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Why Mexico's violence is America's problem

By Raj Kumar, Special to CNN
  • Raj Kumar says El Paso aware of the violence over the border in Mexico's Ciudad Juarez
  • He says drug violence worsening; thousands have come to U.S. to escape
  • Juarez failed city in failing state; U.S. should engage there as much as in conflicts abroad
  • Kumar: U.S. must raise awareness, halt gun sales, money laundering, give more aid

Editor's note: Raj Kumar is president of Devex, an online community of aid workers and international development professionals.

(CNN) -- In the Coen brothers' movie thriller "No Country for Old Men," a grisly scene plays out in El Paso, Texas. Having discovered a bag of cash from a drug deal gone bad, a veteran recently returned from Vietnam ends up crossing the border into Mexico and fleeing a psychotic hit man before ultimately getting shot-up in a motel room.

A traveler to El Paso today could be forgiven for imagining himself in that movie scene. The West Texas town feels as though time stopped a few decades ago, and the psychotic hit men, having multiplied a thousand-fold, are roaming just over the border.

El Paso is not just a border town. It's really the smaller of two Siamese-twin cities, attached at the hip to Ciudad Juarez, its larger and more unruly brother that would easily overwhelm it if not for the international border that holds the two sides apart.

In recent years, Juarez has slipped deeper into a state of true chaos, a "failed city" inside a country inching closer to being a failed state. It's easy to ignore this infection quietly spreading just over our border, even as our interest is captured by conflicts much farther from home. But its proximity alone makes Mexico worthy of our national attention and immediate action before their crisis becomes our own.

By the numbers, Juarez isn't Mogadishu, Somalia, or Kandahar, Afghanistan. It's worse. Some 3,000 people were killed in this city of 1.5 million in each of the past two years. For several years now, hundreds of young women have disappeared in Juarez annually, only to turn up dismembered or tortured in ways too gruesome to recount.

Besides a report on the weekend movie box office hits and the latest budget battles in Washington and Austin, Texas, the Sunday TV news here in El Paso invariably notes the number of dead in Juarez over the weekend: 30, 40, 50, or more.

The city of El Paso is safe of course -- save for the stray bullets that hit the University of Texas campus here and City Hall recently, you might not notice what's taking place so close by.

But when your cellphone suddenly connects to a Mexican network while you're sitting at a coffee shop or the border highway takes you past a particularly grim-looking Juarez neighborhood, there's a flash of realization that two-thirds of this lovely, mountain-ringed metropolis is a war zone. (This month, the Mexican government announced that a former Army lieutenant colonel, Julian Leyzaola, will be the new head of public safety for Juarez, where he'll direct the military in a frontal assault on the cartels.)

These are the odd facts of life in El Paso. Locals dine at what can literally be called the most authentic Mexican restaurant in the United States, inasmuch as it has been forced to relocate here from Mexico because of extortion and violence.

Many thousands of Mexicans come to El Paso every day on border visas, enjoying the calm and rule-of-law this country offers during the day, and returning each evening to a nightmare. Those who can permanently relocate do. A study by the local university puts the number at some 230,000 so far -- 124,200 of them to El Paso and vicinity. But for most, there are family ties that require running the gauntlet of life in Juarez.

Then there is the story of the 20-year-old police chief of a town near Juarez. Marisol Valles García got the job in October because no one else would take it. She promised to not wear a uniform, not carry a gun and not go after drug gangs. Even she was chased out by threats on her life and arrived this month in El Paso with her baby son, asking for asylum.

El Paso residents are well-aware of their odd circumstance: They feel no personal danger, but all the while know a heinous crime might be taking place a stone's throw away. It's something like watching a movie. The only question is what role their own country will play.

The U.S. government is certainly involved to a degree -- USAID spent $28 million in Mexico for education and health programs in 2010, and our militaries are cooperating through the Merida Initiative, modeled in part on Plan Colombia that helped to beat back the cartels in that country.

But our efforts in Mexico pale by comparison to our national focus on Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Yemen and the like. Last year when a pregnant American consular officer was killed in Juarez, along with her husband and the husband of another consulate official, it made the news but didn't spark a national conversation.

That conversation could have focused on the fact that almost half of all Mexicans live below the poverty line. This poverty provides fuel for the cartels' fire, giving them a ready supply of hopeless young recruits for their activities.

That conversation could have also forced us to ask our own government tough questions about our priorities and our plan to ensure that Mexico doesn't become a failed state whose problems pass through the porous membrane that is our border.

There will be no easy solution to stopping the downward spiral in Mexican cities such as Juarez, and certainly Mexicans will have to take the lead. But in addition to tough military tactics from Mexico's army, the U.S. needs to be at least as engaged in this conflict as we are in those that are thousands of miles away.

We can start by launching a national campaign, significant enough to be introduced with an Oval Office address by President Barack Obama, to raise awareness of what's happening just steps away from American cities such as El Paso and to galvanize support for a more robust U.S. engagement there.

Perhaps once Americans around the country see what is so clear from El Paso, we can put a stop to sales of grenades and assault weapons to cartels, crack down on the laundering of billions of dollars through U.S. banks and invest more in Mexico to create jobs and educational opportunities for their unemployed youths.

This might even be a moment when we take a hard look at U.S. drug policy -- traditionally a politically sensitive issue -- to consider reducing our law-enforcement emphasis in favor of more cost-effective prevention approaches such as drug education and treatment programs for our kids.

We have many priorities as a country, but visit El Paso, and you'll see that as much as any other overseas conflict, this is our fight, too.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Raj Kumar.