Cover: Mexico Is Not Colombia

Mexico Is Not Colombia

Alternative Historical Analogies for Responding to the Challenge of Violent Drug-Trafficking Organizations

Published May 5, 2014

by Christopher Paul, Colin P. Clarke, Chad C. Serena


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Research Questions

  1. Historically, what types of conflicts have characteristics in common with contemporary Mexican security challenges and thus might be good comparisons by being
  2. Which individual cases might be instructive comparisons, offering recommendations for Mexico?
  3. What specific challenges characterized those comparative cases, and which of those challenges does Mexico face?
  4. To what extent were those challenges resolved in the historical cases, and which of those solutions could provide useful lessons for Mexico?
  5. Ultimately, what can a range of different historical cases reveal about the prospects for and approaches to resolving Mexico's security challenges?

Drug-related violence has become a very serious problem in Mexico. Of particular concern to U.S. policymakers, violent drug-trafficking organizations produce, transship, and deliver tens of billions of dollars' worth of narcotics into the United States annually. The activities of these organizations are not confined to drug trafficking; they extend to such criminal enterprises as human trafficking, weapon trafficking, kidnapping, money laundering, extortion, bribery, and racketeering. Then, there is the violence: Recent incidents have included assassinations of politicians and judges; attacks against rival organizations, associated civilians, and the police and other security forces; and seemingly random violence against innocent bystanders. Despite the scope of the threat to Mexico's security, these groups are not well understood, and optimal strategies to combat them have not been identified. Comparison between Mexico and Colombia is a tempting and frequently made analogy and source for policy recommendations. A review of these approaches, combined with a series of historical case studies, offers a more thorough comparative assessment. Regions around the world have faced similar challenges and may hold lessons for Mexico. One point is clear, however: Mexico is not Colombia. In fact, Mexico is not particularly like any other historical case characterized by "warlordism," resource insurgency, ungoverned spaces, and organized crime. Despite the lack of a perfectly analogous case, Mexico stands to benefit from historical lessons and efforts that were correlated with the greatest improvements in countries facing similar challenges. A companion volume, Mexico Is Not Colombia: Alternative Historical Analogies for Responding to the Challenge of Violent Drug-Trafficking Organizations — Supporting Case Studies, presents in-depth profiles of each of these conflicts.

Key Findings

Mexico Is Not Colombia, Nor Is It Especially Analogous to Other Historical Cases

  • Mexico faces challenges ranging from violence to a high level of weapon availability and corruption. The selected case studies were characterized by varying degrees of similar challenges.
  • Mexico is not particularly analogous to Colombia, even though Colombia is the most frequently invoked comparison case. Furthermore, none of the other historical cases was much more analogous.
  • Despite their significant differences, all the cases, including Colombia, share some important contextual commonalities and challenges with Mexico and thus provide useful lessons.
  • Corruption and poor economic conditions were factors with a significant impact on the historical cases, and this holds true for Mexico as well.

Several Specific Types of Efforts Were Correlated with Improvement in the Historical Cases and Could Provide Lessons for Mexico

  • Challenges faced and outcomes achieved in the historical cases fell into two primary categories: those related to violence and those related to governance and corruption.
  • The case outcomes most likely to hold lessons for Mexico specifically involved problems related to ungoverned spaces, poor governance, problematic economic opportunity structures, organized crime, corruption, and indiscriminate violence.
  • Efforts that addressed multiple challenges were the most highly correlated with improvement in the historical cases, as were strategies employing multiple efforts simultaneously.


  • Mexico's government should focus on efforts to combat violent drug-trafficking organizations that both disincentivize violence and remove the worst offenders.
  • It should pursue strategies to improve governance and build and reform law-enforcement and judicial institutions to reduce corruption.
  • It should engage in proactive counterviolence efforts targeting gangs and providing alternative opportunities for members and potential members.
  • It should investigate ways to better leverage public outrage, such as selectively supporting citizen militias and enabling community policing.
  • It should measure and evaluate the ability to combat violent drug-trafficking organizations and enforce related political decisions. For example, the military might be the best option to engage with these organizations in a particular area at a given time, but law enforcement reform could both improve upon policing strategies and reduce the risk of corruption in the military.
  • Mexican policymakers should be willing to accept international support, particularly from the United States. The United States can be immensely helpful in training and equipping Mexican forces and mentoring Mexican police in intelligence-gathering tactics, techniques, and procedures.

Research for this report was sponsored by a grant from a private foundation and conducted within the International Security and Defense Policy Center of the RAND National Security Research Division.

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