MANY PEOPLE in Washington are rightly alarmed about the rising toll of military and civilian casualties in Afghanistan. They might be surprised to learn that a roughly equal number of people have been killed so far this year in a war raging much closer to home -- in Mexico. More Mexican soldiers and police officers have died fighting the country's drug gangs in the past two years than the number of U.S. and NATO troops killed battling the Taliban. Civilian casualties have been just as numerous, and as gruesome: There have been scores of beheadings, massacres of entire families and assassinations of senior officials. By the official count, kidnappings in Mexico now average 65 a month, ranking it well ahead of Afghanistan and Iraq.
The challenge facing Mexican President Felipe Calderón, who courageously declared war on the drug syndicates shortly after taking office in December 2006, gets relatively little attention here because Americans are only rarely among the casualties. But U.S. money and weapons are fueling this war. Billions of dollars from American drug users flow to the syndicates, along with thousands of weapons smuggled across the border. Congress recently approved $400 million in aid for the Mexican government, most of which will be used to better arm and equip the army. The stakes are large for the United States: not just the success of Mr. Calderón's liberal and friendly government but the survival of Mexico's democracy; not just the stability of a neighbor but the ability of the United States to control illegal immigration.
Some Mexican officials argue that the scale of the violence points to the government's success -- by taking on and damaging the drug gangs, it has provoked a backlash. But most Mexicans appear to believe the government is losing the war. Tens of thousands marched in cities around the country on Aug. 30 to protest the government's failure to protect citizens. A 75-point, three-year strategy unveiled by Mr. Calderón earlier in the month, including proposals to build new prisons for drug traffickers and track gangsters through cellphones, looked underpowered to critics in the opposition and the media.
Mr. Calderón's biggest problem may be the absence of reliable forces. Most of Mexico's police are hired and managed locally; only 20,000 are federal. The army is less corrupt, but even the commitment of 40,000 troops has failed to turn the tide against the gangs. The new U.S. funding should help, but the next administration in Washington would do well to explore whether more assistance can be provided in training Mexican forces, much as U.S. advisers have helped professionalize the Colombian army. More must be done, too, to curtail the cross-border gun trafficking. Mexico's war is in its own way as critical to U.S. interests as Afghanistan's is; in both cases, a larger American commitment is needed.