Mexican Cartels Fill the Void in a Post-FARC Colombia

There is increasing evidence that Mexican organized crime, in particular its drug cartels, has moved into the void left behind in the post-FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) underworld in Colombia.  This development has critical implications for American foreign policy and that of its allies, as well as the global war on drugs.

When the ceasefire between the Colombian government and the FARC rebels went into effect in July 2015, it ended over fifty years of FARC's violent hold on the country.  With control of over 60% of the Colombian drug trade, their demobilization left a vacuum initially filled by the Gulf Clan, whose roots lie in Pablo Escobar's empire.  But as the Colombian government has shifted its attention to cracking down on this group, numerous regional paramilitary and guerrilla groups, including dissident factions of ex-FARC, have enhanced their presence.  These groups are engaged in ongoing conflicts between and among themselves, which has impacted the quality and quantity of cocaine and disrupted the supply chain.

With their ability to traffic cocaine into the United States significantly impaired, Mexican cartels – principally the Sinaloa cartel – have begun to exert some control over the market.

Over the last few years, the influence of Mexican organized crime can be increasingly seen and felt in Colombia.  Earlier this year, a Colombian official issued an alert about the influence of the Sinaloa cartel in the town of Tierralta in the northern province of Cordoba; the cartel was suspected of providing financial support to a local dissident ex-FARC paramilitary group.  Mexican organized crime groups, including the Sinaloa cartel, Jalisco Cartel New Generation, and the Zetas, have a presence in the Colombian provinces of Antioquia, Cundinamarca, Norte de Santander, Valle del Cauca, Narino, Cauca, Meta, Guaviare, Vichada, and Cordoba.

In addition to developing new trafficking partnerships to replace those they lost when FARC was dismantled, it would appear that the Mexican cartels are also dealing directly with those in control of territorial production facilities and internal supply networks to ensure that further instability does not affect the supply the cartels rely on for trafficking into the United States, Canada, and Europe.

Much of the disruption in the Colombian drug trade since the 1990s was the result of pressure by, and support from, the United States government.  As part of its war on drugs, the U.S. demanded action from the Colombian government to eradicate production directly by destroying crops and production facilities and, perhaps more importantly, by dismantling the criminal groups engaged in the trade.  The Colombian government has been successful at eliminating first the Medellín cartel and then the Cali cartel that moved in to replace the Medellíns.  In recent years, the government has also successfully dismantled FARC, who had controlled much of the cocaine production since the fall of the Cali cartel, and has largely gutted the Gulf Clan.

The Colombian government continues to engage in counter-narcotics activities to further fracture the remaining guerrilla and paramilitary groups who now control the production and distribution facilities in the wake of FARC's demobilization.  However, cocaine cultivation and export continues to rise due to the high demand and high prices offered by the 1.5 million current users of the drug in the U.S.  The inability of the government to effectively transition farmers away from coca to substitute crops means that the incentives to grow coca for the cartels continue to drive increasing production.

This leaves the following critical foreign policy questions that must be grappled with: what does the dismantling of large-scale and well organized drug organizations leave in its wake, and what policies can best deal with any resulting threats?

If the Colombian government is not able to effectively eliminate the smaller and more numerous groups that now control the drug trade, a fractured underworld may make the problem more difficult to address in the future.  Alternatively, it may enable the Mexican cartels to exert dominance through superior organization, engineering, and effective supply chain management over the vertical integration of production, distribution, and trafficking in Colombian cocaine.  In effect, the Mexican cartels could become the Alibabas of the drug world.

This may have been part of the cartels' plan all along – namely, manipulating U.S. policies on fighting the drug war in Colombia to the cartels' ultimate advantage by (1) utilizing American-financed projects and intermediaries to remove their competition; (2) subsequently sabotaging development of a stable law enforcement apparatus in the aftermath; (3) then weakening American and Canadian public – and thereby, political – support for ongoing operations in affected regions; and (4) finally stepping in to fill the gap and constructing a new part of their regional organization.

Consider this a constructed result by the cartels, rather than the cartels simply being the opportunistic beneficiaries of a power vacuum they played no role in creating.  This is an extension of what many experts see as the situation in Mexico, where the authorities view the cartels as a lesser evil than the even greater levels of chaotic violence that would emerge from a more fractured underworld.  Here we have the failed state versus authoritarian state analogy: an unmanageable failed state, such as Somalia (e.g., fractured underworld) and recent periods in Iraq and Afghanistan as part of the War on Terror, is a greater evil than a less entropic dictatorial regime (e.g., Saddam Hussein's era in Iraq), which can be managed.

The U.S. has spent about ten billion dollars in the last decade and a half on the drug war in Colombia, including financial and intelligence aid to the Colombian government for anti-narcotics operations.  But political infighting, security obstacles, failed agricultural transition programs, and an absence of sufficient funding have hindered the success of these operations.  Nevertheless, the U.S. continues to pressure the Colombian government to curb coca production through eradication efforts and dismantling of criminal organizations.  For each apparent success, a new problem seems to emerge, and we may be seeing two steps back for every step forward.

The recent presidential election has complicated Colombian politics.  The winner (Ivan Duque) wants to revise or annul the peace agreements signed with FARC, while his opponent (Gustavo Petro, who received 46% of the vote) supports the agreements.  A chief negotiator from FARC was also found trafficking in cocaine, and Petro may be "courted" by Iran as it seeks to strengthen its foothold in South America.

In September of last year, President Trump threatened to label Colombia "not compliant on anti-drug efforts" and recommended the re-establishment of coca crop fumigation.  The commander of U.S. Southern Command has recently raised concerns that the continuing march of the cartels is undermining the sovereignty and security of Latin American nations, but his resources are too limited to address the problem.  Thus, further efforts to combat the growing threat from a well organized and vertically integrated underworld dominated by the Mexican cartels will need to include all possible options.

Demand must continue to be reduced through education and stepped-up law enforcement activities at home, greater attention must be paid to securing the domestic borders, and production and distribution groups must be demobilized at the source.  With regard to the latter, traditionally "soft" approaches such as supporting farmers to transition to a legal alternative can continue to be used, but these need to be complemented by a proactive "hard" strategy backed up by much greater use of U.S. and Canadian military assets – including "boots on the ground."  To properly fund these proposals will take substantial additional resources, and to avoid an increase in net government expenditures, the money should come from a long overdue shift in unnecessary domestic social expenditures toward national security initiatives.

There is increasing evidence that Mexican organized crime, in particular its drug cartels, has moved into the void left behind in the post-FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) underworld in Colombia.  This development has critical implications for American foreign policy and that of its allies, as well as the global war on drugs.

When the ceasefire between the Colombian government and the FARC rebels went into effect in July 2015, it ended over fifty years of FARC's violent hold on the country.  With control of over 60% of the Colombian drug trade, their demobilization left a vacuum initially filled by the Gulf Clan, whose roots lie in Pablo Escobar's empire.  But as the Colombian government has shifted its attention to cracking down on this group, numerous regional paramilitary and guerrilla groups, including dissident factions of ex-FARC, have enhanced their presence.  These groups are engaged in ongoing conflicts between and among themselves, which has impacted the quality and quantity of cocaine and disrupted the supply chain.

With their ability to traffic cocaine into the United States significantly impaired, Mexican cartels – principally the Sinaloa cartel – have begun to exert some control over the market.

Over the last few years, the influence of Mexican organized crime can be increasingly seen and felt in Colombia.  Earlier this year, a Colombian official issued an alert about the influence of the Sinaloa cartel in the town of Tierralta in the northern province of Cordoba; the cartel was suspected of providing financial support to a local dissident ex-FARC paramilitary group.  Mexican organized crime groups, including the Sinaloa cartel, Jalisco Cartel New Generation, and the Zetas, have a presence in the Colombian provinces of Antioquia, Cundinamarca, Norte de Santander, Valle del Cauca, Narino, Cauca, Meta, Guaviare, Vichada, and Cordoba.

In addition to developing new trafficking partnerships to replace those they lost when FARC was dismantled, it would appear that the Mexican cartels are also dealing directly with those in control of territorial production facilities and internal supply networks to ensure that further instability does not affect the supply the cartels rely on for trafficking into the United States, Canada, and Europe.

Much of the disruption in the Colombian drug trade since the 1990s was the result of pressure by, and support from, the United States government.  As part of its war on drugs, the U.S. demanded action from the Colombian government to eradicate production directly by destroying crops and production facilities and, perhaps more importantly, by dismantling the criminal groups engaged in the trade.  The Colombian government has been successful at eliminating first the Medellín cartel and then the Cali cartel that moved in to replace the Medellíns.  In recent years, the government has also successfully dismantled FARC, who had controlled much of the cocaine production since the fall of the Cali cartel, and has largely gutted the Gulf Clan.

The Colombian government continues to engage in counter-narcotics activities to further fracture the remaining guerrilla and paramilitary groups who now control the production and distribution facilities in the wake of FARC's demobilization.  However, cocaine cultivation and export continues to rise due to the high demand and high prices offered by the 1.5 million current users of the drug in the U.S.  The inability of the government to effectively transition farmers away from coca to substitute crops means that the incentives to grow coca for the cartels continue to drive increasing production.

This leaves the following critical foreign policy questions that must be grappled with: what does the dismantling of large-scale and well organized drug organizations leave in its wake, and what policies can best deal with any resulting threats?

If the Colombian government is not able to effectively eliminate the smaller and more numerous groups that now control the drug trade, a fractured underworld may make the problem more difficult to address in the future.  Alternatively, it may enable the Mexican cartels to exert dominance through superior organization, engineering, and effective supply chain management over the vertical integration of production, distribution, and trafficking in Colombian cocaine.  In effect, the Mexican cartels could become the Alibabas of the drug world.

This may have been part of the cartels' plan all along – namely, manipulating U.S. policies on fighting the drug war in Colombia to the cartels' ultimate advantage by (1) utilizing American-financed projects and intermediaries to remove their competition; (2) subsequently sabotaging development of a stable law enforcement apparatus in the aftermath; (3) then weakening American and Canadian public – and thereby, political – support for ongoing operations in affected regions; and (4) finally stepping in to fill the gap and constructing a new part of their regional organization.

Consider this a constructed result by the cartels, rather than the cartels simply being the opportunistic beneficiaries of a power vacuum they played no role in creating.  This is an extension of what many experts see as the situation in Mexico, where the authorities view the cartels as a lesser evil than the even greater levels of chaotic violence that would emerge from a more fractured underworld.  Here we have the failed state versus authoritarian state analogy: an unmanageable failed state, such as Somalia (e.g., fractured underworld) and recent periods in Iraq and Afghanistan as part of the War on Terror, is a greater evil than a less entropic dictatorial regime (e.g., Saddam Hussein's era in Iraq), which can be managed.

The U.S. has spent about ten billion dollars in the last decade and a half on the drug war in Colombia, including financial and intelligence aid to the Colombian government for anti-narcotics operations.  But political infighting, security obstacles, failed agricultural transition programs, and an absence of sufficient funding have hindered the success of these operations.  Nevertheless, the U.S. continues to pressure the Colombian government to curb coca production through eradication efforts and dismantling of criminal organizations.  For each apparent success, a new problem seems to emerge, and we may be seeing two steps back for every step forward.

The recent presidential election has complicated Colombian politics.  The winner (Ivan Duque) wants to revise or annul the peace agreements signed with FARC, while his opponent (Gustavo Petro, who received 46% of the vote) supports the agreements.  A chief negotiator from FARC was also found trafficking in cocaine, and Petro may be "courted" by Iran as it seeks to strengthen its foothold in South America.

In September of last year, President Trump threatened to label Colombia "not compliant on anti-drug efforts" and recommended the re-establishment of coca crop fumigation.  The commander of U.S. Southern Command has recently raised concerns that the continuing march of the cartels is undermining the sovereignty and security of Latin American nations, but his resources are too limited to address the problem.  Thus, further efforts to combat the growing threat from a well organized and vertically integrated underworld dominated by the Mexican cartels will need to include all possible options.

Demand must continue to be reduced through education and stepped-up law enforcement activities at home, greater attention must be paid to securing the domestic borders, and production and distribution groups must be demobilized at the source.  With regard to the latter, traditionally "soft" approaches such as supporting farmers to transition to a legal alternative can continue to be used, but these need to be complemented by a proactive "hard" strategy backed up by much greater use of U.S. and Canadian military assets – including "boots on the ground."  To properly fund these proposals will take substantial additional resources, and to avoid an increase in net government expenditures, the money should come from a long overdue shift in unnecessary domestic social expenditures toward national security initiatives.