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Opinion: Where's plan B for Mexico?

Despite a star-studded cast, the show of diplomacy in Mexico this week failed to address the real problem: no one knows where to begin.

Graves are seen in a cemetery in a poor Juarez neighborhood on March 24, 2010. Many of the deceased here are victims of drug-related crime. As drug cartels have been fighting over ever-lucrative drug corridors along the United States border, the murder rate has risen to 173 slayings for every 100,000 residents. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

MEXICO CITY, Mexico — Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the other top U.S. officials who stopped by Mexico this week had nice things to say about President Felipe Calderon.

Clinton used the same tone — in fact many of the same words — that high-profile Americans have used to describe Calderon in the past. She praised his courage and his fortitude. She made pro-forma promises about sharing the burden of the deadly drug war, beefing up institutions and guarding their 2,000-mile-long, shared border — indeed, a “21st Century Border."

But few of her words pertained to Mexico's reality. The obvious truth went unspoken, perhaps because no one knows exactly how to put it into words. The problem is simply too big, and everything Mexico has tried is failing.

Worse yet, the Mexican government is running out of options. In the three-plus-years since Calderon launched a military-led offensive against heavily armed drug organizations, more than 18,000 people have been killed — a growing number of them innocents. Widening sections of national territory are indisputably under the control of the traffickers and their urban offspring, who in many places run parallel systems of power to the government’s. Despite a few big arrests, the cartel control hasn't been visibly deterred.

Local, state and federal police forces were not able to stop this from happening. They were weak and corruptible before the drug cartels grew so strong in the last few years that they could easily enforce the choice they gave to police officers: Take our money and do what we say or we will kill you. For the most part, count the police out of the game.

So, the president used the only thing he had left, the army. But armies don’t know how to stop crime. The best example of that lesson here in Mexico is Ciudad Juarez, across from El Paso, Texas, where the army began to deploy in force more than a year ago, reaching as many as 7,500 troops.

Murders, widespread extortions, kidnappings and the wholesale flight of residents have all bounded upward. The city has by far the highest murder rate in the country and one of the highest in the world. A study by the local newspaper El Diario early last year found that the police had not solved a single one of the 132 murders of law enforcement officers in a period of 16 months. They could not even solve murders in their own family.