U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently compared Mexico’s drug violence to that experienced in Colombia twenty years ago and claimed that drug trafficking networks were “morphing into or making common cause with what we would consider an insurgency in Mexico and in Central America.” President Barack Obama and Mexican government officials were quick to correct her, claiming that the contemporary Mexican reality does not reflect that of Colombia in the late 1980s. What they failed to correct, however, was her misinterpretation, or conscious revision, of Colombia’s history in order to justify an increased U.S. military role in Mexico and Central America.
In reference to Mexico, Clinton claimed that “drug cartels are now showing more and more indices of insurgency; all of a sudden, car bombs show up which weren’t there before.” She went on to argue that, as a result, Mexico is “looking more and more like Colombia looked 20 years ago, where the narco-traffickers control certain parts of the country, not significant parts. 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.”
Clinton is correct in linking drug cartels to the car bombings that frequently occurred in Colombia two decades ago. In fact, between 1989 and 1993, some forty car bombs killed more than five hundred people. But Colombia’s largest insurgent group, the FARC, had little to do with these acts of violence. Drug baron Pablo Escobar and his Medellín cocaine cartel planted car bombs in urban centers to intimidate the government into ending its practice of extraditing Colombian drug lords to the United States.
Furthermore, the FARC were not involved in drug trafficking at the time—and it is debatable whether or not they are to any significant degree today. In fact, the FARC and Colombia’s drug cartels were arch enemies by the end of the 1980s. And, contrary to Clinton’s claims, it was the FARC that controlled “certain parts of the country,” not the narco-traffickers, who were primarily urban based. Clearly, Clinton’s comments sought to create the impression that Colombia’s drug cartels and the FARC were one and the same 20 years ago, thereby conflating the violence of the drug cartels with that of the insurgency when, in reality, the forms of violence and the objectives of the two groups were radically different, even diametrically opposed.
Former U.S. ambassador to Colombia, Thomas E. McNamara, in an op-ed piece published by the Los Angeles Times, defended Clinton’s claims. Comparing Colombia’s Medellín cartel 20 years ago with Mexico’s drug trafficking organizations today, McNamara wrote, “In both countries cartels demanded that they, not the government, determine the rules, settle disputes and control police power. This is clearly insurgency: usurpation of sovereign power, control of territory and the use of force to maintain control.” He goes on to state, “This is quite different from organized crime by American drug mafias. Our mafias do not attempt to usurp sovereign power.”
But McNamara’s labeling of both Colombia’s and Mexico’s cartels as insurgencies is inaccurate even according to the U.S. Department of Defense, which claims that an insurgency is an “organized movement aimed at the overthrow of a constituted government through the use of subversion and armed conflict.” Neither the Medellín cartel or Mexico’s contemporary cartels have attempted to overthrow their respective governments. The Medellín cartel used violence to influence government policy (i.e. end extradition), not to seize power. In fact, contrary to McNamara’s claims, the Colombian and Mexican cartels function very much like organized crime in the United States in that they use violence and bribe law enforcement officials and judges solely as a means to defend their criminal activities.
Why would Clinton and McNamara revise Colombian history by conflating the violent actions of the country’s traditional drug cartels and the FARC? The obvious answer is that presenting criminal organizations as a regional political threat (i.e. insurgencies) makes it easier to justify an expanded U.S. military role in Mexico and Central America.
Clinton noted that Mexico needs “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.” She then stated, “They’re wanting to do as much of it on their own as possible, but we stand ready to help them. But the small countries in Central America do not have that capacity.” The secretary of state then claimed that the militaristic Plan Colombia—more than 70 percent of the $7 billion in U.S. funding has been military aid—had worked in that South American country and suggested that “we need to figure out what are the equivalents for Central America, Mexico, and the Caribbean.”
Similarly, McNamara declared Plan Colombia a success, claiming, “Cartel insurgencies no longer plague Colombia; only a reduced guerrilla insurgency continues. New drug mafias still operate, but Colombian trafficking has been greatly reduced.” In actuality, the amount of cocaine being produced and exported by Colombian drug traffickers has not significantly diminished under Plan Colombia. In fact, U.S. drug war “successes” in Colombia simply shifted much of the violence from Colombia’s cities to Mexico as Colombia’s traffickers distributed their cocaine to Mexico’s cartels instead of directly to the United States. And, according to McNamara, the U.S. response to the new Mexican cartels should be, as it was in Colombia, to “suppress insurgency by all legitimate means.”
Clinton’s and McNamara’s comments come at a time when several left-leaning governments have come to power in Central America, following a trend that began in South America. In recent years, the FMLN won the presidency in El Salvador and the Sandinistas returned to power in Nicaragua. The election of Manual Zelaya to the presidency in Honduras also constituted a shift to the left in that country, but the Obama administration’s failure to demand his reinstatement after the Honduran leader’s ouster by a military coup ensured a return to the right.
In light of the regional shift to the left in both Central and South America, Clinton’s suggestion that the United States needs to intensify its militaristic approach to drug trafficking in the region reflects Washington’s response to the growing threat posed by Colombia’s leftist insurgency a decade ago. U.S. military intervention under Plan Colombia was as much about combating a leftist insurgency as it was about combating drugs. Clinton’s revision of Colombia’s drug history in order to link drug trafficking networks to alleged insurgencies in Mexico and Central America is most likely an opening salvo for justifying an increased U.S. military presence in a region that is not under threat from insurgencies but rather, from Washington’s perspective, left-leaning governments and social movements.