When I first traveled to Colombia with a congressional delegation a decade ago, I was struck by the greeting we received: scores of children lining the roads, waving American flags.
Later I learned they were all orphans of slain police officers, victims of the relentless violence that the drug trade had rained upon their country for years.
When I returned to Colombia last month, on a trip that also took me to Mexico and Peru,
I was heartened to see Colombia's progress since my first visit. Through political will in Bogota and smart power in Washington, things have changed immensely.
In Mexico, however, I was startled by the similarities between the Mexico of today and the Colombia of 10 years ago.
Last year, drug-related violence killed nearly 6,000 people in Mexico, twice as many as in 2007. The rising toll is a sign that Mexico, led by President Felipe Calderon, is serious about cracking down on the drug trade a necessary goal despite its terrible burden.
The instability that has shaken Mexico is on our doorstep. Criminals and drugs flow into America, while cash and weapons that support the drug trade move south across the border. The State Department estimates that some 90 percent of the cocaine imported to the United States comes from Mexico. In exchange, up to $23 billion a year crosses the border and winds up in the hands of the Mexican drug cartels.
Recently, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton traveled to Mexico and noted our two nations' "co-responsibility" in the war against the drug gangs. To that end, the U.S. is taking proactive steps not only to secure our own border, but also to help Mexico secure its cities and towns. I am pleased that the Administration is instituting a cooperative strategy, including increasing the number of federal agents on the border.
Governor Perry has supported deploying National Guard troops to relieve pressure on law enforcement officials on the border, and I also believe this will help Texas cities like El Paso,
Brownsville and Laredo stay safe. Although Texas border cities have done an admirable job containing and preventing drug-related violence, we should be ready to act if the situation gets worse, and we should be fully equipped to prevent criminal elements from crossing into the U.S.
Preventing drug smugglers from entering the United States should be as much a priority as keeping out terrorists.
And the drug gangs' sheer brutality and complete disregard for life rival that of any terrorist organization on the planet.
They torture and decapitate soldiers and civilians alike. At the drug gangs' behest, violent anti-government protests have swelled recently.
Despite the danger, Calderon has taken courageous, unprecedented steps to enhance cooperation between Mexico and the U.S. in battling the cartels.
Two years ago, President Bush and President Calderon ushered in a new era of U.S.-Mexico cooperation when they announced the Merida Initiative, a three-year plan to provide Mexico with $1.4 billion in funding to help control drug trafficking.
In addition to paying for needed military and law enforcement training and equipment, the Merida Initiative provides funds for judicial reform and human-rights issues.
So far, Congress has provided $700 million for Mexico through the Merida Initiative, addressing vital needs for the Mexican government in its efforts against the drug trade. Helicopters and surveillance planes purchased with funds from the Merida Initiative will help Mexico extend its authority to those remote and hard-to-access parts of the country that the cartels control.
Recently, Secretary Clinton pledged an additional $80 million in funding for Black Hawk helicopters for the Mexican authorities, and I will work to ensure Congress approves that funding.
Though the continuing struggle in Mexico likely will be long and painful, we should heed the lessons learned from Plan Colombia, a multinational effort that began during the Clinton Administration and expanded under President Bush's leadership.
The plan helped Colombia bolster its air mobility and police presence. Despite the added difficulty of dealing with paramilitary groups such as the FARC and the National Liberation Army (ELN), Colombia's security efforts improved dramatically.
Since 2002, Colombian President Alvaro Uribe's first year in office, homicides in Colombia have dropped by 40 percent, kidnappings by 83 percent, and terrorist attacks by 76 percent. The paramilitary and guerilla organizations have been decimated, as evidenced by the rescue of 15 FARC hostages, including three Americans, last July in a daring raid that would have been unthinkable even a few years ago.
In 2008 alone, Colombia extradited 208 drug traffickers to the U.S., further damaging already weakened cartels. Colombian gangs are producing a third less cocaine than in 2002.
The Merida Initiative, backed by Calderon's resolve, holds the promise of bringing similar change to Mexico.
However, if we do not support Mexico in its war against the drug cartels, the consequences may be grave. Instability created by drug trafficking will head south again, imperiling Colombia. And the problems in Mexico will inevitably spill into the United States.