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A war the U.S. must fight

December 08, 2008

Conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan will demand President Obama's attention as soon as he takes office, but he also must make time for the war on our border, where the Mexican government is fighting narcotics traffickers. Drug violence has claimed more than 6,800 lives in Mexico in the last two years, and has seeped into scores of U.S. cities that are marketplaces for illegal drugs. This war is as ugly as the others, with beheadings, kidnappings and urban shootouts that threaten the stability of Mexico and the national security of the United States.

The toll is stunning, as documented by Times reporters: 1,300 dead in Ciudad Juarez this year and 350 killed in Tijuana since September. Drug corruption has reached the highest levels of law enforcement in Mexico City, where the country's top counter-narcotics chief was found to be on the payroll of traffickers. And in suburban San Diego, alleged members of a Tijuana drug gang are accused of at least a dozen murders and 20 kidnappings over three years.

Forbes magazine recently asked whether Mexico is a failed state, given its inability to stem the flow of blood and drugs. The state is weak, but not failed. After 70 years of one-party rule, Mexico's executive and legislative branches are evolving, and the country is trying to build an independent judiciary. The problem is that President Felipe Calderon is fighting to retake control from the cartels before ending corruption and impunity. Strong law enforcement agencies and the rule of law have not been fully established.

The drug war is a bilateral problem. According to a recent report by the Brookings Institution, an estimated 2,000 guns make their way from the United States to Mexico every day. Drug consumption in the U.S. has not declined significantly over the last quarter-century, with a total of about 6 million users of heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine. While up slightly since Calderon launched his offensive last year, the street price of cocaine is nonetheless a third of what it was in 1990, indicating a steady supply through the Mexican smuggling routes.

It is in the U.S. interest that Calderon's war succeed, because a failed state in Mexico would mean chaos on the border and more immigration, among other consequences. Under the so-called Merida Initiative, the United States is to provide $1.4 billion worth of interdiction equipment and training to Mexico over three years. Agreements were reached last week on the first delivery, which is expected in January. This should be accompanied by close cooperation between U.S. and Mexican law enforcement. The Obama administration should then step up efforts to interdict southbound shipments of bulk cash, chemicals for methamphetamine production and high-powered weapons. Some weapons come from legal gun stores and shows, but Mexican officials say others are black-market goods from abroad and, apparently, from U.S. Army and National Guard depots. And finally, the U.S. must seriously address drug consumption with funding for prevention and treatment programs. Ultimately, demand drives drug trafficking.

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