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Opinion: Mexico's staggering drug wars

Amid a new surge in violence, it's time to start paying attention.

A Mexican soldier keeps watch in an armored vehicle as a stranded passenger pulls his luggage outside the airport of the border city of Juarez on February 25, 2009. Mexico closed the international airport in Juarez, one of the most violent cities in the country's drug war, after a bomb scare during a visit by government officials, the army said. (Alejandro Bringas/Reuters)

If you haven’t been following the war on our border with Mexico, now is the time to wake up and smell the gunpowder.

Here’s what this weekend was like in Juarez, the sprawling, once relatively prosperous industrial city just across from El Paso, Texas.

A convoy of  Mexican Army trucks and armored Humvees rolled into the city on Saturday morning carrying 2,000 soldiers. Twelve hundred more troops arrived on Sunday, rushed to Juarez in a Hercules cargo planes and other military air transports. In an emergency meeting in Juarez with local authorities at midweek, President Felipe Calderon made the decision to send the expanded firepower, already being called a “surge.” Soon the force will total 8,000, including paramilitary federal police.

Local police have long been outgunned and outsmarted. Those who aren’t on the payroll of the drug gangs are now their targets. Friday was typical. An squad of drug gang enforcers ran down a pickup carrying two local police officers who were on patrol in a valley east of Juarez. They fired 177 rounds into the officers’ flimsy vehicle, killing them both.

I did say war. We’re beyond euphemisms like “drug violence”, and even the now almost ironic phrase, “war on drugs.” Last year there were 6,200 killings in this real war, 1,600 of them in Juarez. This year is already much more bloody. Texas governor Rick Perry said the Mexican violence is the most serious problem facing his state. He has pledged to deploy 1,000 National Guard troops in El Paso as a counterpart to the Mexican buildup across the border.

Make no mistake. Drug trafficking has long been a way of life and livelihood in Mexico. The marijuana trade flourished in western Sinaloa province relatively undisturbed until the early 1970s. Cocaine began to flow from the factories of the Colombian cartels in the 1980s, and Mexico’s porous thousand mile plus land border soon became the smuggling route of choice, even as U.S. drug fighters focused on capturing the ships and small planes heading for Miami and New Orleans from Panama and a dozen other venues in Central America. (I documented the flow of drugs coming through Panama, in my book about General Manuel Noriega — "Our Man in Panama." The drugs were a trickle, viewed from today’s hindsight, but led to the invasion of Panama in 1989, still the largest military action by the United States in Latin America since to World War II. )