A quick vacation to Mexico and Jamaica, as I was able to do this past winter, would hardly reveal the drug-related violence below the surface, the type that has helped keep both countries from making much economic progress.
Yes, a tourist might be approached to buy pot. But on the beaches or in the markets, it's usually fun, fun, fun, and then fly or cruise away.
But this week tourists would have seen something very different in the Jamaican capital of Kingston, similar to what has been happening in parts of Mexico since 2006.
With unusual bravery, the leaders of both countries have decided to confront the most powerful drug lords with guns and the rule of law. They've also decided to send some of their worst drug lords to the United States for trial.
This takes tremendous courage. The drug gangs have become tightly woven into each nation's politics. Over time this co-existence usually ends up badly for a country, as Jamaican Prime Minister Bruce Golding now admits.
Last week, he decided to turn on a well-established drug lord, Christopher "Dudus" Coke, who is wanted in the US. The battle to capture Mr. Coke has turned parts of Kingston into a war zone.The street battles are seen as a necessary cleansing of Jamaican society. "This will be a turning point for us as a nation to confront the powers of evil that have penalized the society and earned us the unenviable label as one of the murder capitals of the world," the prime minister said. He wants to show that Jamaica is a "a land of peace, order and security."
Mexico's president, Felipe Calderon, has also set similar goals. As he said in a speech before the US Congress last week, "This fight is not only and not mainly about stopping the drug trade only. It is first and foremost a drive to guarantee the security of Mexican families, who are under threat from the abuses and the vicious acts of criminals."
The US is backing both men's campaigns, part of a larger US war on drugs and also because of America's own responsibility for huge imports of illegal drugs.
The old phrase "war on drugs" is now a very real war in two of America's neighbors, just as it was in Colombia a decade ago – where the war has been largely won.
The trigger for such wars is this: National leaders must finally see drug lords for what they are – a menace – and not something to be coddled or tolerated.
Even if the tourists don't notice.