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President Enrique Pena Nieto

Adriana Zehbrauskas/The Globe and Mail

In the past six years, at least 50,000 people have died in Mexico in drug-related violence at the hands of brutal cartels. The character of the atrocities is similar to that found in war zones.

President Enrique Peña Nieto, who has been in office for four months now, is trying to win back the public's trust. He has promised to reduce homicide, kidnapping and extortion rates, pledged to build an effective police and justice system, and implement a crime-prevention plan targeted at helping young people in poor neighbourhoods.

But Mexico cannot solve this Herculean challenge on its own. Drug trafficking is a complex, transnational problem. "Mexico is under an extraordinary criminal threat that the international community needs to better understand," observes a newly released 52-page report by the International Crisis Group. "International leaders need to engage in a serious debate on counter-narcotics policies, including strategies to curtail both production and consumption."

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Washington, in particular, needs to play a bigger role in devising effective strategies to combat the violence associated with drug trafficking, and in advocating the need for drug policy reform. Decriminalizing marijuana would reduce the wealth and power of the cartels, which derive substantial revenues from that product.

The United States is the market for much of the cocaine, methamphetamines and marijuana trafficked through Mexico, as well as the source of two-thirds of the weaponry used by the cartels. Drug traffickers favour Kalashnikovs and AR15 assault rifles, as well as the Fabrique Nationale 5.7, a pistol whose bullets can penetrate protective police vests, the report notes. The Mexican security forces do not have access to such weaponry.

The U.S. should renew efforts to stem gun smuggling, and learn from past mistakes, including the botched "Fast and Furious" operation, in which American agents allowed certain weapons purchased in the U.S. to cross the border with the hope of capturing the entire arms network, only to see these weapons end up in the hands of criminal drug gangs.

Mexico also needs support in its efforts to implement reforms in the judicial and security sectors. Mr. Peña Nieto plans to form a national gendarmerie that will be better vetted and trained, and to invest in programs aimed at street youth who are easy prey for criminals.

Mexico has borne the brunt of the violence that is endemic to the global drug trade. Helping the country turn around would be a sweet victory.

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