Obama, Clinton appear split over comparisons of Mexican, Colombian drug problems

By Anne E. Kornblut and Scott Wilson
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, September 9, 2010; 9:14 PM

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton sees similarities between the drug violence now afflicting Mexico and Colombia's narco-war of the 1980s. President Obama, not so much.

"You can't compare what is happening in Mexico with what happened in Colombia," Obama told a Spanish-language newspaper in remarks published on its Web site on Thursday.

Obama's remarks in La Opinion appeared at odds with Clinton's comments a day earlier that the situation in Mexico is "looking more and more like Colombia looked 20 years ago," with drug traffickers controlling "parts of the country."

"In 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 said, referring to the Colombian revolutionary group.

The two sets of comments seemed to reflect a rare disagreement between Obama and Clinton, former political rivals who have gone to great lengths to emphasize their unity and growing friendship over the past year and a half.

But the administration denied that there was any daylight between the president and his secretary of state.

Asked whether Obama's interview contradicted Clinton's, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley replied, "Not at all."

"These are two different countries and different circumstances. The Secretary completely agrees," Crowley said in an e-mail. "What she was saying is that, first, criminal organizations are challenging authority in Mexico as we saw in Colombia. The growing brutality is beginning to resemble what Colombia experienced. Colombia turned its situation around through decisive action by a democratic government, supported by the United States and the international community. We are seeing the same sustained action by the Mexican government. As she said also, this is a shared responsibility and we and others need to support Mexico in this effort."

Obama, in the interview, said the reason the two countries cannot be compared is the gap between their economies.

"Mexico is a large and progressive democracy with a growing economy," Obama said.

But in fact, two decades ago in Colombia, the elected president, Cesar Gaviria, pushed through a series of economic reforms known as "the opening," which, despite drug-related violence, led to years of economic growth. With U.S. assistance, Gaviria's government tracked down and killed Pablo Escobar, the head of the Medellin cartel, in 1993.

Clinton's comments made the front pages of Mexico's national daily newspapers and were fodder for cable news and talk radio on Wednesday and Thursday morning.

Obama's remarks went up on news Web sites and television news Thursday afternoon.

The stories reported that Obama "rejected" or "corrected" Clinton's statements. "Obama: You cannot compare Mexico to Colombia" was the headline on the El Universal news Web site.

Clinton's remarks were controversial in Mexico. President Felipe Calderon administration's central mission is to not become like Colombia was 20 years ago, when car bombs exploded daily in the national capital and driving into the countryside was risky.

Responding to Clinton on Wednesday, Calderon's national security adviser Alejandro Poire said, "We do not share these findings, as there is a big difference between what Colombia faced and what Mexico is facing today."

Poire also took a dig at the United States, saying that the only thing the two conflicts have in common is that the drug cartels in both countries are "nourished by the enormous, gigantic demand for drugs in the United States."

Some Mexican leaders, however, agreed with Clinton's assessment. Many anti-narcotics experts and law enforcement agents, along with Mexican journalists, frequently debate the comparisons between Mexico's drug war and the one waged in Colombia.

"We are on our way to Colombianization," said Mexican senator Alejandro Gonzalez, who belongs to Calderon's center-right party.

kornbluta@washpost.com wilsons@washpost.com

Correspondent William Booth in Mexico City contributed to this report.

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