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Diplomacy in Action

Drug Enforcement and the Rule of Law: Mexico and Colombia

David T. Johnson
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs
Statement before the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Human Rights and the Law
Washington, DC
May 18, 2010


As prepared

Chairman Durbin, thank you for the opportunity to testify today on drug enforcement and the rule of law in Mexico and Colombia.

As the State Department’s Assistant Secretary for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, I oversee foreign assistance that supports counter-narcotics, police training, and justice support programs around the world, including the Western Hemisphere.

Anyone paying attention to the news south of our border is aware that drug-related violence is spiraling out of control: within drug cartels, between drug cartels, and against drug cartels.

Drug trafficking organizations have shown time and again that they have no decency, or respect for the law or human life, and the increasingly depraved acts of violence we are seeing currently in Mexico are emblematic of cartels’ historic disregard for anything but profit.

I cannot overstate the impact that this kind of violence and crime can have on a country – the individual tragedies we hear about on a near-daily basis, such as innocent lives lost in cartel crossfire, rip the fabric of families and communities.

In Colombia and Mexico, however, we have seen great determination from their governments to stop that downward slide. And this is perhaps one of the most, if not the most, important elements in fighting to restore the rule of law: Political will from within the country and strong, participatory leadership throughout it.

In Colombia, former President Pastrana recognized the need to intensify Colombia’s efforts to stop the cartels. He was a willing and open partner when our government expressed interest in supporting his goals. He provided the political commitment necessary to get Plan Colombia off the ground in close coordination and with assistance from the United States. His successor, President Uribe, has expanded this effort through Democratic Security and National Consolidation policies that seek to address insecurity, narcotics trafficking, and a lack of economic opportunities.

We have been equally fortunate in Mexico to launch the Merida Initiative. We have seen, in a relatively short period of time, a change in the Mexican body politic that reflects an understanding that this issue must be faced collectively, and head-on.

In Mexico, bilateral meetings are held on a monthly basis to discuss progress on each of the 46 or so Merida projects, which are extensively negotiated every fiscal year.

One of the natural outgrowths of leadership that we saw in Colombia was ownership: the Colombians were partners during the design of Plan Colombia, and have remained so during its implementation. The Mexicans are equally engaged in leading Merida’s planning and implementation processes, and bilateral meetings are held on a monthly basis to discuss progress on each of the 46 or so Merida projects, which are extensively negotiated every fiscal year.

In both countries, the U.S. Government has played a supporting role, seeking to complement strategies, rather than develop competing ones.

When we talk about ownership, we are talking about ownership of a whole of government effort. As security began to be established, it became possible to address other societal factors contributing to narcotrafficking and lawlessness. That progression allowed the Colombian Government to expand social services to former conflict regions and establish strong institutions to address serious human rights issues. This same approach is at the heart of our effort in Mexico.

Our experience in Colombia also prepared us to adapt to the changing environment; to recognize and embrace opportunities when they present themselves. Counternarcotics programs must constantly evolve from the point where they started, to confront and counter the threat, which is also adapting and changing in the interest of greatest financial reward.

In Colombia, criminal gangs have emerged to fill the void in the drug trafficking network left by the demobilization of paramilitary organizations and weakening of the FARC. Tackling these new criminal organizations requires adjustments in how we investigate and prosecute their criminal behavior, while simultaneously maintaining pressure against the FARC.

In Mexico, we have developed curriculum and provided U.S. law enforcement trainers to support a new type of investigator cadre specially formed to confront new narcotics threats and associated crimes.

These examples represent mutually beneficial opportunities: in both cases, we adjusted our programmatic plans to join specific Colombian and Mexican goals, in order to advance our shared one.

These are win-win situations that need to be found and acted upon as the operational environment and our programs, such as Plan Colombia and the Merida Initiative, continue to evolve.

Another important lesson learned in Colombia that we are applying in Mexico is recognition that there is no silver bullet to the problems created by drug trafficking organizations. We must be flexible, forward-leaning, and maintain a long-term vision with our counterparts focused on strengthening the institutions of our partners.

Colombia undertook judicial reforms that made the huge shift from the inquisitorial to the accusatorial system; Mexico is now following that same path.

The lessons learned from our experiences in Colombia - need for political will, ownership of a coordinated government effort, demonstrating adaptability to a changing environment, and recognition that we must take a holistic, long-term view in creating and entrenching solutions – are reflected in our efforts in Mexico.

We have seen significant, positive changes in Colombia, many of which are attributable to the bilateral plan that we have worked on together for ten years. We have also witnessed Colombia’s ascendency to become a regional leader in the counter-narcotics struggle; their unique experiences and successes have made them the logical choice to act as advisors and trainers. In fact, Colombia has already trained approximately 5,800 Mexican law enforcement and court officers on a variety of operational and judicial issues. We applaud this kind of regional collaboration.

Mexico’s recent high-profile seizures and arrests are clear signs that this effort is moving in the right direction. Their determination, however, is matched by the drug trafficking organizations’ determination to maintain their territorial control and profits. We will continue to be unwavering in our commitment to the fight against these cartels, and to support our bilateral partners in their efforts to protect their citizens.

Our efforts to build new capacity abroad to contend with global threats at their source helps to protect the American people here at home.

Thank you, Chairman Durbin and Co-Chairman Coburn. I will do my best to address your questions.

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