One side effect of the American political habit of fighting metaphorical “wars”—the war on poverty, the war on drugs—is the blurring of distinctions. But the war on drugs stands apart as trickier case: it may be a metaphorical war here, but it is very real once that war stretches beyond our borders. The situation in Mexico is a perfect example, where Ciudad Juarez became one of the most dangerous and bloody cities in the world.

And paradoxically, in Mexico losing the war doesn’t seem all that different from what a victory might look like. The Washington Post reports:

It was one of the most sensational killing sprees in recent history, with 10,500 people left dead in the streets of Juarez as two powerful drug mafias went to war. In 2010, the peak, there were at least 3,115 homicides, with many months posting more than 300 deaths, according to the newspaper El Diario. Mexico is still struggling to make sense of the bloodshed.

But the fever seems to have broken.

Last month, there were just 48 homicides — 33 by gun, seven by beatings, six by strangulation and two by knife. Of these, authorities consider 40 to be related to the drug trade or criminal rivalries.

Authorities attribute the decrease in killings to their own efforts: patrols by the army, arrests by police, new schools to keep young men out of gangs and in the classroom.

Yet ordinary Mexicans suspect there is another, more credible reason for the decline in extreme violence: The most-wanted drug lord in the world, Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, and his Sinaloa cartel have won control of the local narcotics trade and smuggling routes north.

Though the U.S. poured millions in aid into former President Felipe Calderon’s effort to wrest control from the cartels—which included the deployment of the Mexican military to the area—it hardly seems as though the Mexican government was involved in the war. That is, El Chapo, the legendary and seemingly indestructible gang leader, was up against a rival cartel and some infamous assassins, not the authorities.

As James Verini wrote recently, the idea that the Mexican government doesn’t run its own country is far from controversial:

Many Mexicans assume [Guzman] essentially runs the country, and it’s easy to see why. Since President Felipe Calderón took office in 2007, a steady procession of high-raking government, military, and police officials has been revealed to be working for Chapo or his deputy, Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada.

Meanwhile, the murder rate has dropped off a cliff, nightlife is buzzing again–unthinkable only a couple years ago–and the city says 20,000 jobs have been created. To understand just how much of a relief this is to the city’s residents, you need but to glance at the statistics of the infighting at its worst–the murder rate of nine per day, for example. The effect the violence had on the city, not to mention the country, was profound. As Charles Bowden writes in his modern history of the city’s drug wars:

I am sitting with a Juarez lawyer at a party, and he explains that there has been a failure of analysis. He tells me criminology will not explain what is happening, nor will sociology. He pauses and then says that we must study demonology.

Yet if it’s true that the violence has ceased because the government has been defeated (or made irrelevant) then the hope engendered by the quiet seems misplaced and temporary. It also indicates that the supposed American voracious appetite for drugs isn’t, as many claim, fueling the gang war. “From my perspective, the violence had its origin in the sale and consumption of drugs here in Ciudad Juarez; that’s what caused the bulk of the crisis,” Cesar Peniche, the top federal prosecutor in the Juarez area, told the Post, explaining that the war was for control of the city–hence the quiet that currently prevails.

And that portends a larger problem for Mexico. The Post story closes on a dim note:

The criminal organizations that brought Juarez to the brink have not disappeared. “What we have seen,” said Peniche, the prosecutor, “is these groups have moved to other parts of the state.”

Back in 2009, Hillary Clinton’s State Department found itself in the uncomfortable position of seeming to prepare for treating Mexico as a failed state while publicly reassuring the Mexican government that Foggy Bottom had no such intentions. If Clinton was indeed looking at Mexico as a looming failed state, nothing that has happened in the interim will have convinced her otherwise.

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