60-Second Expert: Plan Colombia in Mexico?

In response to a recent question about the American government’s actions (or lack thereof) regarding drug-related violence in Mexico, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton offered the administration’s boldest statement yet on the question of military intervention. Mexico, she said, “is looking more and more like Colombia looked 20 years ago.” Likening Mexican drug violence to a FARC-like “insurgency,” she declared that, “[I]t’s going to take a combination of improved institutional capacity and better law enforcement and, where appropriate, military support for that law enforcement…to prevent this from spreading and 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.”

Clinton’s allusion to the controversial Plan Colombia, a U.S.-funded anti-narcotics initiative most distinguished for its contributions to human rights violations and its negligible impact on illegal drug trafficking, sparked a minor uproar in Mexico and sent administration officials all the way up to President Obama scurrying to clarify or disavow Clinton’s comment.

But the only surprising thing about Clinton’s comparison may be that she uttered it out loud. The Merida Initiative, the Bush administration’s plan for Mexico and Central America that remains the U.S. government’s primary framework for the region, bears many similarities to its Colombian predecessor and was indeed originally called “Plan Mexico.” Despite amply documented human rights concerns, Congress and the administration have continued to fund Plan Mexico, paying only lip service to human rights.

With Mexican politicians lambasting President Calderón’s apparently hapless drug war, and with drug-related deaths estimated to reach over 70,000 by the end of his presidency, a review of the effectiveness and implications for uncritical U.S. support is in order. This must invariably entail acknowledgment of U.S. responsibility for the ballooning problem of organized crime in Mexico. U.S. anti-corruption initiatives have failed to prevent the transfer of illicit substances across the border, while a lackluster commitment to drug abuse prevention programs and prohibitionist drug laws continue tomake the black-market trafficking industry extremely lucrative.

Clinton’s comments reveal the strong currents within the government that seek to deepen U.S. involvement in the Mexican drug war. President Obama and Congress should summon the political courage to recognize the counterproductive results of current U.S. policy and rethink U.S. policy to effectively deal with Mexico’s out-of-control drug violence.

Foreign Policy In Focus columnist Laura Carlsen is director of the Americas Program for the Center for International Policy in Mexico City.