Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stated Wednesday that Mexico and Central America were facing an “insurgency” that requires the equivalent of a Plan Colombia in the region. Her comments immediately raised the ire of the Mexican government and sparked fears of expanded U.S. military intervention.

“…we face an increasing threat from a well-organized network drug trafficking threat that is, in some cases, morphing into or making common cause with what we would consider an insurgency in Mexico and in Central America,” Clinton said. She added that “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.”

Ironically, Clinton was responding to a question on what the United States was doing regarding its “responsibility for drugs coming north and guns going south.” Instead of answering the question, Clinton compared Mexico to Colombia and made the boldest statement to date about U.S. intervention, including military support, in Mexico’s drug war.

“[I]t’s looking more and more like Colombia looked 20 years ago,” Clinton said. And Colombia – it got to the point where more than a third of the country, nearly 40 percent of the country at one time or another was controlled by the insurgents, by FARC. But it’s going to take a combination of improved institutional capacity and better law enforcement and, where appropriate, military support for that law enforcement married to political will to be able to prevent this from spreading and to try to beat it back..” Clinton maintained that Plan Colombia worked and added “we need to figure out what are the equivalents for Central America, Mexico, and the Caribbean.”

Mexican Response

It took no time at all for members of Mexico’s Congress to respond with indignation. In session to analyze President Felipe Calderón’s fourth state of the union report, one representative noted that the U.S. government was “good at criticizing other countries and not recognizing that they are an important part of this dark chain of drug trafficking and organized crime. The Mexican people should reject any interventionist attitude on the part of the U.S. government.” Some members of the Mexican Congress demanded that the secretary of foreign relations send a formal note of protest to the Obama administration.

Secretary Patricia Espinosa stated that she did not “share the judgment” of her northern counterpart and cabinet spokesperson Alejandro Poire rejected the comparison with Colombia.

In Washington, Obama officials rushed in to do damage control. Assistant-Secretary of State Arturo Valenzuela corrected his boss, saying that the use of “the term insurgency should not be viewed in the same way we would refer to a Colombian insurgency. Not an insurgency of a militarized group within a society that is attempting to take over the state for political reasons.” Later President Obama discarded the comparison in remarks to La Opinion.

The comment set off a small whirlwind within the Obama cabinet and in U.S.-Mexico diplomatic relations.

The Colombian Comparison

The only thing surprising about Clinton’s concept is that she said it out loud. The Merida Initiative was initially floated as “Plan Mexico,” until the moniker was scrapped. The direct comparison with Plan Colombia was considered a liability. In Mexico, the thought of U.S. military presence riles nationalist sentiment. In the United States, meanwhile, the negligent impact on drug trafficking and the rise in human rights violations of the $7.3 billion Plan Colombia spark concerns about copying it on the border.

By whatever name, the Bush plan for Mexico and Central America has always borne a close relationship to its southern predecessor. Plan Colombia began as a counter-narcotics plan built along the drug war model of enforcement and interdiction and use of the army, with close U.S. participation. Plan Mexico does not include U.S. Army presence but relies on the same model.

Clinton’s willful conflation of insurgency and drug trafficking arises from one of two possible sources—ignorance or malicious misinformation. An insurgency seeks to take over territory to bring about a profound change in the structure of society and, usually, take over the government. Drug traffickers, despite Calderón’s statements to the contrary, do not launch offensives against the state to replace the government. They’re all about protecting and expanding their very lucrative business. In part, the seemingly purposeful misunderstanding of this distinction is at the root of the failed drug war policy.

If this were understood, the obvious strategy should be to attack the business–not its operatives. Hiring cartel replacements is extremely easy in Mexico. The cartels are flexible in structure, with new leaders or rival gangs replacing displaced or weakened ones. There is an inexhaustible pool of young men with few prospects in life in a country where the government has failed to provide adequate educational or employment opportunities.

Attacking the business means going after the transnational financial structures that support it. Both governments have seemed reluctant to do that forcefully since drug money flows through powerful mainstream financial institutions, adds liquidity, and funds outwardly legitimate businesses.

Backwards Policymaking

Shortly before Clinton’s remarks, the U.S. Congress appropriated an additional $175 million for the Mexican drug war with no comprehensive review or strategy analysis of the terrible results the model has had to date. Drug-related violence has exploded south of the border, with nearly 30,000 dead since the launch of the drug war in late 2006. Human rights violations charged against the army had gone up sixfold by last year, and just in the past months Army forces have shot and killed several civilians.

Elected representatives should appropriate our tax dollars based on a careful analysis of how the resources will effectively attain goals related to the public good. When it comes to defense appropriations in general, and Plan Mexico as an extreme example, the modus operandi is spend now, and deal with the disastrous results later—by spending more. A recent report from the General Accounting Office reported that the Merida Initiative does not even contain benchmarks by which to evaluate it.

The supplemental appropriation to Mexico states that the provisions under the heading “International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement” require a report from the State Department showing compliance with the requirements of Section 7045(e). These “human rights conditions,” which some legislators and Washington groups pushed reflected serious concerns that funds would be flowing to notoriously corrupt and abusive security forces in Mexico.

In practice, however, Congress watered down the conditions so that they provided a smokescreen to hide deeper concerns about the strategy. Congress ignored criticisms of the Merida Initiative from the AFL-CIO and scores of faith-based organizations and approved five separate appropriations totaling nearly $1.5 billion dollars. The initiative, morphed from a three-year commitment to permanent engagement.

On September. 5, Sec of State Clinton announced that the US government was withholding 15% of the new supplemental based on the human rights conditions. The Mexican government complained loudly and publicly but quietly celebrated. The math is pretty straightforward—we’ll give you $175 million in extra funds but hold back $26 million, for a net gain of $149 million. Both governments made sanctimonious statements. The United States criticized Mexico while ignoring the fact that transnational crime couldn’t function without corruption within its own borders. The Calderón administration protested its neighbor’s fuss over human rights when it has a war to fight. Even the mainstream press noted the contradictions of the numbers game.

By now it would seem that the conditioning strategy for a kinder and gentler drug war would be thoroughly discredited. The most generous interpretation is that it was a strategy on the part of groups and Congressional members that misread the situation in Mexico and the nature of the new Pentagon-led binational relationship that was being forged through the Plan. Immediate rectification should be in order. Instead, the Obama administration plans to request even more public funds for the failed policy while paying lip service to human rights.

Mounting Doubts

The latest controversy over drug-trafficking policy in Mexico comes in the midst of doubts on both sides of the border. Mexican senators of political parties except Calderón’s sharply criticized the “failure” of the president’s war drug war in a review of the administration’s annual report. The Revolutionary Institutional Party noted that the yearly report submitted by President Calderon showed fewer interdictions and no notable rise in arrests from historic levels, with only 1.5 million pesos allotted to prevention of addiction. A member of the Party of the Democratic Revolution decried the equation of “more resources, more deaths,” as the drug war has cost the depleted Mexican budget nearly $7 billion dollars to date.

In the United States, doubts have also grown over the effectiveness of the strategy. Deputy director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Alonzo R. Peña complained that the Mexican government often does not act on U.S. intelligence. Peña noted that at times the reason could be caution but at others “it is completely corruption.” In Washington, the rise in negative consequences have led to concerns over the lack of an exit strategy or a clearly defined path to success.

Particularly with the severe deterioration in the situation in Mexico, no magic formulas present themselves. Nonetheless, Congress should not ignore the violence that has been unleashed under the current policy and cannot accept the murders as collateral damage. Experts in Mexico calculate that at this rate drug-related deaths will reach over 70,000 by the end of Calderón’s presidency, with a rate of some 50 deaths a day throughout the country.

The United States must start by recognizing shared responsibility for the growth of organized crime in Mexico. The United States also faces major challenges within its own borders and shares responsibility for supporting a drug war strategy that has so evidently increased the brutality of drug cartels. There is a dearth of information on the anti-corruption activities in the United States that have failed to prevent, and indeed have facilitated, the transfer of illegal substances across the border for distribution to cities coast to coast. Addiction treatment and drug abuse prevention programs are woefully under-funded. Measures like California’s marijuana regulation referendum could eliminate a huge chunk of cartel income by removing the drug from the black market.

Clinton’s comments reveal the strong currents within government that seek to deepen U.S. involvement in the Mexican drug war. It is never easy to admit a policy failure of this magnitude, or turn back plans like Plan Mexico that involve the powerful lobbies of defense contractors and private security companies. But President Obama has shown the courage to admit errors in the past and seek to rectify them. Both the administration and Congress must show that kind of courage now to profoundly re-orient the out-of-control drug war on the border.

Laura Carlsen is director of the CIP Americas Program at

This article originally appeared in Laura Carlsen’s column for Foreign Policy in Focus.


  • Kara
    Posted September 11, 2010 6:41 am 0Likes

    It is striking that they have no shame to use this comparison. Does it reflect fear on their part that grass-roots is having and impact or strong confidence in the ability to dupe Americans?
    See this video denouncing both Plan Colombia and Plan Mexico two years ago:

  • Jon
    Posted September 14, 2010 9:29 am 0Likes

    Thanks for the consistent research and commentary. Would be good to know more.

  • El Cid
    Posted September 14, 2010 12:05 pm 0Likes

    I’ve consistently seen the situation in Mexico much more akin to a non-state supported narco-paramilitary as in Colombia, and it’s interesting that Colombian NGO’s are finally pointing out that narco-trafficking in Colombia is vastly controlled by the former US-supported and Uribe-expanded right wing death squad paramilitaries.

    Who else would you expect to take over most of the nation’s drug trades.

    Given that an increasing amount of drugs flowing into Mexico arrive via Venezuela, where Colombian paramilitaries can cross over no matter how many border police Venezuela sends, and by sea (including home-made submarines) to Mexico’s Southwestern coast (i.e., Acapulco ports), it would be no surprise that Mexican narco-gangs would learn from the experts in heavily armed, area-controlling Colombian narco-paramilitaries (demobilized or not).

  • Michael Conroy
    Posted September 15, 2010 11:36 am 0Likes

    Friends… As a progressive North American who lives half the year in southern Mexico, and who lived in Colombia during the worst of the narco-violence there, I find myself encouraged by Ms. Clinton’s comments. Mexicans everywhere are asking what can possibly be done to end the scourge of narco-violence!

    The total corruption of all forces other than the army, leaves a military solution as the only one to which Mexicans can turn, despite the human rights implications. And even the army is often out-gunned and overpowered by the narco-mafia.

    Yes, the US must turn to the “third-rail” issue of weapons flows to the narco-mafia. Yes, there will be pointless commentary from Mexican politicians, But no one has proposed a set of solutions that will reduce the violence as it spreads from the Northern border toward central and southern Mexico… as it has permeated most of Central America.

    It should be incumbent upon those who criticize Ms. Clinton’s comments to offer a viable alternative. MEC

  • Dr. Robert J. Bunker
    Posted September 16, 2010 12:33 pm 0Likes

    I’m going to have to take issue with this paragraph:

    “Clinton’s willful conflation of insurgency and drug trafficking arises from one of two possible sources—ignorance or malicious misinformation. An insurgency seeks to take over territory to bring about a profound change in the structure of society and, usually, take over the government. Drug traffickers, despite Calderón’s statements to the contrary, do not launch offensives against the state to replace the government. They’re all about protecting and expanding their very lucrative business. In part, the seemingly purposeful misunderstanding of this distinction is at the root of the failed drug war policy.”

    As a non-state threats scholar and someone who has written extensively on epochal warfare and post-modern insurgency I think the author is missing the point. Drug traffickers which
    are evolving into 3rd phase cartels and gangs which are evolving into 3rd generational forms do indeed launch offensives against the state to replace the government. That is the threat we are facing in Mexico– the rise of criminal para-states. Clinton does not engage in off the cuff statements– she is smart, articulate, and chooses her words very carefully– think of it as a “trial balloon” response to the question asked. Warfare is shifting from Westphalian (state-on-state) to wars over social and political organization– non-state entities challenging the modern state form. So ignorance or maliciousness have nothing to do with Clinton’s statement.

    For background info see some of my edited works– Narcos Over the Border and Criminal-States and Criminal-Soldiers. I can provide more references as an extensive body
    of literature exists concerning this topical area.

  • Laura Carlsen
    Posted September 20, 2010 11:59 am 0Likes

    Michael, Thanks for writing. There are a number of alternatives listed in the article. They are not fully elaborated, in part due to limitations of space and in part because this must be a collective effort on both sides of the border, once our leaders are forced to recognize the bloody folly of the current approach and seriously consider alternatives.

    I mention that the United States has done very little to confront the corruption within its own borders that “facilitate the transfer of illegal substances across the border for distribution to cities coast to coast. Addiction treatment and drug abuse prevention programs are woefully under-funded. Measures like California’s marijuana regulation referendum could eliminate a huge chunk of cartel income by removing the drug from the black market.” I also mention the need to get serious about going after financial structures and money-laundering. All these actions–within the United States–would be far more helpful and far less incendiary than the current military approach aimed at Mexico.

    The main point is that arming both sides in Mexico’s war with military/police equipment and training does exactly what one might expect–increases violence. It is not “helping” Mexico in the least. The poignant editorial from El Diario in Cd. Juarez states very clearly that Calderon’s drug war has caused the explosion in violence and citizens are demanding new policy.

    Washington is dead-wrong to blindly support Calderon when the terrible results of his ill-advised drug war have led groups in the US and Mexico to demand at least a thorough review of the policy because it is not working and human rights and civilian murder can never be considered “collateral damage”.

  • Joel Naatus
    Posted September 22, 2010 4:41 pm 0Likes

    Dear Laura Carlsen,
    Excellent article and yes the U.S. of A is part of what fuels the current bellicose conflict in Mexico. I would think your assessment regarding funding treating addicts to alleviate the problems is an over simplified view of the criminal networks. The criminal enterprise of the cartels involves not only drug trafficking, but also human trafficking and a litany of other illicit money making schemes. What I feel your article maybe glossed over is what the Mexican people outside the ruling class feel about the violence, terrorism (yes even the Calderon government doesn’t want to admit it), and how the people throughout Mexico might feel about their government. This is what I would call the nitty gritty of journalism and reporting what Mexicans on the street really feel about their situation.
    The editorial from Juarez poignantly expressed how the paper feels (the nitty gritty) and how many Mexicans may feel that are in harms way:
    “Como si los atropellos, atentados y demás intimidaciones en contra de los medios de comunicación no fueran suficientes, ayer la secretaria de Educación y Cultura del Gobierno estatal, Guadalupe Chacón Monárrez, vino a ponerle más sal a la herida al declarar que somos los culpables del terrorismo psicológico que se vive en la ciudad”
    The editor of the paper clearly feels the government thinks the press is guilty of psychological terrorism. Thanks for the link to the editorial, it was eye opening.
    Disclaimer: by no means am I a journalist, expert on any aspect of practically anything, and or going to gain or lose anything by expressing my opinion.
    Background: I have drove through Mexico to Central and South America a few times and most recently in July of this year. Reading the local papers and some police stops later made rethink driving through Mexico in the near future.

  • Laura Carlsen
    Posted October 5, 2010 12:10 am 0Likes

    Many places are quite safe, but there is a lot of police and army presence as militarization continues. I agree that the El Diario editorial was extraordinary. You might be interested in this article I wrote on it on our blog.
    There has been a notable change in what the people think about the drug war, with the tide turning against it because of the violence and lack of results. Thanks for writing. Laura

  • Laura Carlsen
    Posted October 5, 2010 12:20 am 0Likes

    Dear Dr. Bunker, Thanks for the comment and references would be most welcome. I certainly agree with you that this was a trial balloon, as seen by the subsequent use of the term insurgency in Washington, within the administration and notably by Richard Lugar. Where we differ is on the point of whether DTOs and gangs are trying to take over the government. I am unconvinced that that is the case and believe that equating the two is a prelude to greater militarization under the guise of national security. It is imperative to have a clear understanding of the particular (and distinct) characteristics of insurgencies and criminal activity in order to define effective policies in response. One thing that is very clear in Mexico is that the drug war is not an effective policy and taking it up a level to a counter-insurgency war will only make it worse.

  • El Cid
    Posted October 28, 2010 10:38 am 0Likes

    There is no need for a heavily armed, thriving paramilitary force to take over the functions of the state, when it can exist profitably on its own without legal restriction (and of course without the burdens of actually having to govern) — and when they can purchase or threaten their way to what they want from local or national governments.

    Colombia’s narco-paramilitaries aren’t interested in direct state power: they just helped Uribe’s coalition get elected by violently intervening in the countryside to make sure the coalition’s candidates got elected. (Several Senate elections were thrown out for this very reason.)

    I see no reason why it would be in the Mexican narco-paramilitary cartels to interest themselves directly in the capture of state power; they seem to be doing pretty well in combating legal state forces and in buying off officials at all levels of power in government, police, and the military.

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