In December 2006, Mexico’s government launched a military-police offensive that, more than 40,000 organized crime-related deaths later, has not made the country safer. At congressional hearings or press briefings in Washington, whenever people discuss solutions to Mexico’s out-of-control violence, someone will inevitably bring up Colombia as a “model.” The United States, the speaker will say, must offer Mexico an adapted version of “Plan Colombia,” the framework in which the South American nation has received $8.5 billion in mostly military U.S. aid since 2000. Though some indicators of violence in Colombia have been reduced, to repeat the Plan Colombia experience in Mexico would be a very bad idea, argues A Cautionary Tale.

The report concludes that “The ‘success’ of the past several years in Colombia is only a partial, and fragile, victory at best—and it has come at an unacceptably high human and institutional cost.” In addition, it states that “Plan Colombia does carry a host of lessons for U.S. policy toward Mexico, Central America, and other areas of the world. These lessons, though, are not the ones that the ‘Plan Colombia is a model’ crowd might expect to draw.”

The report by LAWGEF, CIP, and WOLA three Washington-based organizations that have closely followed U.S. policy toward both countries since the 1990s, directly takes on the flawed Colombia-Mexico parallel. It walks the reader through Plan Colombia’s results, both positive (reductions in violent crime measures, at least until 2008) and troubling (a dramatic rise in extrajudicial killings by the armed forces). It explains the many ways in which Mexico today differs sharply from Colombia a decade ago.

A Cautionary Tale lays out a dozen lessons that U.S. policymakers must draw from the Colombia experience. They include a reminder that the United States must first “clean its own house,” showing the political courage necessary to take on the U.S.-based drug demand, arms trafficking, and money laundering that do Mexico and Colombia so much harm. The recommendations call for a strategy that, instead of relying overwhelmingly on militaries, helps partner countries strengthen their civilian capacities, particularly those of dysfunctional justice systems.

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