Mexico’s war must be our war

Last month, a hit squad sent by a Mexican drug cartel brazenly broke into the homes of nine police officers in a ranching town in northern Mexico. They kidnapped the officers, piled them into a convoy of SUVs and sped off into the night.

After being summoned by local authorities, troops from Ciudad Juarez, 80 miles to the north, located the convoy and fought a running gun battle with the kidnappers. When the smoke cleared, 21 people were dead, including six policemen who had been tortured and murdered before the soldiers could save them.

Even in Mexico, where a spiraling drug war has claimed more than 7,000 lives in the last 15 months, the scale of the violence was shocking. But in one respect, the shootout represented a breakthrough.

Soon after the bullets stopped flying, a Mexican military officer called a trusted U.S. contact and offered to let American officials inspect the weapons taken from the hit men. The guns were mostly AK-47 knockoffs, and U.S. agents traced them to a dealer in El Paso, just across the Rio Grande from Ciudad Juarez. The dealer was already on trial for arming the cartels. He now faces new charges.

Mexico is not the failed state that some pundits have warned about, but the crisis is undeniable -- and it cannot be addressed without the United States and Mexico working together to combat crimes that respect no border. But our response must be respectful of our long partnership with Mexico.

Today, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee will hold a field hearing in El Paso to hear from U.S. and Mexican officials about ways to develop a better joint response to the border violence.

Our two countries are already cooperating at an unprecedented level. President Felipe Calderon has approved the extradition of a record 178 drug traffickers to the U.S., and he deserves praise for his courageous stand in going after the drug cartels. But there is more that can be done on both sides.

Too often the kind of cross-border cooperation seen in the recent kidnappings is the result of personal relationships rather than institutional partnerships. Mexico’s military and government should allow the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to examine every gun seized to identify and shut down the sellers, who are almost always on our side of the border.

We must stop the flow of handguns, assault rifles and machine guns, which pass from the U.S. to Mexico at a rate of 60,000 a year. Right now, southbound traffic crosses the border essentially uninspected. That cannot continue. The Obama administration’s decision to increase resources assigned to interdict guns at the border is a good first step, but other actions must be taken as well. For instance, we must enforce existing laws against exporting weapons across international borders. We should revive the ban on assault rifle imports to the U.S., which was mistakenly allowed to expire in 2004.

The U.S. government needs to greatly improve its efforts to shut down demand for drugs on this side of the border. Too many Americans are the consumers of drugs that transit Mexico, and that trade will exist as long as there is demand.

We also need better intelligence-sharing to alert both sides to the movement of drugs, arms and cash in both directions. We should aim to unify our databases of suspicious vehicles and deploy license-plate readers and other surveillance systems. To do this, both sides must build the trust that allows information against a common enemy to be shared in a timely and effective manner.

Beyond the border, we need to use our extensive intelligence resources to develop a better strategic picture of how the cartels operate in the U.S. This is our turf, and we have an obligation to attack the trade more aggressively and share the findings with our Mexican counterparts.

Finally, we should ratify the Inter-American Convention Against the Illicit Manufacturing of and Trafficking in Weapons and Explosives. The U.S. was one of the first countries to sign the convention after it was adopted by the Organization of American States in 1997. But we are among the few that have failed to ratify it, even though it fully respects U.S. law with regard to the legal sale and use of guns.

We’ve heard politicians repeat the mantra that we must “fight them over there so we don’t have to fight them here.” When it comes to Mexico’s drug cartels, this happens to be true. We should help our neighbors reclaim their streets -- and keep ours safer in the process.

John Kerry (D-Mass.) chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

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