MEXICO CITY — Shortly before America’s elections last November, then Democratic vice presidential candidate Joseph Biden was widely criticized for predicting that an Obama administration would almost certainly be tested by what he called a “generated” international crisis, in much the way that the Soviet Union “tested” U.S. President John F. Kennedy shortly after he assumed office. Biden did not point to a specific region of the world, but mentioned the Middle East, the Indian subcontinent and Russia as the likeliest sources of trouble for the new president.

Impolitic or not, Biden’s anxieties seem to have informed several of the administration’s early foreign policy decisions. These include Biden’s own extension of an olive branch to Russia at last month’s Munich Security Conference, and U.S. President Barack Obama’s appointment of Richard Holbrooke as special envoy for Pakistan and Afghanistan, and of George Mitchell to a similar post for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

But, as pressing as the Middle East, South Asia, and Russia (as well as Iran and North Korea) are, another crisis far closer to home could create as much peril as a nuclear-armed Iran, an aggressively resurgent Russia or even an Islamist-dominated Pakistan.

That crisis is located in Mexico, which is in free fall, its state institutions under threat as they have not been since at least the Cristero Uprising of the late 1920s and possibly since the Mexican revolution of 1910. While the Obama administration is fully aware of what is happening south of the Rio Grande, the threat simply does not command the attention that its gravity requires.

The crisis consists in nothing less than an effort by the major drug cartels to tame and suborn the Mexican state, and not just in the strip along the U.S. border, though the epicenter of the crisis is there. Obviously, the cartels’ leaders do not have designs on Mexico’s presidential palace. But, through a policy of terror extending from Oaxaca in the south, through Acapulco on the Pacific coast, and up to the great border cities of Tijuana and Juarez (Mexico’s sixth and seventh most populous cities, respectively), they have made it abundantly clear that they are trying to achieve impunity.

The only recent parallel in Latin America was a similar effort 15 years ago by the Colombian drug cartels. That disguised coup failed — barely — and there is no guarantee that the result will be similar this time around in Mexico.

Journalists with long experience of war zones report being more worried about their safety along the Mexico border than when they were in Bosnia, Afghanistan or Iraq, though much of the violence is internecine. Of the thousands who have been killed, often after being horribly tortured, many, if not most, have been members of the drug cartels and their families.

But it is the campaign of targeted assassination against any Mexican official who seems to pose a serious threat to the cartels’ operations that makes the crisis so dire. First, in May 2007, the cartels killed Jose Nemesio Lugo Felix, the general coordinator of information at the National Center for Planning and Analysis to Combat Organized Crime. Soon after, a hit man murdered Edgar Milan Gomez, Mexico’s highest-ranking federal police official.

In November, a plane carrying Juan Camilo Mourino, Mexico’s national security adviser, crashed under mysterious circumstances. And very recently, retired Gen. Mauro Enrique Tello Quinones, one of the most decorated officers in the Mexican Army, was abducted, tortured, and killed less than a week after assuming a new position as anti-drug chief in the resort city of Cancun.

For all the lip service paid to relations with Mexico (and, indeed, with Latin America more generally) from U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt to Obama, the truth is that developments in Mexico have always gotten short shrift from U.S. presidents. Illegal immigration is a major issue, to be sure, as is the drug trade. But the U.S. government has always regarded them as domestic American issues rather than as key foreign policy concerns.

It is emblematic that while Obama has received Mexican President Felipe Calderon, the U.S. president’s first foreign trip was Canada. And Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was asked almost nothing about Mexico at her confirmation hearing, and she emphasized relations with Mexico neither in her own statement nor in those she has made since assuming her post.

Indeed, the conventional wisdom in the United States is that Mexico policy regarding illegal immigration and drugs will be the province of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano (herself a former border state governor). Meanwhile, the Treasury and Commerce departments will handle trade policy concerning the North American Free Trade Agreement.

This is the way Mexico policy has been run for decades. And, offensive as this has been to Mexican sensibilities — and harmful to finding long-term solutions to America’s immigration dilemma — these complacent arrangements have never presented so clear and present danger as they do today.

David Rieff is author of “At the Point of a Gun: Democratic Dreams and Armed Intervention.” His most recent book is “Swimming in a Sea of Death: A Son’s Memoir,” about his mother, the late novelist and critic Susan Sontag. © 2009 Project Syndicate.

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