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Halting drug war corruption: What Mexico can learn from Colombia

As Mexico struggles to contain its drug traffickers and endemic corruption, Colombia, which has long developed strategies to confront both, may provide a guide.

By Sara Miller Llana and Sibylla BrodzinskyStaff Writer and Correspondent / January 12, 2010

J. Guadalupe Valladares became mayor of Apatzingan, Mexico, after the previous mayor was arrested for corruption during a raid by federal police.

Tony Avelar/The Christian Science Monitor

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Apatzingan, Mexico; and Bogotá, Colombia

The town hall in the sweltering city of Apatzingan, Mexico, bustles with life. Residents file past colorful murals to contest fines and retrieve paperwork; bureaucrats type away in cubicles.

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But that quiet efficiency once hid a nest of corruption. In May, federal police burst through the doors of the salmon-colored building in the main plaza and hauled away the mayor for alleged ties to drug traffickers in the region.

Now the next in line holds the job. “We have to look toward the future now,” says J. Guadalupe Jaimes Valladares, Apatzingan’s new mayor. “I know that I’m clean.”

Is Mr. Valladares the vanguard of a new Mexico, or simply a new chapter in an old cycle of order and corruption?

The arrest was part of a sweep that saw about a dozen mayors and nearly two dozen other local officials across the state of Michoacán, one of the most volatile in Mexico, sacked for allegedly covering for drug traffickers. The coordinated arrests were hailed as proof of Mexican President Felipe Calderón’s commitment to rooting out pervasive organized crime.

But today, the May raid is criticized by some as a publicity stunt, not part of a bold, long-term plan to clean house. And as Mexico struggles to contain ever-more-powerful traffickers, analysts say it could adopt lessons from Colombia.

No one is claiming that Colombia has vanquished its drug cartels or stopped them from corrupting government officials. But its practices may provide a useful guide to Mexico’s own battles.

For example, says Edgardo Buscaglia, an organized-crime expert and professor at Mexico’s Autonomous Institute of Technology, Colombia has gone after the drug lords – and their assets. “Regardless of how many thousands of organized crime members you detain, the end result will always be determined by how much of the economic structure of organized crime you destroy,” he says. “This is exactly what you’ve seen in Colombia in the past five years.… In Mexico, nothing like that has even started.”

Colombia revamped its anticorruption office in 2003, and President Álvaro Uribe named an anticorruption czar. This czar oversees bidding processes for government contracts and organizes workshops for officials at local levels on how to fight corruption. Perhaps most important, the country has gone after crime lords’ assets through a 2002 law that places the burden of proof on those suspected of illegal enrichment, letting authorities confiscate assets while investigations are carried out.

Mr. Buscaglia says that in the past four years, $11 billion in assets has been confiscated in Colombia. That dwarfs efforts in Mexico, he says, where a similar but weaker law was recently passed.

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