Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made headlines Wednesday for making a frank comparison between Mexico’s drug war and Colombia’s insurgency.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made headlines Wednesday for making a frank comparison between Mexico’s drug war and Colombia’s insurgency. While academics and think-tanks have long pointed out the parallels between the two conflicts, it was still unusual to hear from one of the top-ranked officials in the U.S. government.  Clinton also mentioned Plan Colombia, adding, “we need to figure out what are the equivalents for Central America, Mexico and the Caribbean.” The Mexican government has always been sensitive to such comparisons, and the US Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, Arturo Valenzuela, was quick to qualify Clinton’s remarks, stating, “the term insurgency should not be viewed in the same way we would refer to a Colombian insurgency. Not an insurgency of a militarized group within a society that is attempting to take over the state for political reasons.”

Valenzuela is right that the basic goal of the Mexican DTOs is personal enrichment, not taking over the state. But the strategies and the organization of certain groups like the Zetas or La Familia are increasingly resembling that of a political insurgency, in that these groups have created zones of impunity where they are the ones imposing social, economic and political control, not the state. Look no further than the latest slaying of a Mexican mayor in El Naranjo, the third such killing in a month, or a recent report released by a Mexican Senate Committee which states that cartels have total control of 195 of Mexico’s 2,439 municipalities, and wield significant political influence at least another 1,536 (that’s 71 percent of the total).

It’s also worth pointing out again the limits to the Mexico-Colombia analogy. Mexico makes its money off trafficking drugs, not cultivating them, and is facing down at least seven major cartels, unlike Colombia in the early 1990s, dominated by just two, the Medellin and the Cali cartel. In many ways Mexico has to confront a much more volatile and fragmented battleground than Colombia did twenty years ago. In Colombia it is a group of leftist guerrillas, the FARC, who are driving the drug trade (in some estimates providing 70 percent of the country’s cocaine), in contrast to Mexico, where it is non-uniformed, mercenary forces responsible for much of the violence against the state.

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