Mexico needs more U.S. help in drug wars

Sunday, October 31, 2010; 7:36 PM

TIJUANA, one of Mexico's violence-racked border cities, was supposed to be getting better. A drug kingpin notorious for dissolving his enemies in acid was arrested; a record cache of 134 tons of marijuana was seized and burned. President Felipe Calderon said the city was a "clear example that the security challenge has a solution." Then came the massacre. On Oct. 24, gunmen attacked a drug rehabilitation center, slaughtering 13 men. That brought this year's death toll to 639 in a city of 1.5 million.

The mass slaying was one of three recorded in Mexico in just five days. On Oct. 22, a gang attacked a teenager's birthday party in Ciudad Juarez, killing 14; the youngest was a 13-year-old girl. On Oct. 27, shooters appeared at a carwash in the Pacific state of Nayarit, where clients of a drug rehabilitation center were working. Some of the workers were wearing T-shirts bearing the words "Faith and Hope." At least 15 were killed.

The larger message here is that Mexico is still embroiled in a desperate fight to save its liberal democracy. Mr. Calderon, who courageously launched a war against the traffickers shortly after taking office nearly four years ago, has been experimenting with new tactics: After another massacre of teenagers in Juarez earlier this year, he launched a "surge" of social programs and shifted lead security duties from the army to the police.

So far, however, there has been little improvement. Each time the government declares a corner turned, as in Tijuana, the killers strike again. Official spokesmen used to argue that most of the more than 28,000 people killed since late 2006 were members of cartels fighting each other. But in Juarez and other cities, the innocent increasingly are targeted, sometimes indiscriminately.

This doesn't mean that Mr. Calderon's crusade is doomed. As Colombia has demonstrated, it can take many years of patient effort to defeat the traffickers. But to persevere, Mexico needs more help than it is getting from the United States, which does far more to help the traffickers - through demand for drugs and supply of guns - than it does the government.

Congress has approved $1.3 billion in drug war aid to Mexico - about a third of what it has wasted on a border fence. But it has been deaf to Mr. Calderon's pleas to restore the ban on sales of assault weapons, tens of thousands of which have been trafficked from the United States to Mexico. Next week California will vote on a measure to legalize recreational use of marijuana, a measure Mr. Caldern believes will undermine his fight against the traffickers politically without significantly harming their business.

Border cities such as El Paso and San Diego are fortunate that Mexico's massacres and car bombs have not - yet - spilled across the border. But Mexicans might be excused for wishing that something would wake Americans up.

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