SAN DIEGO, Calif. — There is a faulty narrative echoing whenever the U.S. media, U.S. elected officials and other institutions on this side of the border talk about the Mexican drug war.
Oops, I did it myself. From this point on, we should call this bloody and historic campaign the American-Mexican drug war. That's because — even though many folks in this country deny it, in part because they want nothing to do with anything Mexican except margaritas and chimichangas — this war is as much America's as it is Mexico's.
Yet, whether through congressional testimony or evening newscasts, the language used to describe what is going on south of the border suggests that Americans are helping to bail out Mexico — as if our neighbor were some Wall Street lending institution. The recurring theme is that the Mexican government is outgunned and outmanned by drug cartels, and so it now needs America's help — either in the form of military aid or the deployment of more U.S. law enforcement officers to conduct southbound interdictions at the border in the hopes of intercepting stashes of guns and money.
A more accurate description of the current situation is that the United States is helping itself by protecting its own security and its own people. This isn't exactly a popular view. Many Americans are in no mood to partner with Mexico to rid that country of drug lords. Besides, as far as many Americans are concerned, it's the corruption and inefficiency of the Mexican government that planted the seeds for the recent violence.
One person who knows better is Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano. Last week, on her way to Mexico to attend a gun trafficking conference, Napolitano stopped by for a visit with the editorial board of the San Diego Union-Tribune. As the former governor of Arizona, Napolitano knows her way around the border. And she knows who keeps the cartels in business.
"Demand for drugs on our side is one of the primary causes of the richness that these cartels have," she said. "And quite frankly as a country we need to refocus on how do you reduce that demand."
Napolitano also noted that, with Mexican President Felipe Calderon designating the war on drug cartels his number one priority, the United States has a unique opportunity to eradicate a scourge that afflicts both countries. And it has to move fast in order to take advantage of what is really an unprecedented moment in Mexico.
"That is a window opening that we've not had before," Napolitano said. "In the United States, we have a stake in his success in this endeavor because these cartels, it's not just how they impact safety along the border but it's the huge quantities of drugs they bring over the border and distribute throughout the United States — and that is directed to a lot of violent crime in other places throughout the United States. That's why the Department of Homeland Security is involved, and why the nation needs to be involved."
Napolitano is right about Americans being heavily involved in the demand end of the equation.
But — when it comes to another illicit commodity — we also provide supply. Not only do we line the pockets of drug lords by buying enormous amounts of illegal drugs at outrageous prices, we arm them by selling — at outrageous prices — every variety of firearm. Regrettably, those guns are then used by narcos to kill Mexican soldiers and police officers.
And as if that weren't enough — in what Calderon and other Mexican leaders consider to be an unforgivable insult — we then glorify the drug lords on this side of the border as romantic figures and self-made entrepreneurs. Consider that, just last month, Forbes Magazine named Jorge "El Chapo" Guzman, the reputed head of the ruthless Sinaloa drug cartel, one of the richest people in the world alongside internet billionaires and media moguls.
Clearly, the United States is a major actor in this drama from the opening scene to what will someday — perhaps many years from now — be the final curtain. And like it or not, Americans have an enormous investment in the outcome of Calderon's battle against the cartels. The drug war is an ugly baby, but it's America's baby. We might as well claim it.
Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a nationally syndicated columnist, a member of the editorial board of the San Diego Union-Tribune, and a weekly contributor to cnn.com.
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