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What Colombia’s Example Can, And Can’t, Offer Mexico

Víctor Julio Suárez Rojas, the Colombian guerilla leader who was killed in a raid last month, was nicknamed Mono Jojoy after the mojojoy worm, which is famously slippery and difficult to capture. But, as Colombia makes progress against the guerilla force, equally violent Mexican drug cartels are proving they may have more than a little in common with the mojojoy themselves.

Suárez Rojas, who was variously known as Jorge Briceño and Jorge Briceño Suárez in addition to Mono Jojoy, was the second highest in command of the FARC-EP, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia - People’s Army (The name of the group in Spanish is the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia - Ejército del Pueblo.)

Suárez Rojas’ death was an important mark of the progress the Colombian government has made in fighting the insurgency. Colombian authorities say the rebel army now has only about 8,000 members, down from around 16,000 a decade ago. President Juan Manuel Santos said the killing of Suárez Rojas was "the most crushing blow against the FARC in its entire history."

Military analyst Alfredo Rangel told The Associated Press that he expects the damage to morale caused by the leader’s death will lead to numerous desertions, further reducing the FARC’s strength. In addition, military officials recovered 14 laptop computers and 60 USB drives from the camp where Suárez Rojas was discovered. Officials expect this equipment to contain valuable intelligence.

The FARC is a Marxist-Leninist group founded in 1964 that claims to promote the interests of the agrarian poor. In an open letter this year, Suárez Rojas declared “We have never proclaimed the principle of war for war’s sake.” He claimed that the FARC’s objective is to bring about “profound changes in the social structure of Colombia.”

However, over the years the FARC has become more a mere drug gang than an “army of the people.” Since the 1990s the FARC has increasingly relied on the illegal drug trade as a source of funding. The group initially was not involved in drug production or trafficking, instead simply collecting a “tax” on drug production in areas under its control. By 2007, however, the FARC had become a key player in the cocaine market, making between $500 million and $1 billion a year from trafficking. The slain Suárez Rojas was found wearing a $13,000 gold Rolex watch, an odd fashion statement for a man supposedly bent on destroying global capitalism.

Yet, despite the FARC’s increasing similarity to other violent drug cartels that terrorize Central America and Mexico, Colombia’s success in fighting the rebel group may not provide much of a blueprint for pursuing Mexican cartels without ideological roots.

Colombian officials have obtained useful intelligence by working with deserters who become disillusioned with the FARC. Officials have said such information was critical in locating Suárez Rojas. Defense Minister Rodrigo Rivera told The AP that Colombia’s efforts in fighting the FARC have been aided for many years by the fact that "the FARC is rotting inside.”

The FARC’s ideological foundation also gives its leaders a higher profile among followers, allowing the government to destabilize the group by targeting a few prominent individuals. In contrast, few underlings desert non-ideological drug cartels due to disillusionment. Most people don’t have any illusions about the cartels to start with.

There is also an important difference between the FARC and other cartels. The FARC's primary foe is the Colombian government; in the struggle for control of the country, there aren’t really any other contenders. The FARC uses the drug trade to finance its terrorist violence. Non-ideologically based cartels, on the other hand, use violence to protect profitable trading routes. Their most important rivalries, therefore, are often with one another, which means government efforts that weaken one cartel can have the unintended effect of strengthening another.

In fact, in Colombia, the destruction of one major cartel, the Medellin Cartel, in the early 1990s was in large part due to information provided to the government by the rival Cali Cartel. As the Medellin Cartel fell, the Cali Cartel flourished. In Mexico, the dramatic increase in drug-related violence has been tied by many to increasingly aggressive tactics on the part of the government, which have kept power balances between cartels in flux. The New York Times reports, “Altogether, more than 28,000 people have been killed in the nearly four years since President Felipe Calderón began his offensive against the nation’s drug organizations, with the gangs escalating fights over turf and dominance as the federal police and military try to stamp them out.”

Governments do, however, have one advantage in fighting drug cartels that they do not have in fights against rebel armies like the FARC. The FARC was violent before it became involved in the drug trade and would likely remain violent even if the drug trade dried up. In fact, the group might even become more violent, since its other major source of funding comes from kidnapping individuals and collecting ransom payments. Drug cartels that are motivated purely by profit, on the other hand, are violent only because the transit routes they are fighting over are valuable. By taking the profit out of the drug trade, either by decriminalizing drugs or by cutting demand, we can decrease the violence perpetrated by drug cartels.

As drug violence has grown in Mexico, Calderón has pointed to the United States’ culpability in failing to address the demand for drugs in this country that is fueling the violence across the border. "The origin of our violence problem begins with the fact that Mexico is located next to the country that has the highest levels of drug consumption in the world. It is as if our neighbor were the biggest drug addict in the world,” he wrote in an editorial. The United States sends $10 billion to $25 billion to Mexican traffickers each year in the form of drug profits, according to experts.

With one slippery worm now caught, we need to do all we can to stop the mojojoys of Mexico. It will require different tactics, including, I believe, a substantial relaxation of the U.S. anti-drug laws that keep the industry underground and ensure huge profit margins.

Colombia may have little to teach Mexico, but at least it offers inspiration that a desperate struggle against ruthless and well-armed bandits can be won. Right now, Mexico needs every scrap of inspiration and assistance it can get.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s recently updated book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us,” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business.” Larry was also among the authors of the firm’s book The High Achiever’s Guide To Wealth.

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