It used to be that when Americans thought of Mexico, they imagined a festive getaway where margaritas flowed, mariachis played, and every day was Cinco de Mayo.
Not anymore. Horrifying stories of random shootings, mass beheadings and mass graves have become commonplace. Gunmen think nothing of mowing down a couple dozen teenagers in a disco with machine guns and tossing grenades indiscriminately into crowds during holiday fiestas. Mexicans have almost become immune to carnage, it seems.
As a result of such wanton acts of terrorism, and government efforts to combat them, more than 47,500 have died in the last 5½ years. Many of the dead were believed by authorities to have been connected to the drug trade, but others were innocent civilians -- including women and children -- who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Many Mexicans wrongly put the blame for those deaths entirely on the shoulders of Mexican President Felipe Calderon. The argument goes that, if Calderon had only left the cartels alone, Mexico wouldn't be on fire.
Calderon is a convenient target because he has made it his personal mission to destroy Mexico's drug syndicates. We're talking about a half-dozen drug cartels, each of which rakes in hundreds of millions of dollars annually in a country so poor that the average laborer is lucky to earn $8 a day. The cartels' customers are mainly Americans, who consume more than their share of illegal drugs.
Is Calderon winning his war? Hard to say.
It's true that a few cartels have been weakened; government officials say that the drug syndicate La Familia has all but been destroyed. What they don't say is that, from the ashes, has arisen a new group called Knights Templar.
So the horror continues.
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Just recently, in a widely reported case, Mexican police found 49 mutilated bodies in a small town between the cities of Monterrey and Reynosa near the U.S.-Mexico border. Heads, arms and legs were chopped off, making it difficult for authorities to identify the dead.
It's like a Shakespearean tragedy where every act is bloodier than the one before it, and they go on without end. A new generation of drug traffickers aiming to be bosses seems locked in a gruesome contest as to who can be the most vicious.
As for blame, Mexicans should at least dole it out correctly.
Calderon is responsible for his decision to use the Mexican military as the government's chief weapon against the cartels, in part because so many of the local police in Mexico are thought to be corrupt or corruptible. And so, when the military is accused of being heavy-handed with civilians and violating the rights of Mexican citizens, as it has been in recent years, that blame should go to Calderon.
But the Mexican people also bear a responsibility -- for empowering the drug lords. For decades, Mexicans have romanticized the drug trafficking industry in film, music and other aspects of popular culture. There are many "corridos" (Mexican ballads) that tell the story of the rise-from-nothing fellow who becomes the head of a powerful syndicate by relying on his wits and strength.
Recently, Mexican actress Kate del Castillo -- who coincidentally was cast as a powerful female drug lord in Telemundo's Spanish-language series "La Reina del Sur" -- tweeted that she has more faith in Mexican drug kingpin Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman than she does in government.
Guzman heads the powerful Sinaloa Cartel, and once landed on Forbes' list of the world's richest people with an estimated net worth of $1 billion.
There are even so-called drug saints that some Mexicans pray to -- inspired by Robin Hood-like figures who are seen as protectors of the poor against the government. Of course, the Catholic Church doesn't recognize these saints, but this fact hasn't made them any less popular. One of the most popular of the "narco saints" is Jesús Malverde, named after a bandit, who legend has it, was killed by authorities in the early 1900s. Known as the "generous bandit" or the "angel of the poor," Malverde is a folk hero to some in the Mexican state of Sinaloa.
Mexico is in chaos. And many Mexicans are in shock. They don't know what to do, or even if they can do anything at all.
Well, they can do this: They can stop making folk heroes out of murderers and terrorists. They can stop writing poems and songs that honor drug traffickers and instead start praising the Mexican law enforcement officers who are bravely trying to bring these outlaws to justice. And they can support their government and stand by their president in fighting a battle that needed to be fought.
It's time to step up and take ownership of the drug war -- as well as the circumstances that made it necessary.
People on both sides of the border had a hand in helping make this mess. It's going to take people on both sides of the border to clean it up.