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How the Drug War Spread Across the Entire World

Colombia’s incredible turnaround strategy has become a rare success story in the drug war, as well as its most formidable brand and export. It is, however, problematic.

The sun was barely setting over a colonial villa in rural central Colombia as Álvaro Uribe Vélez, by any measure Colombia’s most transformative modern president, recited lines of poetry to a small crowd beside a courtyard fountain. The former head of state, who left office in August 2010, projects the air of a financier in his official portraits. But today he was dressed like a paisa—with a traditional sombrero, a white handmade cloth draped over his shoulder, and a walking stick given to him by citizens of a nearby town.

On that perfect summer evening in early July, Uribe liked one particular verse—about a beautiful woman with enchanting eyes—so much that he recited it over and over to the dozens of locals seated in a circle around him. Also in the audience was the Colombian celebrity Catalina Maya, an actress and model, who sat perched on an armchair, her body twisted over its back to regard Uribe. Women and girls were crammed onto the villa’s steps, and housemaids pretended to continue working as they peeked for glances at the expresident, who every so often locked eyes with a new member of the crowd.

Álvaro Uribe is a well-loved man. During the eight years in which he led Colombia, he won the hearts of millions of his countrymen, from those in small villages to the most elite urban circles. And the reason why these millions adore Uribe largely boils down to one word: security. Uribe still casts a powerful spell over his former constituents because he used his time in office to smash a four-decades-old guerrilla insurgency with an overwhelming show of force—and in so doing made countless Colombians’ lives immeasurably safer.

When Uribe took office in 2002, Colombia was the murder and kidnap capital of the world, the source of nearly all global cocaine, and an economic weakling. The government had staggered through four decades of armed conflict with leftist rebels, most notably the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), and had tried everything—even negotiations—to end the strife. Nothing seemed to work until Uribe came along. Unlike previous presidents, Uribe believed—and managed to convince the country—that if Colombia fought with all its military might against the guerrillas, it could win. Determined to make a hard break from the past, he ended a fraught peace process that his predecessor had initiated with the rebels. Then he dispatched tens of thousands of troops to retake control of Colombian soil, focusing on securing the cities and highways. Uribe found an eager partner in the United States, which supplied state-of-the-art weapons and intelligence to aid in the dismantling of armed groups. Eventually, he also convinced the United Autodefense Forces of Colombia (AUC)—a private paramilitary force of some 30,000 fighters that had emerged to protect local elites and landowners from the guerrillas, only to become just as wrapped up in drugs and violence as its enemies—to demobilize.

By the time Uribe was reelected in 2006, a conflict that had long threatened to break the Colombian state suddenly seemed as if it might be drawing to an end. The murder rate had fallen by 45 percent, and the kidnapping rate—which hovered near 3,000 people per year in 2002— plummeted more than fourfold. Even drug interdictions were up to the point that traffickers started looking for alternative routes into the United States (though Mexico) and Europe (through West Africa). By the end of his second term, Uribe began talking about “the end of the end” of the guerrillas.

Colombia’s incredible turnaround and the strategy credited with bringing it about have become not only a rare success story in the drug war, but also its most formidable brand and export. The governments of Mexico and several other Central American countries that have been plunged into violent confrontation with drug gangs have tried assiduously to replicate their South American peer’s strategy. With U.S. support, Mexico has deployed troops, militarized its police, and fought tooth and nail to regain control of its farthest-flung states. Honduras, which has the world’s highest murder rate, and Guatemala are flying in Colombian experts to advise them. Even in far-away conflicts such as Afghanistan, U.S. policy makers have looked for a model in the Andes.