On September 26, 2014, in the southern state of Guerrero, a group of 80 students from a Rural Teachers Training School in Ayotzinapa were attacked by the municipal police of Iguala. According to reports of witnesses in the area, the police opened fire without warning and then captured 43 young men. It was later revealed that the 43 men were subsequently turned over to a criminal gang known as Guerreros Unidos (United Warriors), which then caused the disappearance of all 43. It is known that at least one student was tortured, his eyeballs taken out and his face skinned. To this day, the actual whereabouts of the missing students remain unknown.

It is hard to believe that police could be involved with criminal gangs and actively participate in such a heinous crime, but it is even worse because in Mexico corruption goes beyond the police. Mexico’s Attorney General Jesus Murillo Karam found evidence that Jose Luis Abarca, the arrested former mayor of Iguala, and his wife were working with Guerreros Unidos and ordered police to attack the students because the mayor feared they would disrupt an event to promote his wife’s political ambitions. In addition to the mayor of Iguala and his wife, several local police officers were also on the payroll of the criminal organization, and dozens were believed to be involved in the kidnapping and alleged murder of the students.

The disappearance of the students and the protests throughout Mexico in connection with them has shocked the world. The White House, Pope Francis and the EU have all taken up the matter in recent public statements. However, the tragedy of the students’ disappearance is miniscule as compared with the broader problem Mexico has with crime and the drug cartels that dominate the landscape of the country from one end to the other.

Mexico is the third largest poppy producer in the world, and 60% of it is grown in Guerrero state alone. Guerrero is considered a “narco state” and the war between cartels there has been savage. Guerreros Unidos fights other gangs such as La Familia and Los Rojos for control of the smuggling routes. So, in Iguala, a Guerrero key city for drug trafficking, disruptions to average citizens are part of every day life. However, what goes on in the state Guerrero is only part of a much broader and serious problem across the whole country.

In the last eight years, in the context of the war against drugs, about 120,000 people have been killed, more than 30,000 have disappeared, and a quarter of a million have been displaced in Mexico. A UN report estimated that 17,958 people were killed worldwide in terrorist attacks in 2013. The Mexican government reported that there were 31,532 homicides in the country between January and November of 2013 including 16,736 labeled as “intentional” murder and 14,796 as “negligent” manslaughter. This figure released by the Mexican government does not take into account individuals who have disappeared but not been labeled yet homocides.

A major investigation into mass graves in Mexico found the corpses of 24,000 people, all of them related to “narco crimes” of one type or another. Entire cities and towns have erupted into war zones replete with military checkpoints and drug cartel roadblocks. Armed with military grade weapons, including grenade launchers, the drug gangs are an equal match for Mexican soldiers and those police who have not been corrupted and are still willing to fight the gangs.

Given this reality, it is hard to distinguish between criminals and law enforcement. Many local politicians, federal and state lawmakers, party leaders, police chiefs and military bosses are closely tied with or identified with the criminal gangs. Drug cartel assassins, the military, and the police have all committed atrocities and violated human rights. Dismembered body parts have been left on streets or found decomposing in barrels of acid. Dead bodies with mouths duct taped often hang from commuter bridges. Women are raped and murdered, and journalists who expose law enforcement corruption are kidnapped and killed. People are afraid to report any crimes for fear of reprisals, and the current rate of unsolved murders is somewhere between 96 and 98%.

Mexico’s largest and most powerful drug gangs are the Zetas and the Sinaloa cartel. The Zetas operate in more than half of Mexico’s states and overtook their rivals (the Sinaloa cartel) in 2012 in terms of geographic presence and control. The Zetas’ brutal violence gave the gang an advantage over the Sinaloa cartel, which has always preferred to use bribes (mainly to police and politicians) to acquire territory and take over drug smuggling routes. Although the arrests of Zeta leader Miguel Ángel Treviño Morales in 15 July 2013, and of Gulf cartel (the oldest Mexican drug gang) leader Mario Armando Ramirez Treviño in 17 August 2013, were expected to have an impact on their respective organizations and on the overall problem, there has been no decrease in drug related violence since their arrests.

Despite President Enrique Peña Nieto’s stated efforts and various initiatives to combat drug cartels, drug related violence in Mexico continues to increase.  Before taking up office, he said he would break with the approach of Felipe Calderon, his predecessor, who had deployed the army to go after cartel kingpins and had declared “war” on the drug gangs. Mr. Peña Nieto promised a lower-profile approach aimed at tackling the violence on a local level by setting up a national police department to handle drug related crimes. However, when the violence escalated in Michoacan, he too sent the army to back up federal and local police forces. He also decided to strike a deal with vigilante groups, allowing them to keep their weapons as long as they agreed to be integrated in the official security forces.

As most nations focus on events in Syria, Egypt, and Iran, another violent struggle that is constantly taking human live is taking place in Mexico. Despite enormous casualties, the turmoil in Mexico does not receive nearly the level of scrutiny or attention that conflicts in other countries do. Everyone recognizes that Mexico has a serious problem with the drug cartels but there has been no concerted international initiative to eradicate it as there has been with terrorism.

The drug problem in Mexico is reminiscent of the drug problem that Colombia had in the nineties. Colombia was the world’s largest exporter of cocaine and heroin and a focal point for money laundering and arms trafficking in the Western Hemisphere. Its government had waged a losing battle against insurgents and drug traffickers for over two decades, and drug-related violence was steadily on the increase throughout the early nineties.

In 1999, the Clinton Administration backed the then newly elected Colombian President Andrés Pastrana’s agenda to curb drug smuggling. “Plan Colombia” included provisions for more aggressive eradication and interdiction efforts, encouraging rural guerrillas to disarm through peace talks, replacing coca farmers’ lost income with alternative crops and employment programs, and strengthening the country’s historically weak government. Of the plan’s initial $7.5 billion cost, the Clinton Administration committed $1.3 billion for eradication and interdiction, the European Community was asked to commit $2 billion for alternate crop development and government reform, and Colombia committed $4 billion overall to the plan. By 2012, the US had spent nearly $8 billion on the initiative.

Since Plan Colombia began in 2000, the positive changes in the security situation in Colombia are undeniable. Under the rubric of “democratic security,” developed by Álvaro Uribe, Colombia’s two-term president (2002–2010), the presence of the national police was extended throughout the country, to all of Colombia’s 1,300 municipalities. Due to the strengthened capacity of Colombia’s security forces and vastly improved intelligence capabilities, kidnappings declined between 2002 and 2009, from nearly 3,000 to just over 200 annually, and killings were reduced by nearly half in the same period. President Juan Manuel Santos, who took office in 2010, built on the foundation established during the Uribe administrations, and also emphasized extending the permanent, regular presence of security forces in small towns. Plan Colombia is today seen as a success for Colombians and for those who supported the initiative.

The situation in Mexico is difficult but not hopeless. Based on the experience of Colombia, there is reason to think that with help, Mexico can also win the war against the cartels and become a safer place. However, the international community must get involved. Merely analyzing the Mexican situation and doing nothing to help should not be an option; the human costs are too great.