Reporting from Mexico City — Car bombs. Political assassinations. Battlefield-style skirmishes between soldiers and heavily armed adversaries.
Across big stretches of Mexico, deepening drug-war mayhem is challenging the authority of the state and the underpinnings of democracy. Powerful cartels in effect hold entire regions under their thumb. They extort money from businesses, meddle in politics and kill with an impunity that mocks the government's ability to impose law and order.
The slaying of a gubernatorial candidate near the Texas border this year was the most stunning example of how the narco-traffickers warp Mexican politics. Mayors are elected, often with the backing of drug lords, and then killed when they get in the way.
Journalists are targets too. After a young photographer was gunned down in Ciudad Juarez Sept. 17, his newspaper, El Diario de Juarez, issued a plaintive appeal to the cartels in a front-page editorial. "We ask you to explain what you want from us," the newspaper said. "You are at this time the de facto authorities in this city because the legal authorities have not been able to stop our colleagues from falling."
As the death toll from drug-related violence nears 30,000 in four years, the impression that Mexico is losing control over big chunks of territory — the northern states of Tamaulipas, Chihuahua, Nuevo Leon and Durango at the top of this list — is prompting comparisons with the Colombia of years past. Under the combined onslaught of drug kingpins and leftist guerrillas, the South American country appeared to be in danger of collapse.
The Colombia comparison, long fodder for parlor debates in Mexico, gained new energy this month when Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the tactics of Mexican cartels looked increasingly like those of a Colombia-style "insurgency," which the U.S. helped fight with a military and social assistance program known as Plan Colombia that cost more than $7 billion.
But is Mexico the new Colombia? As the Obama administration debates what course to take on Mexico, finding the right fix depends on getting the right diagnosis.
Clinton cited the need for a regional "equivalent" of Plan Colombia. After 10 years, the rebels' grip in Colombia has been reduced from more than a third of the country to less than a fifth. Violence is down and, with improved security, the economy is booming. However, tons of cocaine are still being produced and there have been widespread human rights abuses.
Clinton acknowledged that the program had "problems" — but said that it had worked. Irked Mexican officials dismissed Clinton's Colombia comparison as sloppy history and tartly offered that the only common thread was drug consumption in the United States. And while the two cases share broad-brush similarities, there also are important distinctions, including Mexico's profound sensitivity to outside interference.
Here is a breakdown of the two experiences:
The Nature of the Foe
Colombia's main leftist rebels, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as the FARC, waged war in the name of Marxist ideology, calling for an overthrow of the traditional ruling oligarchy. Separately, the country faced a campaign of violence by drug cartels. To fund the insurgency, the rebels first took a cut from coca producers and traffickers – and then starting running their own drug labs and forming partnerships with the traffickers.
In contrast, the main aim of Mexican drug gangs is to move merchandise without interference from authorities. In many places, traffickers manipulate governors and mayors — and the police they control. Their ability to bully and extort has given them a form of power that resembles parallel rule.
But the goal is cash, not sovereignty. Drug lords don't want to collect trash, run schools or pave the streets. And very often, the violence the gangs unleash is directed against each other, not the government.
Mexico also is a much bigger country. While its social inequities are glaring, there is no sign of a broad-based rebel movement with which traffickers could join hands.
"We've got a criminal problem, not a guerrilla problem," said Bruce Bagley, who chairs the international studies department at the University of Miami in Coral Gables. "The drug lords don't want to take over. They want to be left alone. They want a state that's pliable and porous."
At the peak of Colombia's insurgency, the FARC controlled a large part of the country, including a Switzerland-size chunk with defined borders ceded to it by the government as a demilitarized zone known as the despeje, or clearing.
Mexico's drug gangs have relied on killing and intimidation tactics to challenge government control over large swaths by erasing a sense of law and order.