Interview with Colombian Ambassador To The U.S. Gabriel SilvaThe Colombian Ambassador to the U.S., Gabriel Silva, was in San Diego this week to promote the free trade agreement between the two countries, which is set to take effect May 15. Prior to his role as ambassador, Silva served as Minister of Defense under former President Álvaro Uribe. Reporter Jill Replogle sat down with him to talk about the drug war.
Jill: Colombia has been held up as a regional success story in terms of the growth of its economy and improvements in public safety. What has the country done to make that happen?
Silva: The most important component of what we have done is, Colombia decided to push back. Push back on organized crime, push back on drug trafficking, push back on terrorism….Colombia is a very rich country. We have the components to make things happen, but violence was like a deterrence, like a Berlin Wall…And really what happened is we tore down the Berlin Wall of violence and terrorism….And we’re still fighting that battle, but the progress has been immense.
Jill: What has Colombia learned in its battle against drug trafficking and what lessons does it have for countries like Mexico?
Silva: I would say there are three lessons that explain why Colombia was able to turn the page and move ahead. The first is that we have a centralized police force. That’s a problem for many countries, including Mexico, where they have five levels of police force from the municipal to the federal, and there are all kinds of interacting, competing forces that are difficult to organize and coordinate and allow for corruption.
The other lesson we learned is you have to pay with your own resources, and have the elites pay for improving the overall security picture. So you need to commit resources; you need to tax the rich people. Because one of the problems is people decide to protect themselves, and they hire bodyguards and buy armored cars and build walls around their homes. That will work for awhile, but sooner or later, public safety for everyone turns out to be the real problem.
The third lesson is that when you start a process of fighting back, organized crime tends to weaken the resolve of the people, doing horrible things, and threatening, and proposing ideas that don't work, like legalization, like peace treaties between the state and the mafias. It's easy to fall into those traps because the task is so huge. But (they) won't solve it. You have to be very committed.
Jill: At the recent Summit of the Americas held in Colombia, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and other Latin American leaders pushed for a discussion on new ways to fight the drug war. What are some of the alternatives?
Silva: That’s actually a debate that’s just starting. I think part of the problem is that ideology has taken over the debate. So it turns out to be a political issue, or a religious issue or a moral issue. We have to go back to the roots that this is a public policy issue and we have to sit down and review the options. We need to go to the facts and see what is working and what is not, through experts, investing a lot of intellectual capital and research.
Jill: Is legalization an option?
Silva: It can only be done as a global decision, because if you legalize in one country and not as an international policy, then you create a haven for drug traffickers and organized crime. So you need to create a global debate on the issue. (Also) legalization usually comes up when you're desperate, and you cannot really put forward policies that come out of desperation. You need to put policies that come out of conviction plus good data and research. Legalization is a legitimate discussion if that discussion is not conducted as a way to shy away from fighting organized crime.