Rick Perry has a knack for making comments that cause large swathes of the electorate to wince. But it takes real talent to make comments that cause large swathes of another country’s to wince, too. That’s precisely what the Texas governor managed to do earlier this month when he told an audience in New Hampshire that ending Mexico’s ongoing drug war “may require our military in Mexico working in concert with them to kill these drug cartels and to keep them off of our border”.

Indeed, Mexico did more than wince. It effectively bared its teeth.

Given the delicacy of such border issues, and with presidential primary season in full swing, Perry’s comments were always going to come in for criticism on both sides of the blood-flecked trickle that is the Rio Grande. That they were ill-advised goes without saying. Perry’s hooks are flailing wildly — but that’s nothing new. The response is what was really telling, and really worrying.

Even without being misconstrued as an endorsement of unilateral intervention, as they were rather too often misconstrued, Perry’s comments touched upon on a raw nerve that is still well exposed south of the border. Since the American-Mexican War, which was triggered by the US annexation of Perry’s home state, and that saw the behemoth to the north annex some 900,000 square miles of its neighbour’s territory, the idea of US troops in Mexico, for whatever purpose, has been anathema to the vast majority of the latter country’s citizens.

“The issue of participation, or the presence, of US troops on Mexican soil is not on the table,” Mexico’s ambassador to the US, Arturo Sarukhan, told reporters. This is fair enough. “[Military intervention] is not a component that forms part of the innovative approaches that Mexico and the United States have been using to confront transnational organised crime,” he continued. This is disingenuous. The idea that there is anything innovative, or effective, about either country’s current approach is part of the problem.

The reaction on the US side, while no less predictable, was even more problematic. Among Perry’s Republican opponents, Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney led the charge. Romney, a human vacuum whose only policy is to ensure that his jawline becomes president, offered a proposal even more inane than his counterpart’s. “Let’s build a fence first,” Romney said in an interview with the New Hampshire Union Leader, “and let’s have sufficient border patrol agents to protect it.” No one seems to have told Romney that Obama already beat John McCain once.

Base and cynical as a policy, the border fence is also likely to prove wholly ineffective as a deterrent. There are already YouTube videos of Mexicans scaling portions of the thing in less than 20 seconds. As a strategy for ending the drug war — far and away a more immediate threat to US national security than any of the wars it has fought over the past decade — it isn’t one. Asked about such strategies, Romney merely endorsed the status quo.

Calling the use of US force “a bad idea”, he was nevertheless happy to give Mexican force encouragement and material support. “If the Mexican government wants us to help it with logistics, intelligence, satellite images, I’m sure we can provide the sort of support we provided in Colombia,” he said. Which is probably the most repugnant thing about Romney’s bringing it up in this context: his apparent willingness to let the Mexicans slaughter each other, so long as they do it on their side of the white pickets.

Not that the other side of the congressional aisle is much better when it comes to this sort of thing. It is worth pointing out that Perry’s comments weren’t particularly unusual within the context of recent rhetoric on the issue. Addressing the US Council on Foreign Relations in September last year, Hillary Clinton said the key to winning the drug war to the south was “better law enforcement and, where appropriate, military support for that law enforcement”. Like Romney, Clinton also suggested that perhaps it was time for Mexico to have its own version of Plan Colombia, the $7.5 billion program that supplied Colombian security forces with US military personnel, equipment and training.

The Mexicans similarly and summarily rejected the overture. “We are not going to permit any version of a Plan Colombia,” Santiago Creel, a senator, said at the time. “We cannot permit a Plan Colombia in Mexico.” With blatant hypocrisy a common feature of our dead-fish democracies, flopping about on the deck as they gasp for leadership that doesn’t always and immediately attempt to save face, it was refreshing to note the Democrats’ awkward silence in the face of Perry’s familiar comments. Except that hypocrisy might actually have been preferable in the face of what was being suggested.

Threatening intervention is clearly a bipartisan strategy, just as an ongoing military approach is clearly a bilateral one. “What President [Felipe] Calderón has done is absolutely necessary,” Clinton said on a visit to Guanajuato in January this year. “There is no alternative [to military engagement with the cartels].” If Romney’s mexenophobic isolationism is par for the course along the border, where dogs’ ears prick up without fail every time someone should give it vulgar enough an expression, then the reliance on military options to take on the cartels is par for it in Washington and Mexico City.

This is becoming less true of the latter capital, which has this year seen numerous protests against Calderón’s policy. The most notable of these is the one spearheaded by poet and essayist Javier Sicilia, whose son was murdered along with six others in Temixco, Morelos, earlier this year. The drug war is likely to be a central issue in next July’s presidential election, too, with the current front runner, the Institutional Revolutionary Party’s Enrique Peña Nieto, critical of the military approach. (Peña Nieto has not said what the PRI’s approach to the drug wars would entail.)

It remains true enough, however, that, for the time being, everyone appears happy enough for this war to remain a literal one. It remains just as true that this strategy will continue to fail unless the men with guns, on either side of the border, are backed up with something that no one seems willing to provide: social change.

Fuelled by the drug trade, Mexico sports a shadow economy that underwrites and permeates the real economy, with an estimated $US35-40 billion in drug money ultimately entering the country each year. It sports militarised guerrilla groups that coerce locals with methods ranging from blackmail to violence against their families, as in the case of 14-year-old Edgar Jimenez Lugo, or “El Ponchis”, “The Cloaked One”, who told authorities he had beheaded four people on threat of death after being kidnapped by the Cártel del Pacífico Sur when he was 11. It has a long-running, violent and expensive military operation taking place along its northern border, which is itself a lawless and repulsive thing — more than 4000 human rights complaints have been made against soldiers stationed in El Norte in the past five years — and that has turned more people against the government and military than it has apprehended cartel bosses.

Clocking in at No.98 on last year’s Corruption Perceptions Index, Mexico also suffers from endemic corruption at every stratum of officialdom. On Thursday last week, four police officers in Monterrey, Nuevo León, were accused of holding kidnap victims for members of the brutal Los Zetas drug cartel while ransom payments were being negotiated. On Monday, the entire police department of Linares, 100 kilometres south of Monterrey, were held pending investigation into the force’s alleged connections to organised crime.

Perhaps most importantly, the country suffers from gross inequality and poverty, a dearth of economic opportunity, and a sense among many young people that they have no other options available to them. Unemployed teenagers in Ciudad Juárez don’t occupy parks and live-tweet the revolution. They take part in small-scale extortion attempts or else get involved with the cartels. As Ciudad Juárez’s mayor, Héctor Murguía, told The Washington Post last November: “When people lose hope they will do anything.”

It was a point he stressed again later that month when I was in Ciudad Juárez for Mexico’s Centenary of Revolution. A literal stone’s throw from El Paso, the safest city in the United States, Juárez is arguably the murder capital of the world. It is unarguably the epicentre of the drug war. Even so, Murguía believes that investment and job creation, not soldiers and ordnance, are the answer to the city’s problems. He was quick to say so as he addressed a small crowd outside the Museo de la Revolución en la Frontera Norte, which had opened only the day before, and that was surrounded by soldiers and ordnance.

“People who think they are going to fix [these problems] with policemen and arms are completely crazy,” he told the Post in the same interview. Critics of the war in Afghanistan — a country that, not incidentally, shares every single one of the above social ills — have been making the same point for several years. The best way to fight terrorism, they claim, is not to bomb the world’s poor, but rather to help them fight inequality.

While economic development and anti-corruption reform should be pursued by the supplier to the south, the nose-powdering giant to the north has its responsibilities, too. While the question of illegal weaponry is certainly a valid one — although, as I have written previously, not quite as valid as it is sometimes made out — the more pressing an immediate one is legislative: that of legalisation.

Mexico is already talking about this, throwing up its hands in resignation. Legalisation was one of the central demands of Javier Sicilia’s aforementioned protest movement. In an interview with Time in January, Calderón’s predecessor, Vincente Fox, said he had changed his mind about prohibition. “We have to take all the production chain out of the hands of criminals and into the hands of producers,” Fox said, “so there are farmers that produce marijuana and manufacturers that process it and distributors that distribute it and shops that sell it.”

Even Calderón himself, in the twilight of his presidency, is beginning to wonder aloud about market solutions. In speech to the Americas Society and Council of the Americas in New York City last month, the president said that “if the consumption of drugs cannot be limited, then decision-makers must seek more solutions — including market alternatives — in order to reduce the astronomical earnings of criminal organisations.”

This represents a huge step forward for someone who has previously been committed to the lash. It is perhaps not so surprising from a politician whose mind must now be turning towards his legacy. That legacy currently amounts to more than 40,000 killed in drug-related violence since he took the oath of office five years ago. We should be thankful he’s finally talking sense. Legalisation means regulation. It means quality control. It means tax revenue. (A 2005 Harvard University study estimated the US could raise $6.2 billion annually by taxing marijuana alone.) Most importantly, it means the freedom to kill ourselves howsoever we please, and it means that the sun-baked desert can finally stop soaking up blood.

It isn’t going to happen. Let’s not forget who this article started with: James Richard “Rick” Perry. Not that I think Perry is going to win the Republican nomination, or that whoever does is going to win the presidency, of course. But the electorate is full of such moralists without memory and they are committed to ensuring that legalisation remain taboo.

Gore Vidal put it best. “The government has learnt nothing from past attempts at prohibition, not to mention repression,” he once wrote. “Will anything sensible be done? Of course not. The American people are as devoted to the idea of sin and its punishment as they are to making money — and fighting drugs is nearly as big a business as pushing them. Since the combination of sin and money is irresistible (particularly to the professional politician), the situation will only grow worse.”

Vidal wrote that in 1970, nearly a year before President Richard M. Nixon first referred to the “war on drugs” by that name. That war turned 40 years old in June, the same month that Ciudad Juárez saw its body count for the year surpass 1000, and that Veracruz saw its best-known newspaper columnist, Miguel Ángel López Velasco, gunned down in his home. The columnist’s wife and son were killed, too. No one has been charged with the crime.

With the body count climbing, Vidal’s words have never felt more prescient. With Perry’s comments, Nixon’s war has never felt father from its end.

*Matthew Clayfield is a freelance correspondent who spent a number of months last year in Mexico. Currently preparing to cover the Russian presidential election in 2012, he is partially financing his project with reader donations and crowdsourced funds. You can contribute here.