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Mexico's drug war finally gets Washington's attention

A good start would be for the U.S. and Mexico to cooperate. The U.S. could shift some resources from immigration enforcement to fighting drug and weapons trafficking and money laundering.

March 20, 2009

Mexico often has felt like a stepchild of U.S. foreign policy, its demands for attention to immigration reform, the drug trade and other bilateral issues cast aside for far-flung crises, the most recent being the Bush administration's global war on terror. But now Mexican officials must be thinking they should have been careful what they wished for. Mexico's drug wars have claimed well over 7,000 lives in the last 14 months, many of them in assaults with military-grade weapons. Twice, grenades were tossed at the U.S. Consulate in Monterrey, and the violence has been seeping across the border, with more than 500 drug-related kidnappings in Phoenix alone. Now that drug violence is considered a potential national security threat, the U.S. government is paying attention.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton will visit Mexico next week, followed by Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. and Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano in early April, and President Obama shortly after that. The White House says that Obama and President Felipe Calderon will discuss how the two countries can join forces against drug traffickers and "work toward effective, comprehensive immigration reform."

Napolitano is looking at using Border Patrol agents and more customs officers as troops in the drug war. We think it's reasonable to shift some resources from immigration enforcement to the fight against drug violence. At the same time, however, she is considering calls by governors in Texas and Arizona for National Guard deployments, and we believe it would be a mistake to militarize the border. This is a law enforcement issue that requires binational cooperation, and nothing raises the Mexican public's hackles more than talk of the U.S. military on the border. What is needed is U.S. support for investigations, policing and technology to stop weapons trafficking and money laundering for drug lords in Mexico, as well as a policy to address drug consumption in the United States.

No one really expects Obama to take on the divisive issue of immigration reform in the middle of an economic meltdown, but it is welcome news that the administration at least will engage in a conversation with Mexico on the topic. Most experts agree that the key to stemming the flow of illegal immigrants into the United States is to coordinate immigration policy with a program for economic development in Mexico, and obviously that's not something the United States can do alone. So far, the administration is saying the right things about cooperating on drugs and immigration, but Mexico has heard a lot of well-intentioned talk before, only to be disappointed when another distant crisis comes along.

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