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Rhetoric aside, U.S. can help Mexico

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s blunt talk last week about rising instability in Mexico because of increasingly brazen and powerful drug rings was disavowed within days by President Barack Obama, who disagreed with Clinton’s likening of Mexico to the Colombia of 20 years ago, when cartels had operational control of parts of the South American nation.

We understand why the president might want to take a more diplomatic tone, given the sharp reaction Clinton’s words triggered in Mexico City. We also understand how her comments might seem alarmist. As San Diego Union-Tribune reporter Sandra Dibble noted in her Sunday analysis piece, neighboring Baja California hasn’t of late seen the vast chaos and lawlessness now on display in Mexican states south of Texas such as Chihuahua and Tamaulipas, thanks to some arrests of high-profile cartel figures and relatively effective collaboration of military and civilian authorities.

But Clinton’s candor may be the more constructive approach. Since Mexican President Felipe Calderon took office in December 2006 and ordered more aggressive efforts against drug cartels, Mexico has suffered 28,000 drug-related deaths, including 2,100 local, state and federal law enforcement agents, according to a new report by Colby Goodman and Michel Marizco on behalf of the Mexico Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Center and the Trans-Border Institute at the University of San Diego. Calderon himself said last month that in parts of Mexico, cartels were effectively trying to “replace the state.”

There is little to be gained by minimizing how dramatically life has changed in significant parts of Mexico because of the cartels’ reign of intimidation and terror. But instead of rhetorical sparring about how to best describe the problem, here’s an idea for Obama and Clinton: They should aggressively try to help our neighbor by reducing the vast number of weapons heading south from the U.S. into Mexico.

As the Wilson Center-USD report notes, despite increasing cooperation by U.S. and Mexican authorities on the gun-trafficking front, more than 62,000 of the firearms confiscated by Mexico since the Calderon crackdown began came from the U.S., especially the assault rifles that the cartels have used to overwhelm poorly equipped and lightly trained local police.

Among Goodman’s and Marizco’s suggestions on needed U.S. actions: giving more resources to Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms anti-trafficking programs; encouraging states to more aggressively target fraudulent gun-buying schemes; better monitoring of the AK-47 semi-automatic rifle part kits imported to the U.S.; and better tracking of large purchases of ammunition. They also call on Mexico to work even more closely with ATF.

We hope Obama, Clinton and Calderon are receptive to these ideas. However one wishes to characterize what is going on in our southern neighbor and ally, it demands a vigorous response.

Reprinted from the San Diego Union-Tribune.

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