The central statistic of Mexico's violent drug war – 40,000 gangland murders in the past five years – is repeated so often it almost fails to alarm us anymore. But what happened last Thursday, Aug. 25, in the northern business capital of Monterrey – 52 innocent people massacred after gangsters set fire to a casino, presumably in a drug-cartel extortion operation – left even President Felipe Calderón sounding distressed. So agitated, in fact, that drug-war analysts believe Calderón, in his speech the next day, signaled a change in philosophy and told the U.S. to think about legalizing drugs as a way of weakening vicious drug traffickers.
I recently returned from the desert city of Durango, Mexico, where forensic officials are still trying to identify some 240 corpses discovered this year in mass graves. More than 200 other bodies have been found in similar fosas across northern Mexico. All were victims, many of them innocent victims, of the drug-trafficking violence whose barbarity seems bottomless. But it's fueled in large part by the just as endless American appetite for illegal drugs – which itself is due in no small part to the fact that our anti-drug policies are so narrow-mindedly focused on battling supply instead of reducing demand.
War, as I came to report it, was something fought between people with causes, however crazy or honourable: like between the American and British occupiers of Iraq and the insurgents who opposed them. Then I stumbled across Mexico's drug war – which has claimed nearly 40,000 lives, mostly civilians – and all the rules changed. This is warfare for the 21st century, and another creature altogether.