Before you venture into Ciudad Juarez, brace yourself to hear Texans tell you that you're crazy.
Visiting friends in neighboring El Paso a few days before Christmas, I was immediately warned, "Don't even think about going into Juarez."
Just across the shallow creek known as the Rio Grande from El Paso, one of the safest cities of its size in the nation, Juarez is a city under siege, the worst victim of Mexico's growing wars between drug cartels.
The tragedy is etched in daily news headlines. The same day I arrived, two Mexican police offers were ambushed, shot to death while sitting in their patrol car. Just another bloody day in Juarez.
Hardly a day goes by without a new Juarez horror story in the El Paso Times:
"Man found dead with hands severed."
"Prominent Juarez lawyer, son, among four found dead Tuesday."
"Man found shot to death in trash drum."
"El Paso charities afraid to cross border."
"Juarez area slayings top 20 in new year."
Murders across Mexico more than doubled last year to more than 5,600. That's more than the total Americans lost so far in the Iraq war.
Most of those murders have been happening in border towns. More than 1,600 were killed in Juarez, Mexico's fourth largest city, with a population of 1.7 million. The bloodbath of unspeakable brutality includes kidnappings and decapitated bodies left in public places as a grisly form of advertising.
"There have already been 20 murders in Juarez this year," Beto O'Rourke, a member of El Paso's city council, told me in a telephone interview this week as President-elect Barack Obama met with Mexico's President Felipe Calderon Monday. "That doesn't include the kidnappings and extortions. Ciudad Juarez is essentially a failed city at this point. They can't guarantee your safety."
The situation is deteriorating so fast that "Mexico is on the edge of abyss," retired four-star Gen. Barry McCaffrey, a drug czar under President Clinton, said.
"It could become a narco-state in the coming decade," he wrote in a recent report, and the result could be a "surge of millions of refugees" crossing the U.S. border to escape.
Something drastic needed to be done, O'Rourke, a fourth-generation El Paso resident, decided. A proposed city council resolution called for more federal action on both sides of the border to reduce the flow of guns and drugs.
But it wasn't strong enough. O'Rourke pushed things further by adding 12 words: "supporting an honest, open, national debate on ending the prohibition on narcotics." The council passed it unanimously.
Yet even a bid to talk about drug legalization was too much for Mayor John Cook. He vetoed the bill, at least partly out of concern that Washington might not take the measure seriously with the drug legalization line in it.
Nevertheless, the controversy brought what has been rare American media attention to Mexico's crisis by turning it into radio and cable TV talk fodder. That's a start.
Obama promised more American help to Calderon in a meeting that focused on trade, immigration and the drug war. President Bush successfully pushed the Merida initiative, a $1.4 billion security package to help Mexico with high-tech equipment and anti-drug training.
The first $400 million, approved by Congress last year, has begun to flow. But the rest of the funds could be slowed by the many other financial pressures this country and the incoming Obama administration faces.
And Calderon faces mounting pressures on his two-year-old campaign against drug and gun smuggling. The campaign that actually touched off much of the fighting between the cartels. It has also exposed corruption that reached the highest levels of his government. Even a member of his security team has been arrested for allegedly feeding information to the cartels in exchange for money.
When you step back and take a broad look at Mexico's growing carnage, it's easy to see why El Paso's city leaders think legalization doesn't look so bad. Mexico's drug problem is not the drugs. It is the illegality of the drugs.
Legalization is not the perfect solution. But treating currently illegal drugs in the way we treat liquor and other legal addictive substances would provide regulation, tax revenue and funds for rehabilitation programs. Most satisfying, it would wipe a lot of smiles off the current drug lords' faces.