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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.

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Of the three Latin American countries (Mexico, Guatemala, Colombia) where drug traffickers have taken over parts of the state, Colombia is generally considered the most infiltrated, according to Jorge Luis Garay, a Colombian economist who conducted a study comparing organized crime in the three nations.

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Corruption follows three stages

Mr. Garay has identified three stages of state infiltration by traffickers. The first is bribing low- and mid-level government and judicial officials and police. “But bribes to specific officials do not generate long-term effects,” Garay wrote in a summary of his study. A second stage is when drug trafficking groups routinely seek to compromise high-level officials such as the heads of security agencies or police chiefs. A third phase is when drug lords try to “capture or co-opt” local and national legislative bodies, as is the case in Colombia. “That strategy has given them access to the formulation, regulation, and application of laws that have long-lasting effects,” Garay wrote.

By promising to end a vicious terror campaign of car bombings and assassinations, for example, Pablo Escobar managed to get the writers of the new Constitution in 1991 to ban extradition, though it was reinstated six years later.

But Colombia is tackling this third stage in the wake of its “parapolitics” scandal, which found that many members of Congress were colluding with paramilitaries. The country’s 30-year battle against criminal drug lords is complicated by politically motivated guerrilla insurgencies. President Uribe cracked down on guerrillas and brought a sense of peace to the war-torn nation. But he also negotiated the demobilization of right-wing paramilitary groups from 2003 to 2005 that controlled a large part of the drug-trafficking business and had a corrupting influence on politics. Confessions of their leaders have revealed an alarming level of infiltration in the top levels of politics, security agencies, and the economy.

Today, 27 percent of the members of Congress elected in 2006 are under investigation or have been convicted of colluding with paramilitaries. In many cases they signed electoral pacts that assured the militias’ influence in drafting legislation.

Colombian anticorruption czar, Oscar Ortiz, says the historic tolerance for corruption is waning. “In many ways the politicians and government officials corrupted the ‘mafiosos’ because they showed them how to put the system at their service,” he says. “No one brags anymore about running contraband or smuggling drugs,” he says, though he admits that there is still broad admiration for those who can make a quick fortune.

Claudia Lopez, a researcher in Colombia whose work helped un-cover links between politicians and paramilitaries, says that after the parapolitics scandal, pacts with candidates in next year’s congressional elections are unlikely. “That route has been burned,” she says.