By Juan Forero
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, January 22, 2011; 12:00 AM
CAJICA, COLOMBIA - Long experienced in fighting cocaine cartels and Marxist guerrillas, Colombia is training thousands of Mexican policemen as well as soldiers and court officers to help contain drug gangs that have turned parts of Mexico into virtual combat zones.
Most of the training has taken place in Mexico, Colombian and American officials say. But in a sign of how serious the threat posed by the Mexican cartels has become, an increasing number of Mexican soldiers and policemen are traveling here to train with Colombia's battle-tested police commandos.
"Mexico has what we had some years ago, which are very powerful cartels," Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos said in a recent interview. "What we can provide is the experience that we have had dismantling those cartels, training intelligence officers, training judicial police."
Colombia's new role provides the Obama administration, which pays for part of the training and has a close alliance with Colombia, with a politically viable way to improve Mexican security forces without a substantial American military or police presence in Mexico. Placing U.S. forces there would be politically contentious in Mexico even as Washington commits hundreds of millions of dollars to help smash powerful drug cartels.
"The American military can indirectly do a lot more through the Colombians than they politically would be able to do directly," said Roderic Ai Camp, an expert on Mexico's military at Claremont McKenna College in California. "Given the loss of half of Mexico's national territory to the United States in the 19th century, and the Mexican army's hesitant cooperation with their American counterparts, the Colombians are a logical proxy."
Colombia's shift reflects its desire to demonstrate an ability to help resolve regional problems instead of being seen as simply a recipient of U.S. aid, which totals $9 billion, mostly in military hardware, going back to the Clinton administration.
Colombia is still the No. 1 producer of cocaine, much of which passes through Mexico en route to American consumers. Colombian drug gangs still battle it out over cocaine routes while guerrillas engage security forces in a conflict now in its 47th year.
But things were far worse a generation ago, when the city of Medellin had the world's highest homicide rate.
Back then, Pablo Escobar's notoriously violent cocaine cartel in that northern city bombed shopping malls, killed high-profile politicians and even blew an airliner out of the sky, before his death when police hunted him down in 1993. A decade ago, another force appeared to be an even greater threat: the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, a rebel group that controlled huge swaths of territory and regularly defeated military forces.Hard-won experience
These days, though, Colombia's homicide rate has dropped substantially, and the government has wrested control of territory where the FARC once held sway. In the past decade, the size of Colombia's drug crop has been reduced by more than half through an American-funded aerial fumigation program, U.N. officials say. And the country's economy is considered one of the most dynamic in Latin America.
It is now Mexico that, to some observers, appears like that previous Colombia - with ruthless narcos beheading adversaries and innocent civilians often killed in the crossfire.
Mexico's ambassador to Colombia, Florencio Salazar, said Colombia's complex conflict, which at its root is political, is far different from the crisis in his country, where drug gangs are in it solely for the money.
But "the capacity that the armed forces and police have in Colombia is very useful," Salazar said. "We are looking to work together on solutions."
Colombia's national police force collects forensic evidence, like any police department. But it is also unique in the Americas in that it operates like an army light infantry unit, equipped with helicopters and potent munitions to take on heavily armed bands.
"They just have experience in stuff that others don't have: experience in dealing with kidnappings, experience in explosives, experience in taking down powerful narcotics organizations," said William R. Brownfield, a former U.S. ambassador to Colombia who now heads the State Department's Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs.
Colombian instructors, accompanied by investigators and prosecutors from the United States and Canada, have run weeks-long courses in Mexico on how to collect evidence and carry forward cases to help break up drug cartels.
Mexican judicial authorities, including prosecutors and judges, have come to Colombia to discuss legal reforms that Mexico can implement to give the state more leverage in seizing assets tainted by drugs.
In all, about 7,000 Mexicans have participated in the training, which is paid for in part by $800,000 in U.S. funds.
The violence in Mexico began to spike dramatically in 2006, when President Felipe Calderon deployed thousands of troops and federal police to combat drug cartels.
The death count is now nearly 35,000, as the cartels have fought back ferociously to maintain their fiefdoms.
Some of those gangs have responded with the weaponry and strategies of war, including preemptive ambushes against Mexican forces and efforts to control territory, said Steven Dudley, co-director of InSight, a think tank that tracks organized crime in Colombia and Mexico.
"If a security force encroaches on that territory, then they respond in much the same way as a guerrilla group would respond," Dudley said. "We are increasingly seeing tactics that are similar to guerrillas, like car bombs, use of grenades, the interest in controlling territory."Commando school
Early one morning shortly before dawn, Colombian police commandos barked orders like drill sergeants at six Mexican policemen and two Mexican soldiers during a mock attack here outside Cajica, a town on a frigid mountain in central Colombia. The target in the training exercise: a heavily defended rebel camp.
It was the tail end of four months of training that included lessons on how to carry out operations in the jungle, jump from helicopters, defuse bombs and conduct raids on urban strongholds.
One of the policemen, Cesar Mejia, had been a lawyer but became a detective, never thinking he would need commando training for his job.
"The criminals get stronger all the time, and with this we are also preparing," said Mejia, wearing camouflage and a helmet and carrying an assault rifle. "You never know when you will be in high-risk situations, in rural areas or in the city."
Carlos Nieves, another Mexican policeman, serves on a Mexico City-based team that rushes into some of the country's hot spots. He said the traffickers frequently have far more firepower than the police.
"They use all kinds of guns, .50-caliber machine guns," he said.
But training here on the high mountain ridgeline, Colombian commandos from the police's Jungla, or jungle team, told Nieves to meet heavy firepower with heavy firepower.
When the operation was over, the trainers demanded more: a long march, with 50-pound packs, that ended with a 100-yard crawl through mud. During his four months here in Colombia, Nieves lost 30 pounds.
But "it will help us become better policemen," he said, "teaching us how to survive."