In drug war, things fall apart and US walks away

After a mass grave’s 218th body was discovered in Mexico on May 15, Americans buzzed over newspapers’ latest headlines: the Terminator’s sex scandal. Violence in Mexico is as energized as ever and Americans have barely batted an eye. It’s their war, not mine.

We know of the drug war. We know of the drug cartels, the torture, the political assassinations, the mass graves brimming with murder, and executions posted on YouTube. This is the drug war we know. This is the Mexico we know.

The U.S. is a star player in the drug war. When it comes time to play an active role in ending the game, however, the U.S. suddenly calls timeout and heads for the sidelines.

Newspaper headlines and public rhetoric call it “Mexico’s Drug War.” Americans have seemingly left themselves out of the equation. Mexico’s narco-tale is dismissed as corruption-driven. But in this war, benign corruption is grossly amplified by America’s substantial role on both sides of the supply-demand formula.

Americans arm the cartels. More than 20,000 weapons – roughly 87 percent of the firearms seized by Mexican authorities – have been traced to the U.S. over the past five years, according to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF). Earlier this year, the ATF – the agency responsible for preventing U.S. weapons snaking into Mexico – came under fire for allegedly selling firearms to known Mexican criminals. Blithely named “Fast and Furious,” the secret operation aimed to track the smuggling route of firearms. But when the guns crossed the border, ATF agents allegedly lost track of the breadcrumbs.

We don’t just help supply the drug war; we demand it. Mexican drug trafficking organizations are estimated to generate between $1 and $2 billion annually from exporting marijuana to the United States. That doesn’t even include the high volume of methamphetamine, cocaine, and other drugs smuggled to eager American consumers.

We aren’t giving the drug war the attention it deserves. More than 35,000 people have been murdered since President Felipe Calderon declared Mexico’s war on drugs almost five years ago. This is essentially equivalent to adding together the total American fatalities in both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars — five times.

Through the Mérida Initiative, President Obama threw $1.4 billion at the problem. The majority of this money is earmarked for Calderon’s all-out military strategy, such as training and arming “community action programs”. These U.S. drug funds seem to be doing little more than fire-hosing live ammo into Calderon’s roaring cauldron.

As one might expect from a purely military strategy, violence has dramatically spiked since the U.S. increased its funding. Last year, Mexico suffered its bloodiest year with a 60 percent jump in murders from the previous year, according to a new database by the Mexican government.

Last year, President Obama promised to “reduce drug use and the great damage it causes” with a new national policy that would focus more on prevention and treatment. This never happened.

Mexicans are fed up, the Zapatistas are back in action enraged as ever, and many Americans remain apathetic. The murder of poet Javier Sicilia’s son last March sparked thousands to march in Mexico’s capital on May 8, protesting the war on drugs. According to The Nation, Sicilia criticized the U.S., telling the crowd “their multimillion-dollar market for drug consumption, their banks and businesses that launder money in complicity with ours, their arms industry—more lethal than drugs, for being so evident and expansionist—whose weapons come into our country, not only strengthen criminal groups, but also provide them with an immense capacity for carnage.”

“The United States has designed a security policy whose logic responds fundamentally to its global interests, and Mexico has been trapped within it,” he said.

America’s picture of Mexico is too often broad-brushed as a vivid red bloodbath. Mexico is watched like a summer blockbuster where drug cartels are the shady characters and corruption is the narrative. The majority of the violence takes place not under, but at our noses – the U.S. border – a clear indication the U.S. has something to do with instigating the war.

We have detached Mexico, and consequently, fail to accurately assess the truth next door. Last June, the New York Times reported that many universities were halting their study abroad programs in Mexico in response to drug-related violence. In the article, Geoffrey Braswell, an anthropology professor gave the perfect analogy. During the 1968 Democratic convention, Braswell said he would not have considered taking students to Chicago. “But other parts of the U.S. were, of course, safe for travel. Mexico is that way,” he said.

Last year I studied in Mérida, a city located in a Mexican state with a murder rate comparable to that of Wyoming and Montana. Unaware of the minimal crime rate, people warned me to “be careful not to get kidnapped” and to beware of drug cartels. I am saddened at how we have so ignorantly distanced ourselves from the problem. Instead of instilling political will within the government, we have only increased motivation for the drug cartels. Many journalists and government officials have allowed the cartels to take control. They are afraid for their lives.

The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.

Like it or not, this is just as much our war as it is theirs. It is time to stop turning a blind eye to this madness, even if for the selfish reason that the extremely long thin border will not much longer hold back the overwhelming tsunami of blood.

Things fall apart.

If we don’t take responsibility for our actions, don’t allow the drug war to play a critical role in policy discussions, and don’t demand a comprehensive approach from the government, then blood will only continue to spill. As much of this blood is on our hands, I can’t help but ask: where is the promised leadership?

Where is our call to action?

This op-ed, along with an interactive map, was originally published in The DePaulia.

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