The Real War in Mexico

How Democracy Can Defeat the Drug Cartels

Brazen assassinations, kidnappings, and intimidation by drug lords conjure up images of Colombia in the early 1990s. Yet today it is Mexico that is engulfed by escalating violence. Over 10,000 drug-related killings have occurred since President Felipe Calderón took office in December 2006; in 2008 alone, there were over 6,000. Drug cartels have begun using guerrilla-style tactics: sending heavily armed battalions to attack police stations and assassinating police officers, government officials, and journalists. And they have also adopted innovative public relations strategies to recruit supporters and intimidate their enemies: displaying narcomantas -- banners hung by drug traffickers -- in public places and uploading videos of gruesome beheadings to YouTube.

Washington is just waking up to the violence next door. Last December, the U.S. Joint Forces Command's Joint Operating Environment, 2008 paired Mexico with Pakistan in its discussion of "worst-case scenarios" -- states susceptible to "a rapid and sudden collapse." In January, Michael Hayden, the departing CIA chief, claimed that Mexico could become "more problematic than Iraq," and Michael Chertoff, the departing secretary of homeland security, announced that the Department of Homeland Security has a "contingency plan for border violence, so if we did get a significant spillover, we have a surge -- if I may use that word -- capability." The U.S. media breathlessly proclaims that Mexico is "on the brink."

This rising hysteria clouds the real issues for Mexico and for the United States. The question is not whether the Mexican state will fail. It will not. The Mexican state does, and will continue to, collect taxes, run schools, repair roads, pay salaries, and manage large social programs throughout the country. The civilian-controlled military has already extinguished any real guerrilla threats. The government regularly holds free and fair elections, and its legitimacy, in the eyes of its citizens and of the world, is not questioned.

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