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Obama's overtures seek to help a spiraling Mexico

Mexico's drug wars are spilling over into the US, forcing Obama's administration to refocus attention on the border.

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Nothing in the US yet nears the level of violence in Mexico, he says. Ciudad Juárez had more than 1,600 murders last year, while its border twin, El Paso, counted 16. Moreover, the cartels' gruesome methods, such as beheading victims, have yet to emerge north of the border.

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But the rise in kidnappings in Phoenix is a "particularly scary" hint of what could yet strike the US, says Mr. Camp.

Sen. Joe Lieberman (I) of Connecticut, chairman of the Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee, plans to hold a hearing later this month in Washington and one next month in Arizona on the growing threat from Mexico's drug mafia.

Still, most Mexico experts say talk in the US of a coming "collapse" in Mexico – and suggestions that the US may soon awake to a "failed state" on its southern border as the drug cartels gain strength – are more hysteria than reality.

A recent Pentagon report comparing Mexico to Pakistan is "overblown," says George Grayson, a Mexico expert at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va.

"People are right now on the Metro in Mexico City going to work, the Army is completely loyal and under the government's command – life for most Mexicans goes on," he says.

What he does see are "failed enclaves" like Ciudad Juárez or perhaps the state of Guerrero, where residents have awakened to find the bodies of beheaded police or soldiers in town squares.

But "in the long run," Mexico poses a larger security threat to the US than Pakistan, Iraq, and Afghanistan, suggests Mr. Grayson, who has just published "Mexico's Struggle with Drugs and Thugs" through the Foreign Policy Association in New York.

If a stalemate develops – the cartels surviving but not infiltrating the government – the uncertainty could lead to massive migrations to the US, particularly if there are no economic reforms and Mexico's oil well runs dry.

"It's not going to be a big bang," he says, "but people are going to conclude life is intolerable, and the US will be their major alternative."

Some experts denigrate the notion that a restriction on US gun sales can somehow alleviate Mexico's drug war. Focusing on the flow of guns south is a "bogus solution," says Ted Galen Carpenter, vice president for foreign-policy studies at the Cato Institute in Washington.

Their vast resources would allow them to get whatever arms they desire, he says. They "make their fortunes operating in a black market involving another product," he notes.

Where America's responsibility really lies is in the acknowledgment that US drug consumption is driving Mexico's war. One of the premises of the Merida Initiative, a long-term, multibillion-dollar plan conceived under President George W. Bush to aid Mexico, is recognition of America's role in Mexico's battle.

But little is likely to change in that war until the US does something to address an illicit market that pays the drug cartels up to $25 billion a year, experts say.

"Cooperation with Mexico on guns and intelligence and taking down smuggling routes is all fine," says Camp of Claremont McKenna. "But we are the only party that can significantly alter the picture by addressing the consumption end of the equation, and we are not doing that."