(Please listen to the full interview with The Takeaway's John Hockenberry here)
In his new book, "In The Shadow of Saint Death," author Michael Deibert chronicles the history and evolution of the warring cartels. Their influence, fueled by America's own drug policies and addictions, now permeates nearly every part of society, from the government to business owners to the military.
"What had been somewhat isolated now is violence that's affecting everywhere in Mexico practically, including places like Acapulco and places like Cuernavaca, which is very close to the capital," says Deibert. "So there has been, I'd say, a general disintegration of law and order in the country as a whole."
Beheadings are a preferred form of cruelty used by drug cartels. They are frequently video taped and are designed as a symbol used to instill terror in the hearts of Mexican citizens.
"They learned that basically by watching insurgent videos from Iraq," says Deibert. "The mass graves are a great testimony to the complete absence of the state in huge parts of Mexico."
Deibert says that is important to be very skeptical of about the number of people dead and wounded in the drug war.
"The number of people that we have dead now, which including the missing is somewhere around 70,000 to 75,000, but I think it could be much, much more than that," Deibert continues. "And that makes the drug war in Mexico since 2006 the most deadly conflict in Latin America aside from Guatemala's civil war, which was 30 years long and killed 200,000 people. But in the modern era, that's the most deadly."
Since the violence began there has also been a cultural shift in Mexico, says Deibert, spurring a controversial folk-music genre called narcocorridos, which romanticize drugs, guns, and violence.
The government of President Enrique Peña Nieto are unable to get the situation under control, though they often project a contradictory image.
"They have a great PR machine and they're trying to project this image that the country is turning the corner, when in fact in Tamaulipas last year the murder rate went up 90 percent," he says. "If you talk to your average Mexican, they don't feel any safer now than they did four years ago."
Deibert says that Americans must accept responsibility for some of the conflict in Mexico. In 2012, an estimated 23.9 million Americans aged 12 or older—or 9.2 percent of the population—had used an illicit drug or abused a psychotherapeutic medication (such as a pain reliever, stimulant, or tranquilizer) in the past month.
"Felipe Calderón, who was Peña Nieto's predecessor, had something interesting to say once: 'It's not easy living next door to the world's biggest and richest drug addict,' which is the United States," says Deibert. "I think that's accurate, and something for us to ponder for us as Americans."
But it's not just America's demand for drugs that is fueling the Mexican drug war. Guns flow in the opposite direction from the United States and south of the border.
"So many of these guns come from the United States, and that's something that people have to understand," says Deibert. "There was one guy that I write about in the book who, over the period of a couple months, bought over 100 assault rifles in Houston, many of which were found in different crime scenes around Mexico, including an attack on the state prosecutor's office in Acapulco that killed seven people."
While most of the drug cartel violence is contained to Mexico, the U.S. is not impervious.
"There's piles of dead bodies in Chicago, in New Orleans, in Baltimore, and in Miami," says Deibert.
"The death and destruction that has been caused by the criminalization of narcotics in the United States, and the perfect market environment that's been created for criminals by that criminalization, is really what has to end, along with a more restrictive gun policy."
Deibert suggests that the United States adopt a model that is similar to that of Portugal. In the year 2000, he says that Portugal decriminalized small amounts of drugs. He says that in 14 years there hasn't been an increase in drug use or abuse—in fact, among usage among those age 13 to 19 actually decreased.
"I don't think Americans can eternally watch Mexico go up in flames and claim they don't have a responsibility for it," he says.