Colombia Offers Clues for Solution to Mexico Drug War

Article excerpt

The Mexico drug war is pushing officials to take heed of Colombia, which made progress with social welfare programs and acknowledgment that force alone doesn't work.

Medellin, once nearly synonymous with cocaine trafficking, used to be the epicenter of Colombia's decades-long drug war - and one of the most dangerous places in the world.

But with increased military pressure on drug traffickers, urban planning heavily focused on social welfare, and an acknowledgment from Colombia and its major aid donor, the United States, that force alone does not work, Colombian cities such as Medellin have turned around dramatically.

Now the drug violence that made Colombia so notorious has migrated to Mexico, where the army's July 29 killing of drug lord Ignacio "Nacho" Coronel was emblematic of escalating violence. Mexico is aiming to emulate Colombia's success by placing more emphasis on the "softer approach" to eradicating organized crime. It's a strategy that focuses not solely on sending in troops or disbanding cartels, but on arming communities with job opportunities and better education. But Mexico faces several challenges.

"In my view, if [the Mexican government] wants to succeed, it needs to have not just effective law enforcement but compete with cartels on the softer side," says Vanda Felbab-Brown, a fellow at the Washington-based Brookings Institution who studies drug-fueled conflict. "But between a good strategy and effective implementation, there is a universe."

Jobs for ex-cons

In the past decade in urban areas in Colombia, local officials, with support from the federal government, have tested a series of social-welfare programs, such as new infrastructure, increased spending on education, and reintegration programs for former guerrillas and paramilitaries who have disarmed.

With crime up in some areas, one of the newest programs comes from Colombia's National Police, which began a pilot project in February to prevent underprivileged youths from joining urban gangs and drug cartels. So far, the program has recruited 3,000 young men from various cities with few prospects. They are hired as civic agents such as park keepers while simultaneously receiving vocational training. "We have to put potential delinquents to work," says Col. Jose Vicente Segura, chief of recruiting for the police.

And in the rural areas, where the US-funded $6 billion Plan Colombia had long centered on forced drug eradication, the "Integrated Action" strategy was unveiled in 2007, which brings government forces to secure areas plagued with guerrillas and coca growing, followed by forced manual eradication teams and immediate attention to social development, including promises of land titles, alternative development projects, roads, and a boosted presence of police and judicial officials.

While the overall US aid package for Colombia has declined, economic and social aid has more than doubled from $115 million in 2002 to $236 million in the 2011 budget request. Military and police aid, which peaked in 2007 at $478 million, will drop to $228 million in 2011. …