But with increased military pressure on drug traffickers, urban planning heavily focused on social welfare, and an acknowledgment from Colombia and its major aid donor, the United States, that force alone does not work, Colombian cities such as Medellín have turned around dramatically.
Now the drug violence that made Colombia so notorious has migrated to Mexico, where the army's July 29 killing of drug lord Ignacio "Nacho" Coronel was emblematic of escalating violence. Mexico is aiming to emulate Colombia's success by placing more emphasis on the "softer approach" to eradicating organized crime. It's a strategy that focuses not solely on sending in troops or disbanding cartels, but on arming communities with job opportunities and better education. But Mexico faces several challenges.
"In my view, if [the Mexican government] wants to succeed, it needs to have not just effective law enforcement but compete with cartels on the softer side," says Vanda Felbab-Brown, a fellow at the Washington-based Brookings Institution who studies drug-fueled conflict. "But between a good strategy and effective implementation, there is a universe."
Jobs for ex-cons
In the past decade in urban areas in Colombia, local officials, with support from the federal government, have tested a series of social-welfare programs, such as new infrastructure, increased spending on education, and reintegration programs for former guerrillas and paramilitaries who have disarmed.
With crime up in some areas, one of the newest programs comes from Colombia's National Police, which began a pilot project in February to prevent underprivileged youths from joining urban gangs and drug cartels. So far, the program has recruited 3,000 young men from various cities with few prospects. They are hired as civic agents such as park keepers while simultaneously receiving vocational training. "We have to put potential delinquents to work," says Col. Jose Vicente Segura, chief of recruiting for the police.
And in the rural areas, where the US-funded $6 billion Plan Colombia had long centered on forced drug eradication, the "Integrated Action" strategy was unveiled in 2007, which brings government forces to secure areas plagued with guerrillas and coca growing, followed by forced manual eradication teams and immediate attention to social development, including promises of land titles, alternative development projects, roads, and a boosted presence of police and judicial officials.
While the overall US aid package for Colombia has declined, economic and social aid has more than doubled from $115 million in 2002 to $236 million in the 2011 budget request. Military and police aid, which peaked in 2007 at $478 million, will drop to $228 million in 2011. Adam Isacson, who tracks US policy on Colombia for the Washington Office on Latin America, says this is the "future" of US aid to Colombia.
Now Mexico is launching some of the same policies. This year, the Mexican federal government, working with local officials, launched an ambitious program in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico's most violent city, to improve security via microcredit, jobs, parks, and new educational facilities.
During a visit to Mexico this spring, US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said that the Mérida Initiative, the three-year, $1.3 billion US aid package to help Mexico fight organized crime, will expand to emphasize community fortification.
"We are expanding the Mérida Initiative ... because it is not just about security," Ms. Clinton said. "Yes, that is paramount, but it is also about institution-building. It is about reaching out to and including communities and civil society, and working together to spur social and economic development."
Security comes first
But challenges persist in Mexico, including a debate that's familiar to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan: Should security or development come first? Edgardo Buscaglia, a leading security expert at Mexico's Autonomous Institute of Technology, says that strengthening civil society is crucial to winning the fight. But Mr. Buscaglia doubts the effort can succeed if Mexico does not first improve security – as was done in Colombia.
Colombian President Álvaro Uribe did not plunge nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) into the fight until a degree of public security was restored by going after mafia assets and holding accountable public officials for suspected collusion.
"Uribe made sure that there was a basic level of safety, with his new approach, so NGOs could work within cities," says Buscaglia. "Once [perpetrators of] organized crime [are] hampered in their daily operations, when they cannot move, store, kill as much as before, then you generate a social environment in which you can work on social prevention."
Mexico is a much larger country than Colombia, with a federalized system that makes nationwide programs harder to implement uniformly. Mexico also has hundreds of law enforcement agencies, unlike Colombia's single force. And with long-held suspicions about American intent, Mexico will also reject outright the kind of US military cooperation that Colombia depended so heavily on.
But incorporating a "softer approach" is considered the right formula for moving forward. "I think they realize that one of the drivers behind the success of organized crime is the fact that they do fill an economic void in the regions where they operate," says Armand Peschard-Sverdrup, a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.