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The American-Mexican drug war

Opinion: The US is a major actor in what's happening south of the border.

A woman walks by a mural depicting heroin addicts at a park in the border city of Ciudad Juarez, Mexico Aug. 22, 2008. Thousands have died in Mexico's drug war, mostly between rival gangs, in a fight for control of smuggling corridors into the United States. (Tomas Bravo/Reuters)

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."