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Narco-States Grope for New Strategy*

Coca bushes in the Los Yungas region of Bolivia. Credit: Diana Cariboni/IPS

Coca bushes in the Los Yungas region of Bolivia. Credit: Diana Cariboni/IPS

MEXICO CITY, Nov 5 2012 (IPS) - Mexico, Colombia and Guatemala face the need to modify their approach to the fight against drug trafficking and are urging the world to do the same. But Mexico and Colombia’s willingness to make the necessary changes is unclear.

The three countries are connected by a powerful circuit of trafficking of drugs – whose main market is the United States – weapons and money from illegal activities. But the extent of the problem and the way drug organisations operate in each one of these countries vary.

Mexico is urgently in need of a new strategy. The militarisation of the drug war since President Felipe Calderón took office in late 2006 has resulted in more than 90,000 people killed, some 10,000 missing and at least 250,000 forced to flee their homes, according to human rights groups and press reports.

And the power of the drug cartels, over society, the government and the economy, has remained intact.

Colombia, for decades the world’s number one producer of cocaine, should look at how the mafia works in Italy to understand its own drug cartels, while Mexico should look at Colombia, said one of the most knowledgeable analysts of the drug trade in Colombia, sociologist Ricardo Vargas, a researcher associated with the Amsterdam-based Transnational Institute.

His summary of the situation puts one in mind of the descriptions by Italian journalist Roberto Saviano in his book “Gomorra” of how organised crime works in Naples, where few economic activities are really what they appear to be, and most leave no tracks.

The situation in Colombia “can be likened to the case of Italy, in terms of the effort to reduce violence and create much more sophisticated mechanisms of managing illegal activities, relations with the world of politics, and taking advantage of the economic growth experienced by some countries in Latin America,” Vargas told IPS.

Drug traffickers “are also investors, and launderers of huge amounts of dollars. For that reason they don’t need a lot of violence; they need a more organised and subtle, a more business-oriented, structure,” just like the mafia has in Italy today, he said.

The analyst said he saw Colombia as “moving in that direction,” while “Mexico is still in a phase of outright violence.”

Guatemala, meanwhile, a small Central American country that has become a storehouse and transit point for drugs, has one of the world’s highest homicide rates. But its president, right-wing Otto Pérez Molina, has publicly suggested that drugs be decriminalised as part of a regional agreement that would include the United States.

In a joint statement to United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in October, the presidents of the three countries urged U.N. nations “to undertake very soon a consultation process to take stock of the strengths and limitations of the current policy, and of the violence generated by the production, trafficking and consumption of drugs in the world.”

Colombian analyst Luis Garay says that what is needed is close cooperation in intelligence, and oversight of financial flows.

“Intelligence has to operate transnationally, the way criminal organisations do,” Garay told IPS. “It must be highly interactive and must operate in real time. Regional cooperation is not the best, but it is the second-best option, because any cooperation must include the United States.”

Garay is the academic director of Scientific Vortex, a non-profit research group that describes itself as providing “methodologies and inputs for policy-making, under integrative science principles.”

He studied case files from Mexico, Colombia and Guatemala and social interactions between drug traffickers, paramilitaries, businesspersons, legislators and government officials in legitimate and clandestine activities, with which organised crime has effectively co-opted the state, he said.

The result of that work is the book “”Narcotráfico, corrupción y Estados. Cómo las redes ilícitas han reconfigurado las instituciones en Colombia, Guatemala y México” (Drug trafficking, corruption and states; how illicit networks have reconfigured the institutions in Colombia, Guatemala and Mexico”), co-authored by Scientific Vortex director Eduardo Salcedo-Albarán and released in Mexico City in late October.

The book suggests using financial intelligence information, creating a trilateral investigation agency, reaching agreements for technical and logistical cooperation between Mexico and Colombia, and signing agreements for investigations between institutions in the three countries.

Luis Astorga, a professor at the political science faculty of the National Autonomous University of Mexico, says “a fundamental element is being ignored: the United States, which must be taken into account in the internal, bilateral and international debate,” he told IPS.

In Mexico, president-elect Enrique Peña of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, who takes office Dec. 1, announced a shift in the country’s anti-drug strategy, to expand beyond the hunt for drug traffickers. He proposed creating an elite body to fight the cartels, and promised to cut the number of murders in half in his first year in office.

But he has not announced detailed measures. And his track record does not shed much light on the question. In his 2005-2011 term as governor of the state of Mexico – which surrounds the Federal District of Mexico City – he replaced the state’s chief prosecutor three times, and the murder rate climbed from nine per 100,000 population in 2007 to 14 per 100,000 in 2010, according to official figures.

Vargas believes that in Mexico, the violence “will tend towards reaching a point of equilibrium, and will improve, although not with an end to the drug trade but through a process of stabilisation in which Mexican drug traffickers will consolidate structures along the lines of what exists in Colombia.”

This will be seen as “a great political achievement by Mexico. But it will not mean the disappearance, but the consolidation through other channels, of these criminal organisations,” Vargas said.

That is the big issue ignored in the October declaration by the presidents of Colombia, Guatemala and Mexico calling for changes in the global fight against drugs. “No country has fully acknowledged that the problem lies in the presence of solid organised crime structures, which also have a strong capacity to influence states,” Vargas said.

“That dimension of the problem has not been put on the table, although it must be the cornerstone of any real change in strategy,” he said.

Mexico’s criminal organisations are involved in nearly two dozen different kinds of illegal economic activities, from drug and people trafficking to kidnapping, extortion, contraband and counterfeit goods, which gives them the ability to quickly mutate.

Nevertheless, Vargas believes that Mexico and Colombia should lead a process of influencing multilateral institutions where Latin America has an important presence, to spearhead reforms in international conventions on drugs.

Mexico’s president-elect announced that he chose General Óscar Naranjo, a former Colombian police chief, as his future security adviser.

According to Vargas, Naranjo “advocates differentiated treatment of marijuana and other substances. If his actions are consistent with what he has proposed up to now, Mexico and Colombia could drive a process of experimentation with the decriminalisation of marijuana use.”

That would be an “extremely interesting approach,” because there is no evidence available yet of the effects that this would have in the region, said the analyst.

He also mentioned the case of Uruguay, where the government presented a bill that would essentially create the world’s first government-run marijuana market. But he said that the South American country’s experience was “a bit isolated from the Latin American context.”

* With reporting by Constanza Vieira in Bogotá.

 
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