S. consumers craved cocaine, and were willing to pay top prices for it, Colombian cartels were under pressure ready to circumvent U.S. efforts to halt drug flows. The cartels increasingly did this by aligning themselves with existing Mexican cartel production. The Colombian cartels acted as suppliers and the Mexican organizations as distributors, facilitating the transportation of drugs across the border into the U.S. As a result of this benign arrangement, Mexican cartels began to play a larger role in the regional drug trade, leading to a vast expansion of their power and potential revenues.

As these changes were transpiring, Mexican presidents, Carlos Salinas de Gortari and Ernesto Zedillo, began to, in turn, lose effective control over the cartels. In a somewhat naive attempt to block smuggling across Mexico’s northern border, the government focused its efforts on impeding money-laundering operations, with unsuccessful results. The Mexican government implemented policies and strategies that prevented illegal money transactions. Colombian drug operations circumvented these money-laundering roadblocks by paying increased shipments of cocaine to Mexican Cartels. These Mexican cartels had upwards of twice the amount of cocaine to dispose of than they did before. Thus increasing the power for three parties, the Mexican cartels, the Colombian cartels and the Colombian rebel group FARC (The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia). At this same time, the FARC was effectively aligning itself with the Colombian and Mexican cartels and was able to take a growing share in their already existing profits.5

A Failed Attempt at Cleansing

By the time Vicente Fox was elected to the presidency in 2000, the three major Mexican cartels had furiously grown in both size and influence. They had managed to infiltrate the Mexican government at its highest levels. This certainly influenced the rise of drug related violence in Mexico, however, it was not the primary cause.6 Furthermore, a powerful new cartel, Los Zetas, was rapidly becoming notorious for their corruption and violence. Los Zetas originally was composed of highly trained former Mexican special-forces who deserted a U.S. backed anti-narcotics program in order to tap into the immense profits to be made in drug smuggling.7

Fox’s attempt to rid the Mexican government of corruption and seize the momentum back from the cartels failed in large part due to the decentralization of power that characterizes the Mexican federal system. By the end of Fox’s term, Mexico was now witnessing seven separate drug cartels trafficking mainly cocaine, heroin, and marijuana, and accounting for an estimated 90 percent of all the cocaine that was entering the United States.8 The Mexican cartels had become so powerful that they began to seek more advanced methods of transporting cocaine and other narcotics into the U.S. Often, they forced or hired engineers at an exorbitant sum to construct underground border tunnels that may be used for human trafficking, drug trafficking, money-laundering, and various forms of smuggling and migration.9

In 2005, the U.S. Congress approved a measure to restrict bulk purchasing of pseudoephedrine, an over-the-counter medicine and a key ingredient in producing the hard drug crystal methamphetamine, or “meth.” This led to a noticeable decrease in supply of meth ingredients, and fueled the creation of new, specialized cartels to fill the gap in the U.S. market. For example, La Familia, traditionally a vigilante Mexican anti-crime group, set aside its earlier morals and began selling drugs.10

La Familia since has become the largest distributor of methamphetamine to the U.S. market. It also has quickly grown to become one of the most dangerous cartels in Mexico, and continues to pose a major concern for President Felipe Calderón Hinojosa, and is a destabilizing threat to the nation at large. The rise of La Familia was further driven by a jump in meth price, and the cartel’s subsequent expansion into cocaine, heroin, and marijuana. Due to the arrival of this new narcotic and the resulting increased affluence of La Familia, Mexican drug organizations by today have established control over an estimated 70 percent of all narcotics entering the United States.11

The Inconsistent U.S. Contribution: Helping or Hindering?

Further exacerbating the previously cited problem has been the retail price rise of cocaine increased by 24 percent during the second quarter of 2007. This empowered the cartels and handicapped the Mexican government’s ability to effectively project its influence into a number of Mexican states and more skillfully combat violent rebel groups operating in local neighborhoods. The conflict raging in Mexico today is fueled by the cartels’ collective desire to control more territory in order to increase their profits. The growing domestic U.S. demand for drugs has led to the growth of a worldwide market, causing the partition of the original three cartels into eight. The Mexican and international media published throughout 2010 that the local authorities had been successful in defusing key leaders of most of the cartels. In many cases, this has had the unintended consequences of adding further power and influence to those surviving cartels. The scramble to fill the power vacuum brought about by a strained and tried leadership has also precipitated increased violence resulting in high casualty figures.

Mounting illegal sales of automatic weapons from the United States to Mexico is another factor that has contributed to the rising power of Mexican cartels. According to the BBC, 90 percent of the weapons that have been seized from the Mexican drug cartels originated in the United States.12 If such sales were more strictly monitored and less profitable the Mexican cartels would not wield nearly as much power as they currently do. Recently, the Obama administration has partnered with the Mexican government in an attempt to reduce arms trafficking by working together to curtail it. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has been particularly active in this respect.13 Several of Washington’s strategies implemented in order to prohibit such shipments have been: identifying trafficking routes, tracing the origins of firearms, and increasing the capacity to interdict arms smuggling.

As the government seeks to more effectively control land usage in the border regions, Mexico’s eight major cartels are fighting a zero-sum war against rival opposition cartels. According to multiple news sources, such as the BBC, local Mexican newspapers, and several wire services, cartel-related conflicts have claimed tens of thousands of lives throughout the country as a result of the emergence of a new generation of drug operations.14

After a speech given in Washington D.C. in September 2010, Secretary of State Clinton observed that Mexico is “looking more and more like Colombia looked 20 years ago.”15 If, roughly speaking, the gravity of Mexico’s problems appear similar to the ones that Colombia has faced (and continues to battle). The U.S. would be wise to learn from Colombia’s previous experience, to and concentrate on implementing a new and improved policy aimed at eradicating the root of the problem, rather than just the symptoms. As U.S. foreign policy becomes increasingly supportive of Calderon, as indicated by Clinton’s recent initiatives on the subject, Mexican policy reforms alone will prove not to be sufficient in eradicating the problem. It is in the interests of both Mexico and the United States to not only collaborate for lasting change, but also to develop new policy initiatives through close communication and cooperation. Two policies are needed for the return of Mexico’s security. Enforcing prohibition laws that affect U.S. consumers and the eradication of crop production in Latin American countries might turn out to be extremely helpful to vulnerable U.S. neighbors. Without some serious compromising on the matter, this challenge will most likely end up with unavoidable catastrophic consequences.

By Elsa Treviño, Research Associate at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs

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