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Mexico's president says his country is not a failed state and insists it won't be. But President Felipe Calderon's government is in a veritable war with heavily armed drug cartels. That's why the Pentagon is now planning for the worst: the possibility that Mexico might implode. As NPR's Tom Bowman reports the American military is quietly stepping in to help its neighbor with advice and training.

(Soundbite of Mexican Newscast)

Unidentified Woman: (Foreign language spoken)

TOM BOWMAN: It seems that every night in Mexico there are reports of drug-related violence — murders, kidnappings, armed battles with police, narco-traffickers armed with rocket-propelled grenades, who outgun even the Mexican army.

General BARRY MCCAFFREY (Retired Army, Former U.S. drug czar): Thousands murdered this year.

BOWMAN: Retired Army General Barry McCaffrey served as drug czar under President Clinton. He visited Mexico recently and painted a desperate picture.

General MCCAFFREY: Squad-sized units of police officers and soldiers abducted, tortured to death, decapitated. So the violence is simply shocking and we've got to help.

BOWMAN: This week U.S. intelligence chief Dennis Blair said that growing violence could impede Mexico's efforts to govern parts of its territory, and U.S. military planners are doing what they always do: looking at a nightmare scenario. If Mexico were to become a failed state, what would that mean for the United States?

Captain SEAN BUCK (Strategic planner, Joint Forces Command): You have maybe unplanned or unanticipated migration of people - forced migration.

BOWMAN: That's one scenario, million of Mexicans crossing the U.S. border to flee the violence. Navy Captain Sean Buck, a strategic planner with the Pentagon's Joint Forces Command, says that's something the U.S. has to plan for.

Captain BUCK: You have a humanitarian situation in which we may feel compelled to respond to with other nation states and partners.

BOWMAN: That would mean the American military, including the National Guard, would have to provide temporary shelter, food and water both inside Mexico and for those fleeing into the United States.

Of course, that's just one of the possibilities being played out by military and intelligence officials. Peter DeShazo, a former State Department official with extensive experience in Central America, says the U.S. could head off that possibility by doing more to help President Calderon's stated campaign to clean up Mexico.

Mr. PETER DESHAZO (Former State Department official): It's a matter of the Mexican government strengthening its capability to effectively enforce the law against a very well-armed and very well-financed criminal organization.

BOWMAN: But how? McCaffrey and others say the Mexican police just aren't up to the job of fighting the drug cartels.

General MCCAFFREY: Their municipal police, in many cases, are quasi-criminal organizations. Or they're intimidated. Or they're outgunned.

BOWMAN: That leaves the regular army. Mexico President Calderon has so far mobilized tens of thousands troops to fight the drug cartels. Now, the American military is offering more help. U.S. Army Special Forces soldiers recently started to train Mexican army commandoes. And NPR has learned the U.S. Marine Corps is working with the Mexican Marines. They'll focus on things like officer training and urban warfare.

That's all troubling to some, who say Mexico risks more human rights abuses if it uses a powerful force like its military to fight drug gangs. Mexico's Human Rights Commission says soldiers have committed abuses, including rape, although the Mexican army says the problems have been isolated.

United Nations officials say the job of dealing with the drug cartels should not be handled by the Mexican military but by the police.

Peter DeShazo, the former State Department official, agrees the Americans should focus more on helping the Mexican police.

Mr. DESHAZO: Law and order is the work of the police under normal circumstances, and so police reform and strengthening, professionalization of the police in Mexico is very important.

BOWMAN: But these are not normal circumstances, say Pentagon officials involved in the Mexican military training. Strengthening the police is needed. But right now, says McCaffrey, the Mexican government may have to rely on its army and marines to take on the drug cartels.

Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington.

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