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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.

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.