WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama, seeking to calm a diplomatic furor with a close ally, disputed Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s observation this week that Mexico has begun to look like Colombia at the height of its struggle against a drug-financed insurgency.
In an interview with a Spanish-language newspaper published Thursday, Obama said that “Mexico is a great democracy, vibrant, with a growing economy. And as a result, what is happening there can’t be compared with what happened in Colombia 20 years ago.”
Obama’s comments to the Los Angeles-based La Opinion followed an outcry that began in Mexico on Wednesday, after Clinton told a foreign policy group that Mexico “is looking more and more like Colombia looked 20 years ago, where the narco-traffickers controlled certain parts of the country.”
Despite Obama’s attempts to soften Clinton’s analysis, there is widespread – though not universal – sentiment within the U.S. government that the drug cartels are acting in many ways like an insurgency, and need to be treated with the tough methods Colombia used in its U.S.-supported “Plan Colombia” in the past two decades. Some officials in Mexico also share this view.
Clinton’s comments set off an outcry in Mexico, and were quickly challenged by aides to Mexican President Felipe Calderon.
Since then, other U.S. officials, including Arturo Valenzuela, assistant secretary of state for Latin America, and Gil Kerlikowske, the director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, have scrambled to minimize the damage to relations with Mexico, a key partner in the anti-drug fight.
They argued that while there are similarities in terms of the widespread violence, the Mexican drug cartels have no political agenda – they are not seeking to overthrow the Mexican government.
A spokesman for Clinton said her comparison was a reference to the violence.