Comments made by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton comparing Mexico's drug war to a Colombia-style "insurgency" touched off a flurry of debate over the parallels between the two conflicts. Seeking out the facts, L.A. Times foreign correspondents conclude that the secretary's comments were like comparing "apples and oranges."
Here's the full story from Sunday's paper. At issue is whether the U.S. will seek to model the Merida Initiative aid package to Mexico on Plan Colombia, the deal that has supplied Colombia with more than $7 billion in aid to combat rebels and drug traffickers.
In their reporting, correspondent Ken Ellingwood, Mexico City bureau chief Tracy Wilkinson and special correspondent Chris Kraul in Colombia break down the two conflicts into basic areas. Here's the La Plaza summary:
The nature of the foe: Colombia's decades-long conflict with the FARC rebel group and with powerful drug cartels is motivated, at least on the rebel side, by a Marxist ideology aimed at overthrowing the state. In Mexico, the drug war is motivated by the cartels' basic goal of moving narcotics into the U.S. without government interference, and collecting profits.
Territory: At the peak of its power, the FARC controlled a "Switzerland-size chunk" of Colombia's territory, with identifiable borders, plus other land. In contrast, Mexican drug gangs' sway over certain regions of Mexico remains fluid, and there is "no zone the Mexican army cannot reach when it wants."
Targets and tactics: Terrorist-style attacks have occurred in Mexico's drug war (a remote-controlled car bomb in Ciudad Juarez, a grenade attack on civilians in Michoacan) but they have not occurred with the frequency and scope as such tactics in Colombia. The Mexico drug war is mostly a conflict between feuding cartel groups.
State weakness: This is where the line is fuzziest. Colombia had a weakened army when the FARC began attacking the state, but a relatively strong civil society that eventually rose up and demanded solutions. Mexico sent 50,000 troops head-on to combat its drug gangs, but it has so far fallen short in pursuing desperately needed reforms in the justice system, for example, and in money laundering.
What's the proper prescription for Mexico then? One unnamed U.S. official in Mexico told The Times: "Institution building, institution building, institution building."
The U.S. recently signaled it would drastically boost funds to Mexico but held back a fraction of a previously pledged amount over doubts on progress over human rights allegations. Human rights abuses remain the darkest mark on Colombia's advances over the FARC and traffickers, as reported recently by the left-leaning Washington Office on Latin America, in an extensive analysis on Plan Colombia titled "Colombia: Don't Call it a Model."
On the 10th anniversary of Plan Colombia's start, Kraul reports in The Times that the country is more secure and that the military has made advances over the FARC. Still, coca eradication efforts have not been as successful as hoped, and have pushed some cocaine production over to neighboring Peru. Kraul notes that the Colombian military is believed responsible for 3,000 extrajudicial killings between 2002 and 2009.
On Thursday in New York City, U.S. President Barack Obama congratulated Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos over the confirmed death of a major FARC leader in a military operation on Wednesday.
Meanwhile, in Mexico, a mayor in a town in the Monterrey metropolitan area was assassinated late last week, the fourth mayor killed by suspected drug hitmen in the last six weeks, Wilkinson reports. A mayor-elect in Chihuahua state was also shot on Friday and was in critical condition.
In another troubling and slightly Colombia-esque development here last week, a lawmaker-elect with suspected ties to the La Familia drug organization was sworn into office after evading police. The newly sworn-in federal deputy, Julio Cesar Godoy of Michoacan, now has immunity from prosecution.
-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City
Photo: The body of Prisciliano Rodriguez Salinas, mayor of the town of Doctor Gonzalez, northeast of Monterrey, Mexico, lays near his truck after gunmen assassinated him on Sept. 23, 2010. Credit: Reuters