For years, many Americans have dismissed the battle between Mexico's government and drug cartels. Oh, those Mexicans, there they go again.
Ancillary problems, such as rising corruption and lawlessness resulting from Mexico's gangland free-for-all, have too often been shrugged off as the same old issues in a country that never quite seems to get its act together.
But this problem, funded largely by U.S. drug users, has rapidly transformed into a battle against a terrorist insurgency, and victory is every bit as important to Mexico's security as is America's battle against al-Qaeda. Defeat for Mexico means nothing less than a descent into chaos.
This might sound alarmist, but the tactics being employed by Mexico's drug gangs, not to mention their spread into U.S. border cities, is truly cause for alarm.
"At the end of the day, the Mexican state, the rule of law, has to prevail," Ciudad Juárez security chief David Rivera Bretón told The Washington Post. "The good guys have to win."
Those words bear re-reading to fully grasp the stakes for Mexico. Drug gangs are challenging the government for control. The violence and death has far exceeded what U.S. troops have faced in Iraq and Afghanistan. The deaths – from hangings, beheadings, dismemberments, executions – are no less hideous than al-Qaeda's twisted form of Islamic "justice."
Mexican President Felipe Calderón is being asked by lawmakers to reconsider his two-year effort, with U.S. backing, to militarize the drug war and retake the streets of such border cities as Ciudad Juárez. A multi-agency commission is studying whether the campaign has failed – even before a three-year, $1.1 billion U.S. counternarcotics aid package has been fully delivered. Some prominent Mexicans ask whether its time to call a truce with the drug lords and reach a sort of "peaceful coexistence" accommodation.
Mexican and U.S. leaders must answer difficult questions about their next steps. Is this effort really failing? Is the U.S. aid package being delivered with the urgency it deserves? Was the mid-December raid that killed one of Mexico's top drug lords, Arturo Beltran Leyva, the kind of step required to halt this menace? And was the drug thugs' retaliatory response – the murder of the mother and three other family members of a Mexican Marine killed during the raid on Leyva's compound – a clear enough indication of why these terrorists must not be allowed to win?
Calderón has shown unprecedented guts in taking on this fight. Certainly, his militarization program is due for refinements. Protecting the identities of military and police personnel who participate in drug raids would be a very good start. But backing away from this fight must not be an option as long as thugs and terrorists are vying against the government for control of Mexico's streets.