Mexico And U.S. Presidents Meet To Mend Fences

Mexico's President Felipe Calderon and President Obama have been meeting to improve strained relations between their countries. The leaders met at the White House yesterday to discuss a range of issues, including Mexico's drug war. At least 34,000 people have died in violence related to the drug trade in recent years. To discuss the meeting and what might come out of it, host Michel Martin speaks with Reuters' senior Mexico correspondent Robin Emmott. Also joining the discussion is El Paso Times reporter, Diana Washington Valdez. She's also the author of a book about the ongoing targeting of women in the border city of Ciudad Juarez.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

MICHEL MARTIN, Host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, the basketball team at Brigham Young University has suspended a star player, reportedly for having sex outside of marriage, a violation of the school's honor code. It's a story that raises all kinds of questions about religious freedom, privacy, the treatment of athletes and, yes, honor. We'll talk about it.

But first, a conversation about the relationship between two countries that share a border and how the raging violence in one country is connected to the other. Yesterday, Mexico's president, Felipe Calderon, paid a visit to President Barack Obama at the White House. And Mr. Obama said that the U.S. shares responsibility for the drug war that is blamed for tens of thousands of deaths in Mexico in recent years.

BARACK OBAMA: I have reaffirmed to President Calderon that in this cause, Mexico has a full partner with the United States. Because whether they live in Texas or Tijuana, our people have a right to be safe in their communities.

MARTIN: That was the president speaking in a joint press conference in Washington yesterday. The president also said that the U.S. will work to reduce the demand for drugs through education, prevention and treatment, just one of many issues Mexican leaders have long demanded that the U.S. address. Here's Mexico's president, Felipe Calderon speaking through an interpreter.

FELIPE CALDERON: (Through interpreter) I would like to thank President Obama for the clarity with which he speaks to the effects that the consumption of drugs has in his country, as well as the illegal traffic of weapons and of monies into Mexican territory.

MARTIN: Again, that was President Felipe Calderon speaking through an interpreter yesterday. To talk more about the meeting and what might come of it, we've called upon Robin Emmott, the Mexico senior correspondent for Reuters. He joins us by phone from Monterrey. And Diana Washington Valdez. She is author of the book, "The Killing Fields," about the ongoing deaths of women in Ciudad, Juarez. She's also a reporter for the El Paso Times and she's with us from El Paso, Texas. Thank you both so much for joining us.

ROBIN EMMOTT: Hello.

DIANA WASHINGTON VALDEZ: Good to be here.

MARTIN: And, Robin Emmott, let me start with you and ask, how did this meeting come about? It seems that it was announced rather abruptly. But sources in the White House say that it had actually been in the works for some weeks. It's a routine visit. What is your sense of it?

EMMOTT: It is both routine in the sense that both countries need to keep talking, but at the same time it was clear that some time had passed and things were worsening or are worsening in Mexico. And the bilateral relationship is also becoming a little tense after the leaks from U.S. embassy cables in WikiLeaks asnd some quite strong criticism by U.S. diplomats of Mexico's policy and its ability to coordinate to beat the drug cartels.

MARTIN: The whole question of the violence in Mexico which, as we said, has been an issue for a number of years now, has surfaced again in the U.S. with new urgency in the U.S., if I may put it that way. That an agent for the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement was killed on a main highway from Mexico City heading to Monterrey in Nuevo Laredo.

Four bodies were left in the central square, 17 bodies found in a mass grave in the southern Mexican state of Guerrero. It was the third mass grave found there in the span of a year. Robin, are all these deaths assumed to be or known to be connected to the drug war?

EMMOTT: Generally speaking, the signs point to it being the work of drug hitmen because normal criminals don't tend to cut off heads or leave bodies in mass graves. And it's something we've been seeing over the last few years.

And it's clear that the cartels try to outdo each other. Nothing seems to be horrific enough. I mean we even had a very shocking case of a baby's head being cut off and left on the streets in Ciudad Juarez. So, I mean, things like that really are just so shocking. But it seems that it's the cartel's one-upmanship.

MARTIN: Diana Washington Valdez, what's your perspective on this?

WASHINGTON VALDEZ: I believe that what forces are looking for from that meeting between the two presidents is some kind of plan to address how we're going to stop the violence. It's at 35,000 deaths now. Mr. Calderon's term has two more years to go. Presidential candidates in Mexico are starting to appear and announce their candidacies.

All this is going to continue to heat up. But nobody has presented with a plan yet on how we're going to contain the violence, whether it's in Ciudad Juarez and some of the other hotspots in Mexico. We haven't heard anything like that yet.

MARTIN: Talk a little bit more, if you would, about Ciudad Juarez. This is an issue that has also gotten a lot of interest and attention in the United States over the just hundreds of women who have disappeared, you know, in recent years. Sometimes their bodies are recovered, sometimes they're not. Is there any sense that there's any greater understanding of why this is going on and whether there's any strategy to address it?

WASHINGTON VALDEZ: Well, in the bigger scheme of things, more than 1,000 women have been killed now in Ciudad Juarez since 1993 - in recent years, record numbers of them. But what is happening now in Juarez and other parts of Mexico is very similar to what was happening in the early years of the '90s when the serial murders of women began to appear.

And one of the sources of information we have say it is simply a repetition. These are high-impact killings that are being staged to send a message to assert certain things. Whether it's the attacks against activists, the murders of women, the murders of men, these are staged events now used to terrify communities and to send messages.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about the visit by Mexico's president, Felipe Calderon. He visited President Barack Obama at the White House yesterday. We're speaking with senior Mexico correspondent for Reuters, Robin Emmott, and Diana Washington Valdez. She's author of "The Killing Fields" and she's a reporter for the El Paso Times.

Robin Emmott, the other, you know, event that's gotten a lot of attention in the United States is a spade of attacks on taxis in the vacation town of Acapulco. What would be the point of something like that? I mean, that has the effect of certainly driving tourists away. Texas has issued a travel warning for students not to travel to Mexico for spring break. What would be the point?

EMMOTT: At first glance it seems how strange it is to attack taxi drivers. But as we see in Mexico, in Acapulco, across the country, that taxi drivers often work for drug cartels as spies. And, you know, they - while they're doing their rounds, they hear things. They can - while they're waiting in taxi ranks, they see what's going on, they can pass messages. And if they're working for one gang, well, the other gang doesn't like that. So they will go after them.

And in Acapulco, I mean, it is obviously a beach resort and you think, well, what's a beach resort got to do with the drug war? But it's also a port. It's also a strategic motorway, highway to Mexico City and the border. And the cartels in the area are fighting over that strategic area. And the way they're doing it is using terror to impose fear and intimidation onto residents and try and force the other cartel out.

MARTIN: Well, in the time that we have left, let's talk, if you would, about what it is that Mexican officials would like from Washington and whether they're likely to achieve that. Presumably, President Calderon had a list of things that he hoped for. What were those things?

EMMOTT: Well, the two basic things Calderon and most Mexicans would like to see - more public health strategies in the United States to try to reduce demand for the narcotics that come through Mexico. And I think the other thing is more gun control.

It is difficult because the NRA dispute the claim, but the U.S. authorities do point to the fact that most of the guns found at Mexican crime scenes are smuggled in from the United States.

And so the feeling is that the cartels are so powerful, they can take on the army because they have access to very sophisticated weaponry in gun shops just across the border.

MARTIN: Diana Washington Valdez, what are your thoughts about - on the U.S. side - are any of these strategies likely to be embraced by the administration?

WASHINGTON VALDEZ: Certainly Mexico is asking for more resources to fight the drug wars and more quickly - to have those funds released more quickly. But our intelligence sources in Mexico also indicate that President Calderon has a big job because he still has a lot of corruption at very high levels and his efforts are being undermined constantly, the people who are helping the cartels and helping organized crime in general.

MARTIN: And, Diana, finally, I wanted to ask you, you know, the cases that we've talked about, you know, the situation in Juarez where so many women have been killed over the years, the level of violence, the attack on these, you know, U.S. officials, those are certain things that activists are concerned about, law enforcement is concerned about, you know, officials in Washington are concerned about. Certainly the president's talked about, the secretary of state's talked about.

But is that starting to become part of the daily life and consciousness of people where you live? You know, I hate to use the word average citizens, but just average citizens. Is the situation in Mexico something that just people who going about their daily lives are starting to be concerned about?

WASHINGTON VALDEZ: Yes, they are. I also teach. And this morning, several of my students who live in Juarez attend the school here in El Paso, they're discussing these very issues and about what they have to do to survive and how fear has taken over everything. And before you can even begin to investigate one death, then there's five more that overtakes the previous one. That it's very difficult to know what's going on when nothing is being investigated and the body count continues to rise.

MARTIN: Is there a concern, though, that the violence could come to the United States?

WASHINGTON VALDEZ: Well, in one sense, it has spread because of the enormous tentacles of the Mexican drug cartels that have taken over a lot of the drug distribution centers in the United States that work with local gangs to help distribute the drugs. So in some places, like we see in L.A. or Chicago, we're going to see gang warfare over the right to distribute drugs that are being channeled by the Mexican cartels.

We're not going to see the kind of violence we see along the border on the Mexican side. But we might see a spike in minor crimes that are an offshoot of what is going on in Mexico now on a bigger scale.

MARTIN: And, Robin Emmott, finally, I know public opinion is sort of hard to assess in a country the size of Mexico. But as we've discussed that, you know, the violence in some ways is spreading. I wanted to ask, do Mexicans on the whole feel that their government does have a strategy for dealing with this?

EMMOTT: I think no. I think a lot of people are losing faith. There was a huge amount of support for Calderon and the army strategy sending troops across the country. That's something that Mexico had never done before. But the whole idea of that was to follow up with police reform, because Mexican police are notoriously corrupt. And the idea was to build more prisons. And with the U.S. help, modernize the justice system so that there would be a backing to the army-led strategy. But none of that's happened. And all we're seeing is a huge amount of violence.

And additional to the drug violence, we're seeing crime, in general, surge because a lot of unemployed youngsters see the impunity. They see they can get away with kidnapping. They can get away with bank robberies. And in a place like Monterrey, which was a city that was once considered perhaps one of Latin America's safest cities is now really, really dangerous.

And a lot of people feel that the Calderon administration have almost done something akin to hitting a hornet's nest. And they really, really created a problem that now is very, very difficult to control.

MARTIN: Robin Emmott is a senior Mexico correspondent for Reuters. He joined us by phone from his base in Monterrey. Diana Washington Valdez is the author of "The Killing Fields: Harvest of Women." It's about the situation in Ciudad Juarez, which we've been talking about. She's also a reporter for the El Paso Times and she joined us by phone from El Paso. Thank you both so much for joining us.

EMMOTT: Thanks very much.

WASHINGTON VALDEZ: You're welcome.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: