Opinion: Where's plan B for Mexico?

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.

Over the last several days, in the streets of Monterrey, Mexico's wealthiest city, authorities have simply lost control, unable to stop traffickers and their thugs from blocking major thoroughfares and engaging in gun battles, right up to the campus of one of the country's most prestigious universities. (Two grad students — initially dismissed as gunmen — were among the dead.)

In Tamaulipas, the state that borders much of Texas, one of the most vicious drug organizations is deep in battle with an even more vicious former ally, the Zetas, for control of territory, routes and market. Dozens of people have been killed; journalists, under direct threat from the narcos to stay silent, are too scared to report what's happening. The public lives on rumors.

Clinton's meeting on Tuesday with top Mexican officials had been scheduled for months and was part of a routine review of the $1.4-billion aid package, the so-called Merida Initiative, that the U.S. has given Mexico for its war against drug cartels. Still, the murders earlier this month in Ciudad Juarez of a U.S. consular officer, her husband and the husband of another consulate employee inevitably weighed in the background and raised additional concerns about Americans in Mexico.

The big picture Calderon talks about is that the army will contain, then reduce the power of the cartels while Mexico’s hundreds of thousands of police are somehow reconstructed into actual crime-fighting officers. It’s such a noble-sounding plan that it seems unkind to find fault. And, police training is going on, much of it with American aid.

But, then the truth keeps slapping at us. First, the army is not containing the cartels. Their power seems to be spreading instead. Second, one can’t imagine how the police forces can reformed before it’s too late.

So we need to remember the bright words from our diplomats in Mexico because they will provide interesting reference points when, not so long from now, the whole thing falls apart. Calderon, or his successor, will be then be lauded by American officials for boldly moving to plan B. Only, no one is talking about what that might be.

Mike O'Connor is a journalist and author who lives in Mexico City and is covering the explosion of violence connected to the drug war along the border. O'Connor has reported in the Middle East, Latin America and the Balkans for the New York Times, CBS News and National Public Radio. He is the author of  Crisis Pursued by Disaster, Followed Closely by Catastrophe: A Memoir of Life on the Run.