10/15/2010 01:12 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Mexico's Narcos: A Crisis for Both Mexico and the U.S.

I am living in the heart of Mexico City. Last night we had an elegant dinner in a restaurant overlooking the ruins of a great Aztec temple, the Cathedral, and the National Palace with all the lights of the bicentennial shining over the largest square in the hemisphere. There is no scene with such layers of history in the U.S. Though U.S. newspapers make it sound like Mexico is in the midst of a revolution, I walk home knowing the city's death rate is far lower than Washington's. Yet every morning I read of new killings and kidnappings in other regions in the country's war with the Narco mafias. The beauty and the menace of Mexico coexist.

U.S. politicians are playing on the public's fear of poor Mexicans crossing the border, people who often become nannies in Texas or gardeners or laborers in California. We build high walls and move troops to the border to stop this. But we're doing nothing that's effective to stop the flood of narcotics that aim to meet the growing appetites of U.S. addicts, or to stem the tide of guns that arm the Narcos and flow from the hundreds of virtually unregulated shops on the U.S. side of the border. Mexico is experiencing many more deaths in its battle with the drug cartels than we are in Iraq and Afghanistan. Parts of Northern Mexico are living under uncontrolled terrorism. We can only solve these problems together. This isn't a civil war as Secretary Clinton suggested, but it is a very serious challenge to government and basic order in those regions and it will produce greater upheaval if left unattended.

I've been coming to the Gran Ciudad for forty years and have a home I love in the Centro Historico. Although many in the U.S. see Mexico as a third world country, it is a great leader in Latin America. The capital, the world's second largest city, has prosperous and affluent neighborhoods, as well as terrible poverty. In some states, however, tourism and investment have come to a standstill. Families of wealth are fleeing to homes in the U.S. A bold and horrifying assassination in broad daylight of a candidate for governor in the state of Tamulipas, as well as the killing of the mayor of a rich community near Monterrey speak of terrorism too close to a still porous U.S. border. Mexico cannot solve this two-country problem by itself.

Mexico's true democracy is only ten years old and is struggling with bitter partisan divisions and facing huge challenges. We have a common market with Mexico, profound relationships, and our lives are intertwined with deep ties of destiny and blood: Mexican immigrants in the U.S., together with their children and descendants, now account for about a sixth of American children and an absolute majority of those born in our two largest states, California and Texas. Further chaos in regions of Mexico could produce a tidal wave of immigrants to come across our border that walls could not stop.

President Obama must give U.S. Mexican relations a much higher place on his agenda. We need a common, bipartisan and bi-national vision of development, security, and education as well as someone with tremendous experience and standing to represent the U.S. government, someone like the great ambassadors we once sent to Japan -- former Senate Leader Mike Mansfield and Vice President Walter Mondale -- to crystallize a great collaboration of top business, education, public safety, intellectual, and cultural leaders, and create a serious program for a shared and more successful future. If there is to be security and prosperity along our border, then we must help build a future for the young people who suffer without education and prospects, one that is better than what the Narcos offer. If we do not come up with a more serious engagement, then the time will come soon when we will all ask how we let a crisis many times more serious and explosive than Iraq and Afghanistan develop so very close to home.

Gary Orfield is co director of The Civil Rights Project/Proyecto Derechos Civiles at UCLA, and a Professor of Political Science, Law, Education, and Urban Planning, now on sabbatical in Mexico City.