Earlier this year, a Mexican think tank released a report which found that five of the 10 most violent cities in the world are in Mexico, and 45 of the 50 most violent cities are in Central or South America (scroll down here for the list).

Today, I’ll be heading to Fort Bliss, a post I’m privileged to visit four or five times each year, to lecture on issues relating to Afghanistan. It’s always weird landing at El Paso International Airport, as the plane flies low over the Mexican border, giving us window-seat passengers a clear view of the slums of Ciudad Juárez, the second most violent city on earth, according to the list. When I talk to long-time El Paso/Fort Bliss residents or those who had been stationed at Fort Bliss in years past, many talk about the fun times, great restaurants, and excellent shopping they enjoyed in Juárez. Today, however, the city is strictly no-go.

The problem, of course, is the rise of drug cartels in Mexico. While Los Zetas may not be the dominant group in Juárez, they are one of the most infamous in Mexico. As the civilian murder rate in Mexico exceeds, according to some accounts, that of Afghanistan, the U.S. position has largely been to ignore the problem and hope it goes away. Alas, cancers left untreated spread.

According to the Guatemalan magazine Siglo 21 (with a translation provided by the Open Source Center), the Zetas have now spread beyond Mexico’s borders and now operate in eight Guatemalan departments:

A mapping of the Interior Ministry indicates that the group of drug traffickers Los Zetas operates in eight departments of Guatemala, including the capital city which they have used as a transit point. According to the report, Los Zetas operate in Zacapa, Alta Verapaz, Baja Verapaz, Izabal, Huehuetenango, Chiquimula, and Peten. David Martinez-Amador, a social researcher, explained: “With little resistance from rival groups and due to their operational strength, it would not be crazy to think that they could be doing what they are doing in Monterrey, Mexico: seizing control of an urban area and eliminating and extorting money from other criminal groups.” According to the expert, that group “has the logistical capacity to seize control of territories with great ease.”

A lesson of the past two decades is that state failures, anywhere on the globe, can pose a security threat to the United States. When those failures occur on our border, the risk rises exponentially. Both President Obama and Governor Romney may seek to make the next election about the economy, but they are also running for commander-in-chief and national security crises seldom conform to a Washington political calendar. With The Zetas expanding beyond Mexico and potentially destabilizing other Latin American allies, perhaps it is time for Obama and Romney to talk about how to re-establish peace and security in our hemisphere and especially on our borders.