Mexico is not Colombia (and other things you didn’t need the RAND Corporation to tell you)

Guest Post Series: Dawn Paley

Dawn Paley is a contributing editor with The Dominion, Canada’s only independent news cooperative, and a co-founder of the Vancouver Media Co-op. She’s been featured in a variety of publications including The Guardian, The Nation and NACLA. A listero, she’s written quite a few articles on the drug war in Mexico which have been featured on Frontera List.

To learn more about Dawn, visit her website.

Every Friday we will have a new guest post so stay tuned!

The RAND Corporation recently released a report entitled “Mexico is not Colombia: Alternative Historical Analogies for Responding to the Challenge of Violent Drug-Trafficking Organizations.”

If you thought Mexico and Colombia were the same thing, think again! They are actually two different countries. Thanks to RAND for getting that sorted. Ahem. So let’s say you feel like reading beyond the somewhat silly title of the report, you’d learn a few things. There’s often hidden gems lurking for those in the mood to scour these types of reports. I’m going to elucidate, in broad strokes, my overall impressions of this one.

First, this report proposes an even more convoluted acronym for what are commonly called drug cartels, or Drug Trafficking Organizations (also known as DTOs), and which I refer to in my work as paramilitary groups. RAND would prefer that we now call these groups VDTOs, as in, Violent Drug Trafficking Organizations. It’s not clear to me why that distinction is necessary, other than simply to make everything more confusing, which I would argue is a key function of mainstream think tanks.

According to the report authors, “The full scope and details of the threat posed by VDTOs are not well understood, and optimal strategies to combat these organizations have not been identified.” So we’re meant to believe that even after billions of dollars of US funding for the war on drugs in Colombia, Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean, and elsewhere, there’s still no optimal strategy?

I call bullocks on that. More on why here. The report parrots the myth of spillover violence. More on that here.

The report also insinuates that the social cleansing that has taken place as part of the drug war in Mexico is capricious, as in “given to sudden and unaccountable changes of mood or behavior.” I quote: “Then, there is the capricious, inexplicable violence: ‘The massacres of young people and migrants’ and ‘the use of torture.’”

It is morally outrageous that this violence can be written off as random and beyond understanding. Fundamentally, that stance means that this report, like so many others, misses the point entirely. Violence against young people, migrants, workers in the informal sector, prisoners, drug users, and others is not just a capricious side effect of the drug war. It is an integral part of this war, as are the systems that allow it to carry on in near total impunity. But don’t expect to learn about that from RAND.

In short, the report analyses the comparison of the conflicts in Mexico and Colombia, and finds that what happened in Colombia is not an acceptable analogy for what is happening in Mexico. RAND’s exact words: “Mexico Is Not Colombia, Nor Is It Any of the Other Cases.” (Yeah, just in case you thought maybe Mexico was, in fact, Tajikistan).

I don’t know enough about how the drug war has played out in other parts of the world to say whether or not RAND’s conclusions in that respect are accurate. The overall recommendations in the report regarding security in Mexico, however, are tried, tested and true, representing a continuation of current US policy.

I must say I found the last recommendation particularly interesting: “Increase policymakers’ willingness to accept international support, especially from the United States.” That brings us to the crux of things, which is that the comparison between Mexico and Colombia isn’t based on comparing the domestic circumstances in both countries. Where the Mexico-Colombia comparison gains a foothold is in comparing US involvement in both places.

Just ask Hillary Clinton.

“We know from the work that the United States has supported in Colombia and now in Mexico that good leadership, proactive investments, and committed partnerships can turn the tide,” then Secretary of State Clinton told delegates to the Central America Security Conference in Guatemala City in 2011. The US transition to funding militarization in Colombia to funding it in Mexico was nearly seamless, as the first phase of Plan Colombia ended in 2006, and Plan Mexico got off the ground in 2008.

So, RAND, thanks but no thanks. The VDTO label deserves to be relegated to the trash can. And critical thinkers, journalists and scholars can remain on solid footing knowing that hundreds of pages of RAND research don’t do much to counter the validity of comparing US policies in Colombia and Mexico.

About virginiaisaad

Virginia is a journalist based in Los Angeles who's written for publications including Los Angeles magazine, Upworthy, and Elite Daily. She was born in Argentina and raised in the San Fernando Valley along with her three siblings. Fun fact: She took a Chicanas and Feminism course with Eva Longoria while studying for her master's in mass communication at California State University, Northridge. Follow her on Twitter @virginiaisaad

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