President Barack Obama went to Mexico and, unlike many of his presidential predecessors, didn't stay in a remote resort, but in the midst of Mexico City, the sprawling metropolis of 20 million.
The visit Obama's first stop in Latin America and the locale the capital where an American president hadn't visited in 12 years sent the signal that the United States is committed to a country that is a punching bag in American domestic politics, but an indispensable ally in a region buffeted by revolutionary left-wing politics.
As if to underscore the stakes, on the eve of Obama's visit, another dozen were killed in a shootout between Mexican soldiers and drug traffickers. Mexico now produces headlines of beheadings and similar acts of savagery by the traffickers that one more readily associates with the war zones of the Middle East. Last year alone, 6,300 people died in drug violence, more than the number of American troops killed in the entirety of the Iraq and Afghan wars.
A recent Pentagon analysis raised the prospect of Mexico becoming a failed state. That dire, frequently repeated phrase can be misleading. The Mexican state is threatened, but not failed. President Felipe Calderon wants to do all the right things.
Drug violence has escalated because he rejected the modus vivendi previous Mexican leaders honored with the cartels and criminal gangs. So long as they didn't interfere in politics, they were left to their illicit pursuits. Calderon rightly considered such powerful players operating outside the rule of law intolerable.
He has undertaken a courageous fight, with all of Mexican officialdom at least the uncorrupted portion under threat. In contrast to the traditional Latin American way of internal warfare, Calderon is respecting civil liberties. And he has sought to continue to reform the increasingly open Mexican economy.
Mexico is perceived in the U.S. as the inevitably hopeless sad sack south of the border. This image ignores its slow upward trajectory. Calderon is better than his predecessor, Vicente Fox, who was better than his predecessor, Ernesto Zedillo, and so on. It is in our interest to foster this (hardly inevitable) trend. In 2006, Calderon narrowly beat Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, a Hugo Chavez sympathizer.
Last year, the U.S. government passed the Merida Initiative, $1.4 billion worth of aid over three years to help Mexico in its fight against the cartels. A worthy effort, although the aid has been tied up in procurement disputes in the U.S. and has barely begun trickling into Mexico. Meanwhile, Obama has echoed a theme of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on her Mexican trip that Mexico's drug-trafficking problem emanates from north of the border, the source of dollars to buy the cartels' drugs and of guns to arm them.
Mexico needs to hear this message for reasons of prickly national pride, even if it is beside the point. Americans aren't going to stop using drugs, nor are we going to decriminalize them to collapse their market price. Even if the supply of American guns dried up overnight, the rest of Latin America bristles with surplus weaponry.
No, the ultimate solution is within Mexico. The country is fundamentally engaged in a war of counterinsurgency. As the classic theorist of such wars, Bernard Fall, wrote, "When a country is being subverted it is not being outfought; it is being outadministered." Mexico has to assert lawful governmental authority in areas where the cartels dominate and improve its governmental capacity something neglected by the Merida Initiative across the board.
It can be done, as demonstrated by our other central ally in the region, Colombia. It truly faced state collapse a few years ago, confronting a drug-fueled insurgency that controlled parts of the country and fielded organized troops. Aided by the massive Plan Colombia from the U.S., President Alvaro Uribe outfought and outadministered his country's enemies. President Calderon can do the same provided we stand by him.