Colombia shares its cartel-fighting expertise with Mexican forces

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Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, January 22, 2011

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 in 1993 when police hunted him down. 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.


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