Terrorism in our backyard

Some of the world's most vicious terrorists live a short drive from San Diego, and lately they make al-Qaida look like the Simpsons.

With well-founded fearlessness, the bosses of Mexico's drug cartels routinely slaughter police officers, politicians, journalists and innocent bystanders, sometimes within sight of the U.S. border.

There is no American military presence, covert or otherwise, to deter the narco-terrorists. Our government is expensively preoccupied chasing jihadists on the other side of the world.

Perhaps that explains why the mayhem in Mexico has received relatively modest attention, and appears not to be a burning priority of either the Obama administration or the new Congress.

Yet, if body counts are a measure of true public menace, the Mexican drug barons are a force to be feared. About 30,200 people have died since President Felipe Calderon initiated a campaign against the cartels in 2006.

More than 2,000 of those murder victims were local, state and federal law-enforcement officers. During a recent 24-hour span in Acapulco, 27 people were killed, including 14 men whose decapitated bodies were deposited at a shopping center. Two police officers were also slain.

Border towns where drug gangs compete are strangled by fear, and those who stand up (and some who don't) are brutally silenced.

Recently, a few municipalities have chosen women as mayors and police chiefs, on the theory they are less likely than men to be targeted by narco-assassins. Erika Gandara, 28, agreed to serve as police chief in Guadalupe in the northern border state of Chihuahua. According to the New York Times, she was taken from her home by armed men two days before Christmas and hasn't been seen since.

A case could be made that what's happening in Mexico is a more pressing threat to America's homeland security than what's happening in Afghanistan or Yemen. The daily drug violence is at our doorstep, and spilling over.

According to federal authorities, the Mexican smuggling organizations have criminal networks in 230 U.S. cities, from Miami to Billings, Mont.

South Florida knows too well about lawless fallout. In the crazed days of the late '70s and early '80s, when cocaine lords were shooting up Colombia, the streets of Miami-Dade became a mini-war zone, too.

Then, as now, the drugs themselves weren't the big danger. It was the killings, the easy cash and, of course, the corruption.

Although they also traffic in heroin and methamphetamine, Mexican cartels specialize in moving marijuana, which should have been decriminalized and regulated a long time ago in this country. It would have put guys like Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman out of business, instead of making him a black-market billionaire. .

From a foreign perspective, the Mexican drug wars are easier to overlook by taking the naive view that gang members are just killing off each other. If only that were true. The cartels have targeted prominent figures from every democratic institution -- from the courts to the media to the legislative assemblies.

Meanwhile, in Washington, Congress is amped up about illegal immigration, which is only bound to increase as Mexican citizens flee the bloodbaths in their hometowns. Write tougher laws, build taller walls, send out the National Guard -- none of that will significantly diminish the power or reach of the cartels.

The United States has given $1.5 billion to help the Calderon government, and is undoubtedly supplying intelligence from the Drug Enforcement Administration and other agencies, as we did for Colombia. However, cooperation is a delicate process because of extensive corruption among the Mexican authorities.

As they have for 40 years, the smuggling cartels will thrive as long as marijuana is illegal.

For Americans, the stakes could be just as high as in Afghanistan, and the bullets are flying much closer.

Contact Hiaasen at chiaasenmiamiherald.com.