Mexico today increasingly resembles Colombia 25 years ago. Drug cartels are strengthening rapidly, Mexico's governmental authority and legitimacy are weakening and the people are deeply divided over how to respond to the cartels' challenge to Mexico's civil society.
The stakes for the United States were high in Colombia back then, but they are even higher now in Mexico.
The drug cartel threat has already rendered broad areas on our side of the border unsafe. The State Department has ordered dependents in some consular posts to leave Mexico and warned against cross-border travel by land, even in daylight. Central American diplomats have been held hostage. Travel advisories for tourists warn of the growing danger, exemplified by recent tourist kidnappings in Acapulco. Moreover, since criminal gangs are the main distributors of illegal drugs in the United States, there is every reason to fear the violence could infect us in short order.
The statistics alone are frightening: Reliable estimates put the number killed by drug-related violence in the past four years at 28,000. Fully 30 journalists and 11 mayors have been assassinated so far in 2010. Corruption in Mexico's police and judiciary, long a serious and insidious problem, is worsening. The cartels engage in open gun battles with the police and, among themselves, compete for territory and markets. In Ciudad Juarez, right on the border with El Paso, 102 police have died this year alone in drug-related violence.
So it was in Colombia in the 1980s, as the Cali and Medellin drug rings rose to power. Colombia's early reluctance to confront the cartels led to large areas of the country becoming mini-narcoterrorist states unto themselves. Outside assistance from Hugo Chavez aided the druglords. Colombian President Andres Pastrana followed an explicit policy of appeasement that only made things worse. Not until the 2002 inauguration of Alvaro Uribe as president did Colombia fight back, substantially aided by Washington.
Mexico is rapidly approaching the stark choice Colombia faced in 2002. And there are disturbing signs that, as in Colombia, many Mexicans prefer appeasement rather than confronting the cartels. They hope, without much evidence, that returning to a "go along get along" strategy with the drug cartels, thereby accepting continued police and judicial corruption, would bring back the deceptive tranquility of earlier times.
Mexico's President Felipe Calderon and others blame the United States for many of Mexico's problems, citing the enormous American demand for cocaine and other illegal drugs. He says the drug cartels are armed with assault rifles from north of the border. Ciudad Juarez's mayor has even blamed the United States for deporting illegal Mexican immigrants with criminal records, which makes him this year's winner of the Western Hemisphere chutzpah award.
As for weapons, Mexican complaints are badly misplaced. The United States has effective export controls in place, and in any event, the drug cartels have multiple sources globally for the weapons they seek.
But Mexico does have a legitimate complaint about the powerful demand pull of U.S. drug use--because the brewing crisis would be nowhere near its current levels without the U.S. market.
And Calderon is also correct that the United States could do much more to counter the rising tide of violence.
We have tried to aid both Mexico's police and its military, most visibly through the 2007 Merida Initiative. Unfortunately, our efforts are nowhere near "Plan Colombia's" ultimately successful levels, much of the potential assistance has been tied up bureaucratically in Washington, and there are valid concerns about the efficacy of the resources once in Mexican hands.
Moreover, President Obama has demonstrated insufficient leadership against illegal drugs and their corrosive effect on American society.
Nor has his administration demonstrated sufficient concern for U.S. residents in the border areas, where vulnerability to drug-related violence grows daily.
Indeed, the administration seems to have no consensus even on the severity of the problem. Last month, Secretary of State Clinton said the truth: that Mexico's drug war was beginning to resemble the violence in Colombia 20 years ago.
Days later, Obama contradicted her--saying "you cannot compare what is happening in Mexico with what happened in Colombia 20 years ago."
You cannot fix a problem you fail to see.
Without the slightest doubt, our inattention will soon come back to haunt us here, not south of the border. This should be an issue in the fall election.
John R. Bolton is a senior fellow at AEI.