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We Can't Ignore The War On Our Own Border—A Commentary by David A. Perez ’10

The following commentary was published in The Hartford Courant on March 17, 2010.

We Can't Ignore The War On Our Own Border
By David A. Perez ’10

Although a host of foreign policy challenges confront the Obama administration, four have dominated the president's attention: preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons, dealing with China's rise as a global power, ending the war in Iraq, and escalating the war in Afghanistan. But the brazen attacks Saturday against the U.S. consulate officials in Mexico are a painful reminder of that country's bloody struggle against drug cartels, which has not gotten the attention it deserves despite the immediate threat it poses to America's national security.

The shootings took place in Ciudad Juarez, as two families left a children's birthday party hosted by the U.S. consulate. Ciudad Juarez, a border town across from El Paso, Texas, and a major crossing for drugs entering the U.S., has witnessed endless violence since President Felipe Calderon began an all-out assault on drug cartels in December 2006.

In about three years, more than 13,000 people have died, which is more than America's fatalities in Afghanistan and Iraq combined. Yet the Obama administration hasn't paid much attention to Mexico, even though this conflict has the potential to destabilize an important regional player in Latin America and spill over into the United States.

The violence along the U.S.-Mexican border bears a striking resemblance to the war against radical terrorist elements in Afghanistan and Pakistan. For instance, if Pakistan does not rein in the militants who have taken refuge and now functionally control large swaths of its land, they will continue to launch attacks into Afghanistan and beyond. Similarly, if Mexico cannot stop the drug-related violence and retake its streets, the violence and crime will continue to cross the border into the United States.

The insurgencies also share a penchant for brutality. Terrorists in Afghanistan and Pakistan regularly use images of violence to convey their message, videotaping beheadings and leaving piles of mangled bodies on streets. The drug cartels in Mexico commit similarly heinous acts, such as rolling five heads onto a dance floor, massacring soccer fans and leaving mutilated bodies, with obvious signs of torture, in public places.

And as governments respond, state officials become prime targets. In Pakistan, terrorists have assassinated officials in retaliation for the government's offensive in South Waziristan. For Mexico, this is a daily occurrence: Drug cartels routinely kill police officers, and have even managed to kill the national police chief.

But there are also important differences between Calderon's war and America's conflicts overseas. For instance, while a rational debate can be had about whether we should scale back our presence in Afghanistan, Mexico's leader has no such choice. Calderon cannot retreat within his borders, he cannot cede Mexican territory to armed militants and he cannot end the conflict by signing a peace treaty. This is not a war of choice.

Unfortunately, last weekend's attacks are not the first time American officials have been targeted. From the U.S. point of view, the most important difference between the Mexican conflict and our conflicts overseas is that 300 million Americans on the other side of the border with Mexico. Mexican drug cartels have already turned Phoenix into the kidnapping capital of the United States. (The only city in the world with more kidnappings than Phoenix? Mexico City.)

If the Mexican government loses its war against drug cartels, the United States won't be able to address the human problem by simply building a fence or tightening its immigration laws.

So why aren't we paying more attention to the crisis in Mexico?

Media coverage of the violence in Mexico is eerily similar to the attention given to Afghanistan between 2004 and 2008. While Washington focused on Iraq, Afghanistan's descent into chaos was not particularly newsworthy. Now it's Afghanistan's turn while we pretend all is quiet on the Southern Front.

The lessons from Afghanistan caution against turning a blind eye to the steady deterioration of security in Mexico. Although the Obama administration has a lot on its plate right now, it cannot afford to ignore this problem any longer.

We must act now, or it may reach the point where we have no choice but to pay attention.

David A. Perez, 24, of Seattle is a third-year law student at Yale Law School and chairman of the National Latino Law Students Association.