Addressing Mexico's Violent Drug-Trafficking Organizations Will Require Coordinated Effort

For Release

May 5, 2014

Although Mexico is frequently compared to Colombia in the context of violent drug-trafficking organizations, the comparison is not the best one, according to a new RAND Corporation study.

“Unfortunately, you cannot use how Colombia addressed its problem with violent drug-trafficking organizations as a template for Mexico,” said Christopher Paul, lead author of the study and a senior social scientist at RAND, a nonprofit research organization. “Colombia's circumstances and the threat differed from contemporary Mexico in several important ways: the nature of the perpetrators, territory, geography, targets and tactics, the character of the violence, and the ability of the state to respond.”

Paul and his colleagues sought to find useful comparison case studies that might point to solutions for Mexico's problems with drug violence. Those cases include instances of warlords or ungoverned territories, earnest efforts to combat organized crime and “resource” insurgencies. This led researchers to study Peru, the Balkans, West Africa, the Caucasus, Somalia, Angola, Burma, Tajikistan and Afghanistan, along with Colombia.

The research drew lessons for Mexico from all of these countries, even if only as an example of what can happen if challenges like those faced by Mexico are allowed to run unchecked.

Resource insurgencies are cases in which the insurgents did not seek to win control of the state or establish their own government, but simply sought to eliminate state interference with their exploitation of natural resources, such as diamonds, or trafficking of drugs. Cases of warlords or ungoverned territories are when the rejection of state authority wasn't sufficiently opposed by the state to earn the insurgency label. And Mexico's violent drug trafficking organizations are certainly an example of organized crime.

Paul said one of the difficulties with trying to develop solutions for Mexico's drug problem is that the issues are not easy to define. Calling the drug-trafficking organizations “cartels” is inaccurate and dubbing them insurgencies isn't correct, either. While drug-trafficking organization is correct, it leaves out one of the most concerning aspects of the problem: the violence.

In many respects, there are two Mexicos. One is a nation with the world's 14th largest economy, a 93.5 percent adult literacy rate and high national health care standards. The second is a country with an antiquated and moribund justice system, horrible violence and illicit economies.

Based on the findings from the comparative case studies, the RAND study recommends that Mexico focus efforts on the most violent of the drug trafficking organizations, seeking both to discourage violence and to remove the worst offenders. Government institution building and reform efforts should focus on law enforcement and judicial reform, as well as extending control over all sovereign Mexican territory and extending government services to all of the country.

Mexico also should engage in proactive counter-violence efforts and investigate ways to better leverage existing public outrage. Officials should look for ways to vet and selectively support the citizen militias, and push law enforcement reform to the local level to enable legitimate community policing. At the same time, Mexico needs to evaluate the state's ability to control the use of force, enforce political decisions within sovereign territory and repel attacks against security forces.

Finally, Mexico should increase its willingness to accept international support, especially from the United States. This includes areas where the United States can be immensely helpful, such as helping to train and equip Mexican forces, and mentoring Mexican police in intelligence gathering tactics, techniques and procedures.

Paul admits that they are not the first to make any of these recommendations, but points out that their endorsement of this advice is based on a firm comparative empirical foundation, which should add weight to these recommendations.

The study, “Mexico is Not Colombia: Alternative Historical Analogies for Responding to the Challenge of Violent Drug-Trafficking Organizations,” can be found at

The study was done within International Security and Defense Policy Center of the RAND National Security Research Division. The division conducts research and analysis on defense and national security topics for the U.S. and allied defense, foreign policy, homeland security and intelligence communities and other nongovernmental organizations that support defense and national security analysis.

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