Early in the last century, near the end of his 34 bloody years in power, the aging Mexican strongman Porfirio Diaz mused that his country's great misfortune was to be located "so far from God and so near the United States."
The shrewd old thief's observation came to mind last week when U.S. officials announced that they'd joined with Mexican authorities in arresting more than 730 people allegedly linked to the Sinaloa drug cartel. That gang is the most powerful of the numerous criminal organizations smuggling drugs into the United States. Their intramural quarrels and resistance to a government crackdown have plunged Mexico into a round of violence unseen since the Cristero Wars in the 1920s. Over the past year, about 6,000 Mexicans have been killed.
Many fear that Mexico could be sliding into civil instability because of the cartels' increasing willingness to use violence and bribery to protect their business. It's an old story in other parts of Latin America, and for that reason, three of the region's former heads of state - including onetime Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo - recently issued a report urging the United States to consider legalizing at least marijuana. Fat chance.
Similarly, at a news conference last week, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. set off a firestorm when he mentioned in passing that the United States should consider restoring its ban on the sale of military-style assault weapons. That prohibition, adopted in 1994, contained a clause requiring Congress to renew the ban after 10 years. To nobody's surprise, Congress didn't, and now assault weapons, semiautomatic pistols and .50-caliber rifles that are illegal in Mexico flow into the hands of the drug traffickers there from an estimated 6,000 American gun dealers in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California.
Thus, America's political decisions to treat drug addiction as a crime rather than a public health problem, and to legalize AK-47s but not pot, fuel an incipient civil war in Mexico.
Mexico is a complex country with a resourceful and creative people. It also is - like other Latin American nations ravaged by the drug trade - burdened with a stunted civil society, chronic maldistribution of wealth, ingrained corruption and endemic political violence. These pathologies have made it painfully susceptible to the social and economic distortions created by America's seemingly insatiable desire for drugs.
Mexico's drug war could escalate into widespread civil strife with incalculable consequences for the United States - and particularly the Southwest. And we're kidding ourselves if we insist that this is a problem that can be wholly solved south of the border, or quarantined there if events spiral out of control. It's impossible to know how close either the United States or Mexico is to God, but geographically, culturally and economically, they've never been closer to each other.
If Americans really are concerned about the horrific toll inflicted by Mexico's narco-gangsters, we need to ask some tough questions about our own cultural and political delusions.