Both the United States and Mexico have approached the war on Mexican drug cartels with Colombia in mind.
Washington’s Merida Initiative, loosely modeled on its Plan Colombia antidrug campaign from a decade ago, provides Mexico with money for helicopters, police training and command-and-control technology. The Mexican government, meanwhile, has taken steps to modernize its judicial system, purge the police of corruption and improve intelligence services.
But according to a Government Accountability Office report released this summer, the billions of dollars spent by Mexico and the United States over the last four years have done little to thwart Mexico’s cartels.
The problem is that the two countries have ignored a fundamental lesson from the Colombian experience: foreign aid, security cooperation and judicial reform were necessary but not sufficient conditions for reducing violence. Plan Colombia succeeded because, at the same time that it stepped up its antidrug efforts, Colombia aggressively reformed its tax system and greatly improved government accountability. Unless Mexico can do the same, antidrug efforts there will fail.
Like Mexico, Colombia confronted a domestic security crisis that it could not afford to resolve without higher tax revenues. So it created a “wealth tax” directed at the country’s richest taxpayers, earmarked to finance the security effort.
Then, realizing that the wealthy would tolerate increased taxes only if they believed the government was not squandering resources through corruption or inefficiency, President Álvaro Uribe mandated that security forces provide annual, publicly available reports on how money is spent and how effectively it is used.
Colombia also created a civilian Ministry of Defense, making the military accountable to democratically elected leaders. The new ministry put the armed services under a single chain of command directly responsible to the president and developed a cadre of experienced civil servants.
These steps quickly led to a steadier stream of funds devoted to antidrug efforts, more reliable security forces and, most important, strong public support. As a result, Colombia has made significant strides in fighting drug traffickers, guerrillas and paramilitaries: since Mr. Uribe’s election in 2002, coca production has decreased by a third, kidnappings have dropped by 90 percent and murders have fallen significantly.
Mexico stands to learn a valuable lesson from Colombia’s experience. At 11 percent of its gross domestic product, Mexico’s tax collection capacity ranks among the lowest in Latin American countries — compared, for example, with Brazil’s 23 percent. Without increased tax revenues, its antidrug efforts will not be sustainable.
Mexico’s security apparatus is also one of the most outdated in the hemisphere. Like pre-reform Colombia, it lacks a civilian minister of defense and civilian experts on military affairs, and so there is a lack of accountability and public support for the antidrug effort. Mexico desperately needs to reform its security agencies, something the United States can facilitate by providing technical assistance to strengthen Mexico’s judicial and security institutions.
There is no reason Mexico can’t follow Colombia’s lead — and every reason it should, as soon as possible. President Felipe Calderón, who has just two years before his term-limited presidency comes to an end, hails from the right-of-center, pro-business National Action Party, putting him in a strong position to sell tax increases to the wealthy.
Moreover, neither of the country’s other two leading parties, the centrist Institutional Revolutionary Party and the left-leaning Democratic Revolutionary Party, shares President Calderón’s tough stance against drug cartels. This means that Mr. Calderón’s successor is unlikely to undertake major reforms.
Mr. Uribe’s reforms didn’t bring the Colombian drug crisis to an end overnight. But over time, they enabled the government to get the upper hand against the cartels. And for a country as deep in crisis as Mexico, they offer a clear path forward.
Gustavo A. Flores-Macías, an assistant professor of government and a research fellow at the Polson Institute for Global Development at Cornell.