By Mary Sanchez

Over the border and through the cartels to Abuelita's casa we go.

A scary new reality arrived with the long Christmas season in Mexico. For generations, families have driven across the border from the U.S. to spend much of December and into January visiting relatives.

This year, the Mexican government put out stark warnings to such merry travelers. Travel in convoys, in daylight and if possible, contact federal authorities for a military escort through the portions of Mexico where the drug cartel violence has been particularly gruesome.

Feliz Navidad.

And most of us are worried about overly exuberant security agents touching our junk as we travel for the holidays.

The U.S. is forever proclaiming its war on drugs. And if you live in an urban community where police regularly stop folks in search of those carrying contraband, you'd be justified to feel under siege.

But if you want to know what a real drug war is, behold Mexico. The scale of the casualties (more then 28,000 in four years) and disruption to daily life is difficult for most in the U.S. to grasp. Mexico's version of our Health and Human Services secretary told the Los Angeles Times he worried that his nation is on the cusp of becoming one where "killing someone can be seen as normal or natural."

It's easy to cluck our tongues about the gruesome violence "over there," but to do so is to absolve ourselves of the role our country plays in this bloody import/export business. Let's be honest: this is a trade relationship. Mexico supplies the drugs. We supply the users.

As with so many of our trade relationships, we've outsourced production -- along with the violence that often comes with keeping the products cheap. Thanks for the dope and the meth, Mexico, and good luck with those nasty Zetas!

Mexican President Felipe Calderon launched his offensive against the drug cartels four years ago this month, and they have responded by turning the country into a shooting gallery. Now what?

Calderon has proposed nearly eliminating the country's system of local police. Undertrained and underequipped, they are simply too susceptible to bribes, and are a ready source of soldiers and operatives for the cartels. The plan is to unify the police under state control while nationally standardizing and professionalizing their ranks.

It is a massive undertaking, but one that is necessary if Mexico is to liberate itself from the past where cartels ran their trade and controlled swaths of territory by staying in cahoots with elected and other public officials.

Those were placid days by comparison. And increasingly, Mexicans are growing weary of the violence. In a recent poll, 49 percent of respondents said the military-style crackdown is a failure, compared with 33 percent who believed it is successful. Criticism is rising as more young people are being slaughtered execution style, sometimes in retaliation for the military's strikes against the cartels.

But don't assume that Mexicans wish to hand their country back to the old status quo. Some are bravely resisting.

The recent blazing death of a 77-year-old businessman is destined for lore. Don Alejo Garza Tamez refused to surrender his ranch after receiving an ultimatum from a drug lord. He told his employees to stay away, barricaded himself in his home and waited. The drug lord's henchmen came for him with grenades and heavy weaponry. He shot back with hunting rifles, killing four and wounding two before dying himself. Mexican Marines found the carnage.

There will always be drug buyers and sellers. This much you can bet on: the U.S. drug market will insist on being served.

What can change is the drug cartels' influence on Mexico's law enforcement, courts, elected officials and public safety. Those changes are about military force, but more importantly about training, prosecution of the corrupt, and decreasing poverty -- always the handmaiden of crime. These lofty endeavors will take time. And Calderon has two years left in office.

How can we Americans help? We can start by getting the semantics right about the drug war. Mexico is fighting it; U.S. consumers are feeding it.


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© Mary Sanchez

World - How Will Mexico Escape Its Season in Hell? | Global Viewpoint