The U.S. is turning away from Mexico's failing drug war

Saturday, August 14, 2010

GIVE MEXICAN President Felipe Calder?n credit for honesty as well as courage. Last week he presided over a three-day public conference to assess the results of nearly four years of war against Mexico's drug cartels. Most of the facts were grim:

-- According to the chief of the national intelligence service, 28,000 people have died violently since Mr. Calder?n deployed the Mexican army against the drug gangs in December 2006. That number represents an increase of 3,000 over the death toll the government reported earlier this summer.

-- There have been 963 incidents involving federal forces and the gangs since the offensive began -- or just about one per day.

-- Mexican authorities have seized more than 84,000 weapons, including thousands of high-powered assault rifles, grenades and other military-caliber equipment. More than 80 percent of the guns whose provenance could be traced came from the United States.

-- The ferocity of the violence continues to escalate as drug gangs import the tactics of al-Qaeda and the Taliban. To kidnappings, beheadings and massacres of innocent civilians and even children can now be added car bombs -- two of which have been detonated in northern cities in the past few weeks.

Mr. Calder?n bluntly spelled out the threat the cartels represent to Mexico. "The behavior of the criminals has changed and become a defiance to the state, an attempt to replace the state," he said. Drug lords are collecting their own taxes from businesses in some areas. According to the secretary of public security, they are spending $1.2 billion a year to buy the allegiance of 165,000 police officers.

Preventing the sort of cartel takeover that Mr. Calder?n warned of is a vital interest of the United States -- which is why the Obama administration and Congress could benefit from their own truth-telling session about Mexico. Congress has appropriated $1.3 billion since 2008 to help Mexico fight drug trafficking, but because of poor implementation and bureaucratic delays, only a fraction of the money has been spent. Mexican forces are still waiting for badly needed U.S. helicopters, surveillance planes and drones as well as training programs in areas such as money laundering.

Worse, the Obama administration has shrunk from the duty of cracking down on the illegal trafficking of guns to Mexico, including improper sales by many of the 7,000 gun shops along the border. During his last visit to the United States, in May, Mr. Calder?n pleaded with the White House and Congress to reinstate the ban on sales of assault weapons. As so often when it comes to the needs of this important neighbor, there has been no response.

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