For two years, Mexican President Felipe Calderón has waged war on powerful and violent drug cartels, deploying 20,000 troops and the full might of the state. Nearly 6,000 lives have been lost – more than all US casualties in Iraq. With no end in sight, Mr. Calderón now says he can't win if the US doesn't do more to curb its drug addiction.
He's not alone in this plea to deal with America's culpability.
The US ambassador to that country, Tony Garza, said recently that drug violence in Mexico would not be so high "were the United States not the largest consumer of illicit drugs and the main suppliers of weapons to the cartels."
Americans also need to worry about a spill-over of this war across the border and the reach of the cartels into dozens of US cities. The cartels sell $13.8 billion a year worth of marijuana, cocaine, amphetamines, and heroin to US users.
Under President Bush, the response to Mexico's war has largely been one of helping beef up law enforcement, which was sorely needed. In June, Congress passed a three-year, $1.4 billion aid program called the Mérida Initiative to assist both Mexico and Central American nations with fighting drug gangs. Dozens of Mexican narcotic kingpins are now being extradited to the US for trial – where they are less likely to escape, run their operations from prison, or further corrupt law officers.
Mexico's war became necessary since Colombia suppressed its cartels in the 1990s and Mexican groups took over much of the trafficking. Also, the end of Mexico's one-party rule in 2000 ended unwritten agreements that allowed some drug gangs to control certain markets. An end to those pacts led to an eruption of battles for turf and even more corruption of officials.
Last month, Calderón's former "drug czar" was arrested on charges of selling secrets to a drug cartel. And with nearly half of all police considered either corrupt or incompetent – they earn about $5,000 a year – soldiers now patrol some cities where gruesome, drug-related murders are the norm. Sweeping out corrupt officials is as big a task as the campaign against narco-gangs.
With Mexico's governing institutions at risk, the US needs to do more. Calderón has hopes that an Obama administration can better tackle rampant US drug use.
Enforcement is still necessary but can be limited. A recent US report, for instance, found efforts to suppress cocaine growing in Colombia have faltered. Bolivia's leftist leader has thrown out US drug agents.
In his selection of a "drug czar," President-elect Obama needs to place more emphasis on addiction as a health problem. One name being circulated for that post is retiring congressman Jim Ramstad, a recovering alcoholic who helped pass a new law requiring health insurance to cover mental problems.
Mr. Obama should also set up a summit soon with Latin American leaders to focus on all aspects of the drug problem, which now pervades the hemisphere. A common front is needed, although each nation has its unique challenges.
For the US, the main challenge is to create better and more drug rehabilitation programs and provide other public services for addicts.
The US "war on drugs" should also be a "war on addiction." It is one more way to help Mexico.