Mexico, battered by an interminable narco war, hasn’t found a firm consensus on how to combat organized crime.

In Spain, which has been plagued by the violence of the Basque group ETA, such a consensus was slow to develop, until the escalating cruelty of the attacks drove the majority to join or support huge, public demonstrations against the separatists. This rejection helped cripple the ETA and drive the organization to its recent repudiation of terrorism.

In Colombia, a long and brutal civil conflict spurred by the drug cartels, and involving left-wing guerrillas and right-wing death squads, seemed to bring the country to its knees. In the end, a consensus of opposition took shape, perhaps crystallized by the murders of judges, legislators and even a presidential candidate. Colombia isn’t free of criminal violence as a result of such popular pressure, but its incidence has been greatly reduced.

The lack of such a consensus in Mexico, however, weakens and confuses us as a society, even as it strengthens the criminals and their political accomplices. Sooner or later we will achieve an agreement that can be supported by the majority of Mexicans, but that must happen soon, before the death toll greatly exceeds its already unacceptable bounds.

Calderon’s Policies

A major factor impeding agreement on a program of action is a rejection, by many Mexicans, of the law-enforcement policies pursued by President Felipe Calderon. Nevertheless, in a recent poll by the Pew Research Center, 83 percent of respondents approved of the government’s deployment of the army against the cartels.

Yet a strong undercurrent of opposition to Calderon’s strategy has been expressed in the recent countrywide marches of the Movement for Peace, founded by the poet Javier Sicilia after his son was murdered by men connected with a drug cartel for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, as has happened to so many innocents in recent years.

The movement has made a great contribution to the social mobilization of the population, which is absolutely necessary if Mexico is to find a way out of its tragic bind. But this noble movement should reconsider some of its moral premises.

A complete acceptance of Calderon’s strategies is by no means required to secure a broad national consensus against organized crime. Like many others, I would criticize the overwhelming emphasis on a military solution, the lack of accountability that leaves most crimes unsolved (more than 40,000 dead so far), few results on tracing money laundering, too little security at border stations, and far too little focus on the corrupt connections between power and crime.

But there’s also a danger in criticizing the government, as if it alone was responsible for all the dead and injured. When capos and killers are caught they usually have their 15 minutes of contemptible fame. Then they vanish, sometimes into prison, but for many, into freedom, for “lack of evidence,” and then return to their criminal lives.

The movement led by Sicilia is infused with Gandhian and Catholic emphases on peaceful action and reconciliation. He has made some compelling arguments along those lines: “The criminals also are victims. One has to see where they’re from, what happened and what is still happening within the social fabric to create those children who did not wind up becoming criminals. And what is lacking within society and within the state that impedes the formation of men worthy of respect.”

These words deserve consideration and contemplation, but the drug gangs that torment Mexico won’t pay them the slightest attention. Although it’s obvious that the destruction of the social fabric creates conditions for the proliferation of crime, the country cannot wait to protect its citizens until we reach higher levels of prosperity and education.

Catholic Theology

The moral theology of Catholicism and Gandhianism tend to attenuate the gravity of a crime through understanding of its causes and conditions. Certainly the triggermen (though not necessarily the crime bosses) are drawn overwhelmingly from the poor. But once they step across the line and become killers, they are no longer victims, they are murderers.

And once they become murderers, society suffers if they aren’t brought to justice. It’s noble but ingenuous to believe that all violence is bad in itself. A person has the right to defend himself and those close to him against attack. A nation has the right and the need to defend itself against the assault of criminals and, within the boundaries of legality, preserve its legitimate monopoly of violence.

Murderers of the innocent have crossed an irreversible moral boundary. The killers in Cuernavaca who stole the life of Sicilia’s young son don’t deserve the status of victims. They are murderers to be brought to justice.

A society mobilized to confront so grave a problem as the cartel violence in Mexico cannot tolerate inefficiency and corruption in its political leaders. But it must be equally firm in its rejection of, and active opposition to, criminals. A state cannot continue to exist and fulfill responsibilities to its citizens if it accepts unbridled and unpunished criminality.

Flaws in a government don’t absolve a criminal’s guilt nor does his guilt cancel the duties of a government. Mexico needs (and still lacks) a national consensus that recognizes and calls for action on both fronts.

(Enrique Krauze, author of “Mexico: A Biography of Power” and “Redeemers: Ideas and Power in Latin America,” is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are his own. This article was translated from the Spanish by Hank Heifetz.)

To contact the writer of this article: Enrique Krauze at ekrauze@prodigy.net.mx.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net.