WRITING FROM MEXICO CITY — On Monday, President-elect Barack Obama and Mexican President Felipe Calderon engaged in a time-honored tradition: At the outset of a new U.S. administration, the American president meets the Mexican head of state before all others. Obama and Calderon got the chance to look into each other's eyes and speak about the importance of U.S.-Mexico relations -- the diplomatic equivalent of new neighbors meeting over a cup of tea.
Now it's time to move beyond etiquette and face hard facts. Mexico is becoming a lawless country. More people died here in drug- related violence last year than were killed in Iraq. The government has been infiltrated by the mafias and drug cartels that it has vowed to combat.
Although many believe that Obama's greatest foreign policy challenges lie in Afghanistan or Iran or the Middle East, they may in fact be found south of the border. Mexico may not be a failed state yet, but it desperately needs to wage a more effective war against organized crime, and it must have the right kind of American help and incentives to succeed.
Over the last decade, the surge in drug trafficking and Calderon's failed efforts to contain it have been symptomatic of what doesn't work in Mexico's dysfunctional democracy. In 2007, violence related to the drug trade resulted in more than 2,000 murders in Mexico, and in 2008, the toll was more than 5,000. Only a few months ago, top-level officials in the Public Security Ministry were arrested and charged with protecting members of Mexico's main drug cartels.
Calderon's promises to "clean up the house" have not gone far enough. As George Orwell wrote, "People denounce the war while preserving the type of society that makes it inevitable."
The Mexican president, who is seeking a stronger "strategic" relationship with the United States, surely told Obama on Monday that the heightened level of violence was a result of government efficiency in combating drug cartels. In that view, the rise in street "executions" is evidence of a firm hand, not an ineffectual one.
But Calderon's self-congratulatory stance masks a president who insists on closing his eyes in the face of deep-rooted problems and complex challenges.
The current strategy -- based largely on the increased militarization of Mexico -- isn't doing enough to end government corruption. Drug traffickers finance politicians, and politicians protect drug traffickers. Judges take bribes. Unregulated financial institutions make it easy to launder money. A weak, ill-trained, underpaid police force is easily infiltrated. And most important, Mexico's economic structure thwarts growth and social mobility, forcing Mexicans to either cross the border for a better life or to join the narco-culture.
Obama, for his part, needs to acknowledge the negative role the U.S. has played by largely ignoring Mexico's -- and his own country's -- failures in fighting the drug trade.
President Bush's year-old Merida Initiative, through which the United States provides Mexico with about $400 million a year to help fight drug trafficking, has been a necessary but insufficient step. Mexican drug traffickers buy arms that U.S. traders sell. They provide cocaine that U.S. users demand, and they have set up distribution networks across the U.S. because no one has stopped them from doing so.
Mexico is paying a very high price for American voracity, and Obama should, at the very least, acknowledge that a bilateral problem will require bilateral solutions.
More important, the U.S. must not merely send more money for more militarization in Mexico. It must demand accountability for the aid it offers and insist that, if Mexico wants a helping hand, it will have to aggressively clean up its own house and accept uncomfortable truths.
In order for Mexico to fight a successful war on drug trafficking, its leaders must construct a prosperous, inclusive, lawful country in which citizens aren't propelled into illicit activities in order to survive, and criminals aren't protected by those charged with stopping them. Only then would Calderon have the legitimacy to request the deeper kind of relationship he wants from the Obama administration and the United States, and only then should the incoming U.S. administration view such a relationship as a viable option.
Instead of the polite, traditional Mexico-United States meet-and-greet, Obama and Calderon must meet to change the facts on the ground in both nations. They could call it the audacity of moving beyond tea and sympathy.