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Why is the United States Backing Mexican Drug Gangs?

Author: Shannon K. O'Neil, Nelson and David Rockefeller Senior Fellow for Latin America Studies and Director of the Civil Society, Markets, and Democracy Program
January 13, 2009
Foreign Policy


When President-elect Barack Obama is sworn in next week, he'll become the proud owner of several wars. There is the familiar mayhem in Afghanistan and reluctant optimism in Iraq. And then there is America's forgotten war: the war on drugs. That battle's newest front is its southern neighbor Mexico, whose president, Felipe Calderón, Obama met on Monday. If Calderón speaks his mind, he could put it simply to Obama: We are fighting your war, and you are supplying our enemies--with demand for their drugs, money for their cartels, and guns for their violence.

Mexico is fighting for its life, and Calderón has ratcheted up the battle since becoming president in 2006. Still, the picture remains grim.

Drug-related violence is spreading throughout Mexico. In 2008, drug-war-related deaths topped 5,600--more than the five-year total of U.S. casualties in Iraq. Drug cartels are undermining the state: They infiltrate local and regional governments, corrupt police officers and judicial officials, and threaten and kill independent journalists. Those in public positions often face the ultimate Faustian bargain--"la plata o el plomo"--money or death.


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