Marketing a 'Miracle'

Has Medellín's resurgence been oversold?

While it is possible that, as Francis Fukuyama and Seth Colby suggest, economic development, social services, and modernist architecture can claim part of the credit for decreased violence in parts of Colombia, it seems likely that most of those gains should be credited to changes in the drug markets ("Half a Miracle," May/June 2011).

The decision of Álvaro Uribe's administration -- backed by Washington -- to embrace the paramilitary militias as allies against the insurgent FARC allowed the "paras" to gain market share in the cocaine-export trade at the expense of the drug organizations affiliated with the FARC. That reduced the frequency of violent exchanges between the traffickers and the government. As Fukuyama and Colby note, violence in Medellín has risen again now that the government has turned on one of the largest paramilitary groups.

Mexico, not facing the same sort of existential threat, need not make the same sort of devil's bargain. Instead, after a public and transparent process, Mexico should designate one of its dealing organizations as the country's most violent. Then Mexican and U.S. enforcement efforts should focus on dismantling that group, using pressure on the group itself and on the U.S. organizations that buy from it. After one group has been taken down, the process should be run again. If it worked, this kind of selective enforcement would force a "race to the bottom" in violence; in effect, each organization's drug-dealing revenues would be held hostage to its self-restraint when it comes to gunfire. 

This is not to say that Mexico should neglect the need for economic and social development. But it would be folly to neglect the potential gains from precisely focused law enforcement.

Mark Kleiman
Professor of Public Policy, UCLA
Los Angeles, Calif.

Francis Fukuyama and Seth Colby reply:

We're not sure that the strategy that Mark Kleiman suggests of taking down drug cartels in sequence will work for Mexico. Like Colombia back in the early 1990s, the Mexican state's ability to arrest and convict drug traffickers is extremely weak; per capita, the country only has a fraction of the police that the United States does, and those it has are of very low quality. There are serious problems due to Mexican federalism, which puts the bulk of the police under the control of mayors and governors who do not have professional forces at their disposal. Due to this lack of capacity, the Mexican government is actually executing a strategy not unlike the Colombian one of turning cartels against one another. This was how Pablo Escobar's cartel was dismantled, and it was at the base of the Medellín strategy. In time, Mexico can create the capacity to take on the cartels frontally, but this will take heavy investment of resources, as well as constitutional changes that will put more of the police under federal control. The Mexicans must do this, however, if their country is ever to create a credible rule of law.

While strategic interventions by Colombia's police surely were crucial, the transformation occurred because important segments of society (government, business, and civil society) rallied around an alternative future for Colombia and rejected the legitimacy of drug traffickers. This vision was predicated on social, economic, and security interventions. A sophisticated security strategy alone would not have worked in Colombia, nor is it likely to work in Mexico.

From ForeignPolicy.com:

LUGUE: I have to live in the city portrayed as a miracle, and I have to say this is wishful thinking. Don't be fooled by those nice libraries the last two mayors built; they are only the testimony of a society whose idea of change is cosmetic.


Talking the Talk

South Africans aren't the only ones keeping quiet about AIDS.

Jonny Steinberg's article on South African AIDS literature reminded me of a reading from my book The Invisible Cure I had arranged to give at a black bookstore near my house in Harlem ("An Eerie Silence," May/June 2011).

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that the HIV rate in this and other predominantly black New York neighborhoods may be as high as 6 percent -- not in South Africa's league, but very high indeed. But just as in South Africa, no one wanted to talk about it. Pharmaceutical companies advertise AIDS drugs on bus shelters, and the Department of Health and Human Services sponsors HIV-testing campaigns, but local newspapers, churches, and community groups are silent on the issue. In keeping with this general tendency, the only people who turned up at my reading were my husband and the bookstore's cashier. (Two friends and the bookstore's owner appeared later.)

Fighting AIDS isn't impossible. During the 1980s and early 1990s, steep declines in HIV infections occurred in both American gay white men and in the general population of the East African country of Uganda, where the virus was spreading predominantly among heterosexuals, as it is in South Africa and the U.S. black community today. Even if the causes of the gay white American and Ugandan epidemics were different, the key to fighting them was similar: behavior change among communities at risk, motivated by frank discussion of sex and relationships. Literary and artistic responses to AIDS in both countries were part of this vital conversation.

What is stifling a similar response to AIDS among African-Americans and in South Africa? As Steinberg notes, it's probably shame. In both South Africa and the United States, the alleged hypersexuality of blacks was used to justify the racist ideas that underpinned apartheid and Jim Crow laws, and much black cultural expression today is devoted to dispelling racist myths and promoting black pride. As Steinberg also notes, talking frankly about AIDS and sex must seem like capitulation, an admission that the sexualized racist stereotypes of the past were true. Ugandans, by contrast, never endured these burdens of alleged inferiority to anything like a similar degree. During colonial times, the advancement of native Ugandans in medicine, law, government, agriculture, and other fields promoted the idea that they could solve their own problems. Similarly, the gay pride movement rooted in the 1960s helped gay men face up to the reality of AIDS in the 1980s. In communities where this sense of empowerment is lacking, programs for HIV treatment and testing alone can never generate it. Only language can do that, and only black culture at its most creative can find it.  

Helen Epstein
New York, N.Y.