Mexico’s Violent Drug War Wreaks Havoc on Innocent Lives

September 30, 2008 at 6:50 PM EDT

RICHARD RODRIGUEZ, NewsHour Essayist: Who will explain Americans to Mexico? Every day in Mexico’s newspapers, there are tallies of the latest casualties in the Mexican government’s war on the gangster families that transport Columbian drugs across Mexico and into America.

In America, one hears more said about the unruly border separating Pakistan from Afghanistan than about the daylight shootouts taking place in the six Mexican states bordering the U.S.

Since taking office in 2006, Mexico’s president, Felipe Calderon, has mobilized his country’s armed forces in war against the drug cartels. Following the example of Colombia, Mexico hopes, if not to eradicate drug traffic all together, then to disassemble the major cartels, reducing the power of the few.

Hollywood knows something about drug use. Last year, deflecting any serious consideration of its own culpability, Hollywood honored “No Country for Old Men” with an Oscar for best picture. The Spanish actor Javier Bardem played a cartoon Mexican psychopath on the loose in Texas.

ACTOR: This is my wife’s father’s place.

JAVIER BARDEM, Actor: You married into it?

ACTOR: If that’s the way you want to put it.

JAVIER BARDEM: I don’t have some way to put it. That’s the way it is.

RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: The movie played on an American fear that Mexican criminality will make its way across the border.

Playing to type, American politicians in the U.S. Southwest have voiced alarm that Mexico’s violence is spilling over. Border patrolmen have been shot and corrupted. American drug enforcement agents are being targeted.

And, indeed, Mexican drug cartels are colonizing the United States. Atlanta is the hub for UPS and Delta Airlines and Mexican drug traffic. In Chicago, Mexicans have taken over the drug trade, serving the streets and the skyscrapers. In the serene national forests of Northern California, marijuana is being quietly cultivated by Mexican outlaws.

Mexico has a long history of portraying itself as the vulnerable neighbor. Playing to type, Mexico’s attorney general, Eduardo Medina-Mora, complains that grenade launchers and high-caliber machine guns are easily purchased by Mexican gangsters at U.S. gun shows, few questions asked. The weapons are then taken south into Mexico.

If Americans are convinced of our virtue in the world, the Mexican accommodation is to human failure. Mexicans have always known that the policeman expects to be paid off.

What’s different today is that policemen are being killed in Mexico’s drug wars. Since the battle was engaged, more than 500 police officers, mayors, and soldiers have died.

Over a long time, cynical Mexico and hypocritical America developed an understanding. Whatever was declared illegal in America would be efficiently made available to Americans in Mexican border towns, from quickie divorces to abortions, from prostitution to alcohol to prescription drugs.

Only now, it is the scale of the drug economy that makes many Mexicans wonder about American decadence.

The economies of Afghanistan and Bolivia, of Southeast Asia have been distorted by the appetite for drugs in first-world countries. Third-world despair meets post-modern despair in the movement of drugs.

Mexico is different only to the degree that it exists within the gravitational force of the largest drug-using economy in the world. U.S. officials estimate that as much as $15 billion a year flows from the United States to Mexican suppliers.

Mexican officials point out that most of the cocaine, marijuana, methamphetamines, and heroin in Mexico is destined for points north, not for domestic consumption.

Who in America is asking, “Why?” Why are Americans so sad?

We need drugs to escape loneliness. We need drugs to tolerate company. We need drugs to feel and drugs to keep from feeling. We need drugs to fall asleep and drugs to get out of bed. Why?

Our politicians, and moviemakers, and Evangelical ministers, and doctors, and professors are not asking that question of America. Only the Mexicans ask.

I’m Richard Rodriguez.