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updated: 2/3/2011 10:56 PM

Let's stop ignoring the fire next door

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Many Americans are keeping a watchful eye on the developments halfway around the world in Egypt. However, they must not forget the crisis next door in Mexico.

The situation in the Middle East commands attention because one spark could ignite the whole region. But Mexico is way beyond sparks. It is on fire. We worry about Egypt because it is too important -- strategically, diplomatically -- to be consumed by chaos. Yet what about the chaos on our back porch?

That is the question being asked by the family and friends of Nancy Shuman Davis, a 59-year-old American missionary who -- along with her husband, a fellow missionary -- lived and traveled in Mexico for more than 30 years. Recently, the couple was driving along a Mexican highway in a region fought over by rival gangs that move drugs into Texas. They encountered gunmen who fired into their vehicle, striking Nancy in the head. Her husband sped across the border to a hospital in McAllen, Texas, where she died.

Tragedies like this should be enough to focus the minds of Americans on what is happening south of the border.

At this point, that's probably the one thing that Mexican President Felipe Calderon wants most from his neighbors: focus. Calderon still needs the aid promised by the United States under the Merida Initiative. And he still needs a full partner, not a silent one. But none of this can happen until Americans learn to focus on Mexico.

Focus seems to be lacking in the Obama administration. The only person in this shop who seems to have a clue what the stakes are in all this is Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. She was right a few months ago when, during a speech to the Council on Foreign Relations, she compared recent events in Mexico to what happened in Colombia 20 years ago "where the narco-traffickers controlled certain parts of the country." Mexican officials complained about the reference to Colombia, but that's only because the analogy fit so well.

And Clinton was right again when, during her latest trip to Mexico to meet with Foreign Minister Patricia Espinosa in the city of Guanajuato, she described Calderon's battle against the cartels as "absolutely necessary" and insisted that "there is no alternative" given the need to preserve order and stability.

Nor can the American people seem to focus on Mexico, even though their fingerprints are all over the drug war. We consume the narcotics that keep the cartels flush with cash, and we supply the guns and bullets that drive up the body count.

This is serious business. The drug war has claimed the lives of more than 30,000 Mexicans -- five times as much as the U.S. military death rate for Iraq and Afghanistan combined. The war threatens Mexico's fragile democracy, and it seems to be fueling the improbable resurrection of the corrupt and discredited Institutional Revolutionary Party. And now it is poised to destroy the country's most treasured institution: the Mexican family. Since the cartels are having trouble moving their product north to eager buyers in the United States, they've had to sell it domestically and begin to create something Mexico has never seen: a lost generation of drug addicts.

Yet none of this matters to most Americans, who still approach the subject of Mexico's drug war with a severe case of attention deficit disorder.

We always focus on the wrong thing. When Calderon points out that there wouldn't a Mexican drug industry without U.S. consumption of illegal drugs, Americans decide they want to argue over whether it's time to legalize drugs in the United States. When Calderon reveals that most of the guns confiscated from drug traffickers by Mexican authorities are entering Mexico from the United States, Americans get the urge to debate gun control. And while Mexico spirals out of control in a way that threatens U.S. interests in the region, all that most Americans seem to care about is whether the beaches on the Mexican Riviera will be safe for spring break.

Americans are incapable of having a serious conversation about this crisis. And so it is no wonder that we can't muster a serious commitment to helping Mexico put out the fire, which all but ensures that the flames will spread.

&bul;; Ruben Navarrette's e-mail address is ruben@rubennavarrette.com.

2011, The Washington Post Writers Group

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