The Drug War's Colombia Model

Exporting a failed strategy to Mexico won't work.

Flickr/rabbits on chairs.Drug war enthusiasts have argued for years that Colombia’s victory over that country’s powerful cartels in the 1990s is a model for Mexico’s current war against traffickers. Recent revelations, though, cast grave doubt on that thesis. It appears that Bogotá’s alleged triumph was a lot less impressive than advertised.

Robert Bonner, who directed the Drug Enforcement Administration during President George W. Bush’s first term, makes an especially strong assertion that Mexico can defeat drug gangs the same way Colombia did:

Destroying the drug cartels is not an impossible task. Two decades ago, Colombia was faced with a similar–and in many ways more daunting–challenge. In the early 1990s, many Colombians, including police officers, judges, presidential candidates, and journalists, were assassinated by the most powerful and fearsome drug-trafficking organizations the world has ever seen: the Cali and Medellín cartels. Yet within a decade, the Colombian government defeated them, with Washington’s help.

U.S., Mexican, and Colombian officials act as though the Colombian strategy is a template for dealing with the situation in Mexico. “Mexico has what we had some years ago, which are very powerful cartels,” Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos stated. “What we can provide is the experience that we have had dismantling those cartels.”

Those arguments seemed plausible, although critics noted that while the drug-related violence in Colombia had subsided since the demise of the Cali and Medellin organizations, the amount of cocaine coming out of the country seemed nearly as plentiful as ever. A November 18 segment on the CBS news program 60 Minutes went far beyond validating those doubts, however. It confirmed that Colombia’s great drug war victory was largely an illusion.

CBS correspondent Lara Logan described a “three year investigation that took down the most powerful drug trafficking organization in law enforcement history.” The nature of that adversary was daunting. “Bigger than both the Cali and Medellin cartels combined, more powerful than the infamous Pablo Escobar—this was a Colombian cocaine empire with a reach so vast, and profits so great, it became known as the ‘super cartel.’”

It’s important to note that this “super cartel” was operating a decade-and-a-half after the defeat of the Cali and Medellin operations. So much for the enduring success of the Colombian model for defeating drug cartels.

Agents from the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency (ICE) were deeply involved with Colombian authorities in the multi-year effort to bust the super cartel. And the story made for exciting, visually impressive television. But the long-term impact will not be terribly significant. ICE agent Luis Sierra admitted as much. Lara Logan asked him an especially pertinent question: “If you look at the big picture, there’s (sic) still tons and tons of cocaine flooding into the United States. So what difference does this make?” Sierra’s reply underscored the futility of the strategy that focuses on defeating the leading drug cartel of the moment—and for that matter, the inherent economic futility of the entire drug prohibition strategy. “I’d say that we took off the most prolific organization in terms of bulk cash smuggling and drug trafficking. Of course there’s (sic) people ready to step in and take their place.”

Indeed, there are an abundance of upstart traffickers in Colombia, Mexico, and elsewhere that are ready, willing, and able to replace any cartel that is brought down. A global illegal drug trade estimated at more than $300 billion a year—with profit margins of up to 90 percent of the retail price—will attract more than enough eager suppliers. Colombia’s victory over the Cali and Medellin cartels is not a model for anything enduring. The subsequent rise of the even larger super cartel demonstrates that reality.

The drug war may be a lucrative jobs program for ICE, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, and their counterparts in other nations, but it achieves little else.

Ted Galen Carpenter, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and a contributing editor to The National Interest, is the author of nine books and more than 500 articles and studies on international affairs. His books include Bad Neighbor Policy: Washington’s Futile War on Drugs in Latin America and The Fire Next Door: Mexico’s Drug Violence and the Danger to America.