President Barack Obama probably meant well when he sided with Mexico over his Secretary of State. Diplomacy is, after all, a key component of successful counterinsurgency and Hillary Clinton’s answer during a Q&A session at the Council on Foreign Relations touched off a brief firestorm. Clinton had suggested that Mexico’s drug cartels are fusing into an insurgency, comparing the situation to Colombia during the 1980’s and 90’s.
U.S. officials including Arturo Valenzuela, assistant secretary of State for Western Hemisphere affairs, and Gil Kerlikowske, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, mobilized for damage control along with Obama himself. Unfortunately his disagreement with Clinton reflected a feeble counterinsurgency display.
Mexico may not be Colombia, but it does harbor an indisputable insurgency that evolved years ago, not recently. Even Mexican officials admit that similarities exist with Colombia. Beginning their formation in the 1960’s, Mexican cartels are now traversing the various shades of guerrilla warfare between terrorist and insurgent, much like the FARC. Insurgencies come in all shapes and sizes, leading insurgents to fight for reasons beyond the overthrow of a government. Thus it is critical to avoid defining an insurgency strictly by this objective.
While the FARC poses a classic egalitarian, traditionalist insurgency that must overthrow the government to fully profit, the Mexican cartels pursue an commercialist insurgency augmented by a backwards, preservationist need to maintain the status quo and continue business uninterrupted. Mexican cartels have yet to express the will to overthrow the government, instead aiming for another insurgency goal - subverting the government for personal gain.
Furthermore, Obama runs into major problems by arguing, "Mexico is a great democracy, vibrant, with a growing economy. And as a result, what is happening there can't be compared with what happened in Colombia 20 years ago."
Not only did Colombia’s economy grow during the 1990’s, despite periodic setbacks, but GDP growth makes for a poor warning of insurgency. States facing insurgencies often suffer economic regression, but China’s 9% growth in 2009 means nothing to the Uyghurs' fledgling insurgency in Xinjiang. India’s 7% is why the Maoists fight. Nigeria, another “rising economy,” also houses MEND, a well-armed guerrilla movement, while the CIA estimates Iraq’s economy grew by 4.5% in 2009. Insurgencies don’t discriminate between poor and wealthy states.
And though Mexico’s democracy is still standing after 200 years, it’s also plagued by corrupt politicians, judges, and policemen that have facilitated the cartels' havoc. The White House held up funding from the Mérida Initiative specifically because of torture allegations within the Mexican military.
Obama’s counterinsurgency would offer nothing to the Mexico’s situation if he weren’t attempting to sooth diplomatic tensions.
Clinton technically wins the debate by default, as her reasoning too is superficial. Mexican cartels aren’t “showing more and more indices of insurgency” - they initiated an insurgency years ago - and not simply because, “All of a sudden, car bombs show up, which weren't there before.” Clinton does begin to define an insurgency when she calls the cartels a “well-organized network,” netwar being a principle component of fourth-generation warfare, and observes that both the FARC and cartel have conquered territory within the state.
Judging by the casualty figures alone, Mexico doesn’t appear to have reached Colombia’s level - yet. While over 28,000 Mexicans have lost their lives, including nearly 1,500 policemen and soldiers, since President Felipe Calderon officially declared war in 2006, roughly 4,000 Colombian security forces have been killed since 2002. The civilian death-toll over 40 years of conflict is estimated in the hundreds of thousands. Nor do Mexico’s military resources match Colombia’s, although the cartels greatly outnumber the FARC’s numerical strength.
But while Mexico’s cartels don’t hold “nearly 40 percent of the country” as FARC did at its peak, they have no need to either; excessive territory usually becomes a hassle for insurgents to defend. Already possessing a rural base, the FARC exploited the 1980’s cocaine boom to boost their insurrection against the government. Conversely, the cartels used their proceeds to fend off the government’s intervention into the cartels’ turf war.
Their main targets are smuggling routes, not the capital.
Comparing insurgencies can lead to serious complications when done wrong. One must hope Obama privately understands that Mexico is every bit the insurgency as Colombia, fought in desert and urban sprawl rather than thick jungle. Each conflict splits a host of factions down ideological and blood lines, many of which routinely cross international borders seeking sanctuary, another insurgency staple. And both insurgencies employ all the tactical operations involved in terrorism and guerrilla warfare: propaganda, ambushes, assassination, hiding amongst civilians and donning government uniforms, corrupting officials, and ownership of legal businesses.
The Mexican cartels' numerical superiority compared to the FARC is a partial cause of what makes the insurgency so deadly in its own right. To augment their strength and tap directly into the US and Mexican streets, cartels have taken the natural step of recruiting US-Mexican gangs into their war, including the Mexican Mafia and Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13). Some of these soldiers are US citizens, creating additional legal hurdles. America has militarized the Mexican border in response, with Obama sending drones to Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia - and Texas.
And in accordance with insurgency law, the civilians of both conflicts suffer most.
At this point it should be clear, if not from the start, that Mexico suffers from a mature insurgency, however weakened by recent high-profile arrests. Obama has the right idea to placate Mexico’s displeasure, but actual counterinsurgency was lost in his rush to tone down Clinton’s remarks. Nearly every COIN text places a premium on clarity and managing expectations through realistic assessments, and the need for diplomacy mustn’t descend into semantics. Mexico is already paying the price of underestimating its insurgency.
Counterinsurgency also requires innovation and, with less than two months before California’s vote on Prop 19, which would decriminalize small amounts of marijuana, neither Obama nor Clinton appear willing to touch this third rail. Unfortunately America’s drug habit, as both have quietly admitted, is a main driver of Mexico’s insurgency. The Obama administration has allocated more resources to treatment, a trend that must continue to evolve, but Washington is also on the wrong side of the liberalization sweeping across Europe, South America, and into Mexico.
As with insurgencies in general, Mexico requires an international solution crisscrossing military and non-military spectrums. Whether Mexico is “on its way to Colombia” in the words of General Oscar Naranjo, Colombia’s police director, remains to be seen.
But apples and oranges are both fruit.