Mary Sanchez

Two hundred years ago, Mexico's quest for independence from Spain was marked with a grisly spectacle. After death by firing squad, the head of rebellion leader Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla was hacked from his corpse and displayed for years on the corner of a public building. Spanish colonialists wanted to send a message to any Mexicans who had different ideas about who ought to rule their land.

It didn't work. Ten years later, after much blood spilt, Mexico gained its independence from Spain.

This September 15 marks the bicentennial of Hidalgo's rebellion, and the festivities throughout Mexico can be expected to be on a grand scale. Yet they will be haunted as well, by the return of the same macabre brutality meted out to the "Father of the Nation" 200 years ago.

Today, decapitations have returned as a way to send a message to Mexicans. Heads are literally rolled into public squares as the drug cartels assert their power over government efforts to control them. Mutilated corpses are hung from bridges. Police, soldiers, elected officials and journalists are favorite targets.

Two hundred years after Hidalgo uttered his famous cry or "grito" to begin the insurgency against Spain, Mexico must free itself from this devil within or risk a new form of colonization.

Shocking numbers of people are being slain by the drug cartels. An estimated 28,000 people have died in drug-gang violence since President Felipe Calderon took office and began pushing against the cartels in 2006. Indeed, Calderon recently admitted that the cartels now run more than mere drug distribution routes; they are challenging the government for control of the country.

"This criminal behavior ... has changed and become a defiance to the state, an attempt to replace the state," he said at an August session on national security in Mexico City.

The escalating violence has largely resulted from Calderon's decision to unleash the military into the situation, triggering fierce battles as the cartels war among themselves to maintain control of drug routes. The cartels once operated with impunity, aided by corrupt allies in the police, the judiciary and government offices. A notorious example of corruption was one of Mexico's former drug czars who in the mid-1990s was discovered to be on the take from drug lords. Ridding itself of such ingrained rot is one of Mexico's greatest challenges.

Despite the seemingly endless bloodshed, this battle is winnable. In fact, it must be won or Mexico risks going backwards. Crackdowns on the cartels and attempts to rein in corruption are an extension of reforms that began in 2000, when Mexico wrested its presidency from seven decades of control by one party.

It's all too easy for Americans to recoil in horror from these lurid stories, to point our fingers at Mexico as some sort of "failed state." But our own complicity is undeniable. We are the market for the Mexican drug cartels. These ruthless criminal gangs exist, and people die, to place the meth, the coke and the heroin into eager U.S. hands.

What's more, a large proportion of the guns and ammo used in Mexico's drug violence come from the U.S. They are bought legally at gun shows or at conveniently located gun shops along the border and then shipped south. Obviously, one way the U.S. could have a significant impact on the violence would be to clamp down on the gun traffic with better monitoring of sales.

The U.S. gun lobby won't hear of it. Sorry, they'll tell you, the Second Amendment means never having to admit responsibility.

Our own hideously wasteful efforts in War on Drugs have yielded few results beyond packing our prisons with small-time users. Some argue that decriminalization of certain drugs would alleviate the crime problem associated with them. Or perhaps we could help curb drug use by making treatment more accessible to addicts. But the fact is, we need to do something to reduce demand, and what we're doing now isn't working very well.

The White House will no doubt soon send its sincere congratulatory sentiments to Mexico on its bicentennial. But we can't limit ourselves diplomatic graciousness. We need to recognize that Mexico is at a critical turning point. How the forces of justice and order fare in the Mexican drug war depends in no small way on what we do north of the border. And if the drug lords prevail, we will feel the consequences.