Denis Poroy, Associated Press

The merchants in Mexico's border towns are hurting, but they're not blaming Canada. The Canadians keep visiting. As do the Australians and Japanese. It's the Americans who stay away in droves. And the Mexican vendors blame the American media for overplaying and sensationalizing the drug wars.

Yes, other things factor into the downturn of sales. And store owners in Tijuana are quick to tick them off:

"The economy is bad," says one.

"The Iraq war has Americans preoccupied," adds another.

"Our people aren't allowed to come back across to buy things," says a third.

One merchant even claims, "Walking across the bridge to Mexico has become too much of a burden."

But the elephant in the room is the deep fear Americans have of getting caught in the crossfire as Mexican soldiers and police battle narco-terrorists.

It was never supposed to be like this.

When Mexico's President Felipe Calderon sent troops north to ferret out drug traffickers, his plan was to clean up the northern border towns and make them more appealing to both tourists and residents. The result has been an ugly, protracted battle of wits and bullets. Last week, in the small town of Tecate, a well-respected Mexican policeman was gunned down in his home for closing down a popular drug-running tunnel.

Mexican store owners see such events as an aberration.

"Drugs," says Tony Angelo, who operates a small stand that sells silver jewelry. "I lived in San Diego for several years and there were more drugs and gangs there than you'll ever see here. But you don't see that on the news, do you?"

Francisco Aguna, who takes photos of tourists perched atop his burro, agrees: "We don't have drugs. Look at us. We're all too poor. The Americans are the ones who have drugs. Go after the Americans."

The bad press comes at an especially vulnerable time. Local leaders have been working hard to improve the arts, entertainment and businesses of Tijuana to make them more attractive. A new outdoor mall has just gone in (not unlike The Gateway in Salt Lake City) that caters to upscale tastes and offers dozens of outlets for jewelry, books and fashion. But the only people walking the mall these days are Tijuana residents.

It's frustrating for everybody.

At one shop, when asked how she felt about tourism, the clerk's reply was, "Lonesome."

Longtime Tijuana merchant Antonio Santillan — whose shop Don Quijote has been a staple for leather and precious stones for decades — voices the general frustration.

"Let's face it," he says. "The drug wars here are a creation of the media. Yes, we have problems. But I have 300 relatives in Tijuana and not one has been bothered. The drug people fight among themselves. It's a nonissue."

But is it?

When a major law enforcement official is gunned down, that's not sensational news, it's simply news. And when enough such events pile up — as they have on the border — visitors take notice. Nobody wants to go where drug people "just fight among themselves" any more than they'd like to live in a neighborhood where violent gangs "fight among themselves." The chances for collateral damage are too great.

Calderon is currently saying the United States could do more to help in the battle against the narco-traffickers.

He's probably right.

But the Tijuana merchants and residents need to take things up a notch as well. Only when the drugs are gone will legitimate news stories about drug murders fade away.

The real question isn't "What needs to be done?" Everyone knows what needs to happen.

The real question is, "Does anyone — on either side of the border — have the force of will to get the job done?"