The drug war has replaced the Cold War

I've been thinking about my old friend Jorge Castañeda lately. He's the former foreign minister of Mexico under President Vicente Fox. Turns out he's also a clairvoyant.

I met him during the late '80s, when he was a professor and political analyst. As we discussed the end of the Cold War, I remember asking him what he thought would replace it in Latin America.

"Drug wars," he answered.

There's a man with vision, or with inside information. Whatever it is, he was right, and now we are witnessing the dramatic effects of the drug wars.

They say Mexico is the new Colombia. Colombians don't like the comparison, and neither do Mexicans. However, it is clear that although the drug business is still alive and kicking in Colombia, Mexico has become the new center of distribution, and Mexican drug lords, not Colombian, now run the show and lead the war. And it is a dirty and bloody war.

The Mexican government has poured all its resources into combating the drug cartels. Dozens of cities are militarized, and in some cases, federal police forces have taken over the duties of local police. But the manpower has led only to more killings, more bloodshed. In fact, more than 12,000 people have died as part of this war in Mexico -- more than in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan combined during that time period.

But this is no longer just Mexico's problem. An investigation by The Associated Press shows that Mexican drug traffickers have spread their tentacles to some 47 countries.

Here in the United States, Mexican drug cartels have gone beyond the border states and have spread to at least 230 cities, including Chicago, Houston, Denver and Los Angeles. According to the Justice Department, in 2008, authorities confiscated $70 million cash in drug profits in Atlanta.

The war against drugs in Mexico is a very difficult one to win. At the core of the problem is the culture of corruption that has existed for decades in that country. Law-enforcement agencies have been infiltrated by organized crime to the point where Mexicans no longer know who they should fear more. In recent months, there has been evidence that it is law-enforcement agents who have helped drug smugglers break out of jail, and police officers have been linked to a series of massacres.

Then there is the problem of access to weapons that flow from the United States to Mexico and end up in the hands of drug traffickers. In Texas, Arizona and New Mexico alone, there are some 7,000 gun shops where one can easily purchase weapons, some of which are more powerful than those used by Mexican law-enforcement agents.

But possibly the biggest obstacle to winning the war on drugs is an economic one. In the United States alone, some 20 million consumers invest $64 billion in illegal drugs.

Castañeda was right -- the drug war is the new Cold War: power struggles, double agents, clandestine operations, secret hideaways, massacres. But this is not a battle over ideology, but over lucrative smuggling routes. It is a worldwide problem that requires a worldwide solution. Until then, the bloodshed will continue.