Mexican Poet Condemns Violence as New Mass Graves Found

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In Mexico, a horrific web of drug-related violence continues as a series of mass graves were found in the northeastern state of Tamaulipas. Now, the recent murder of a poet's son is prompting some to raise their voices against the violence. To find out more on how the country is reacting to its drug war, host Michel Martin speaks with Tracy Wilkinson, Mexico City bureau chief for The Los Angeles Times. She just returned from reporting in Tamaulipas.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

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

Coming up, we are going to continue our focus on international news today by going to Nigeria, where incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan's re-election has caused violence, despite a reportedly clean election process. We'll hear from the Nigerian capital city, Abuja, in just a few minutes.

But first we go to Mexico, where the killing of a prominent poet's son has sparked outrage against the ruthless violence of organized crime. An estimated 35,000 people have been killed since 2006, much of that violence attributed to the warring drug gangs. And many people have lost confidence in police or politicians who are accused of having been corrupted and intimidated by crime lords.

Somehow the latest killing has sparked a reaction. To talk more about this, we've called Tracy Wilkinson, Mexico City bureau chief of the Los Angeles Times. She just returned from a northeastern state where drug violence is rampant. And she's with us now from Mexico City. And we want to mention to our listeners that this conversation may include some graphic elements. So if this is not appropriate for everybody listening, this might be a good time to turn down the dial for a few minutes. Tracy, welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

Ms. TRACY WILKINSON (Los Angeles Times): Hi, thank you for having me.

MARTIN: A recent victim of the violence was the 20-year-old son of Mexican poet and journalist Javier Sicilia. And the death of his son seems to have sparked just an unusual level of outrage from people. I'm going to just play a short clip of Javier Sicilia and our translation from a rally earlier this month.

Mr. JAVIER SICILIA (Poet, Journalist): (Through translator) We have to demand to our authorities that we don't want one more child destroyed, one child fallen under the corruption, from the violence and from the imbecility. And we don't want one more child broken by drug trafficking or by organized crime.

MARTIN: Now, up to this point, we don't seem to have seen these kinds of large demonstrations. Is that because people are afraid of retaliation? Is that because it's so overwhelming? And what do you think it is that sparked something this time?

Ms. WILKINSON: Well, I think Javier Sicilia's comments and the rallies and demonstrations across Mexico that followed his comments are unusually -certainly reflect growing public anger and dismay, really, at the course that the government's crackdown on drug trafficking organizations has taken. It's not the first we've seen this. There were 15 kids killed in Ciudad Juarez early last year - kids at a soccer party. At that point it provoked a lot of outrage.

So periodically people do speak out and come into the streets. But overall it's never been sustained and we've never seen really anything change in terms of the government's policy in response to these public demonstrations. But it is true that many Mexicans are afraid to speak out. They're intimidated, especially when you get out of Mexico City and you get into the provinces, into the states where drug traffickers seem to be much more powerful and sometimes more powerful than the authorities. And so that has always limited public displays of protest and even the public being willing to denounce crimes that are being committed in their cities.

MARTIN: Well, why do you think that the death of Javier Sicilia's son seemed to galvanize people? Do you think it's because it put a face on the numbers? Or is it, what do you think it is?

Ms. WILKINSON: Yes, exactly. I mean it's very easy when it's, you know, nameless dozens being killed in remote cities or remote towns. Javier Sicilia is a prominent poet. He's well known. He's particularly eloquent, of course. And people saw in his suffering this realization that this could happen to me. His son was killed with friends. They were out one night in Cuernavaca, which is a very popular city near Mexico City where people go all the time for, you know, weekends and holidays. And only recently in the last year or two it too has fallen victim to a lot of this kind of crime and violence. Bodies being hung from highway overpasses and that sort of - shootouts in the middle of the streets, that kind of thing.

So I think Mexicans kind of looked at, you know, wow, this could happen to me if someone like Javier Sicilia's son is killed. This is not something we can dismiss as, oh, it only happens to the bad guys.

MARTIN: Why was he killed? Do we know?

Ms. WILKINSON: There are different theories. One was that he and his friends called authorities to complain about gunmen who had gone into a bar where they had been. And they were complaining about suspicious figures. There is also some reports that possibly local police were involved and that there was some sort of vendetta between gangs, police, and that sort of thing. It's still unclear. And unfortunately most murders in Mexico go unsolved. And the concern is that that may be the case here as well.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're speaking with Tracy Wilkinson. She's the Mexico City bureau chief of The Los Angeles Times. She's talking about recent protests after the death of the son of a prominent poet.

Speaking of the involvement of the police, you just came back from Tamaulipas, which is a northeastern state, and you reported some awful numbers. Some 145 bodies that have been found in mass graves. And you reported that some 55 people have been detained, including 22 members from one drug gang, but also 16 police officers. Can you talk a little bit more about that?

Ms. WILKINSON: Yes. Sixteen police officers. What is particularly chilling about this is a couple of things. Many of these victims were passengers on buses who were traveling between cities in the state of Tamaulipas and another - they were pulled from buses, killed, and their bodies are turning up now. This has been going on apparently for several months. And at no time, as far as we know, did the bus companies file any kind of formal complaints with authorities and authorities never acted until very recently.

So it reflects the idea that the government cannot keep major highways safe for Mexican travelers. The other issue here is that just a few months ago in the same area there was another massacre of 72 immigrants, mostly from Central America. They were all shot execution style, became an international incident. The Central American governments complained.

The Mexican government was very embarrassed, of course, and promised to bring the killers to justice and to never let this happen again. And yet months later there's stark evidence that in fact nothing changed. And nothing was done to stop the violence.

Among those arrested were 16 police officers who authorities suspect were giving cover to the drug gangs, either informing, giving them information about when the buses were passing, if the army happened to be - was going to be in the area, that sort of thing. Often we see in many towns and cities that local police are either on the drug gang's payroll, giving information, giving them cover, or at the minimum simply turn a blind eye.

MARTIN: Tamaulipas, it shares a border with the United States, and so I think a lot of people would be interested to know whether the mayhem that the people on the Mexican side of the border are experiencing is having an effect on the northern side of the border.

Ms. WILKINSON: Well, I think there's certainly a lot of fear that this violence could spill over. There has only been there have only been a few incidents where that has been the case. I don't think you'll ever see on the U.S. side the level of violence you see on the Mexican side. And that is in part because of the impunity on the Mexican side. These gangs know they can get away with a lot of the crimes they commit. That is less the case on the U.S. side.

That is not to say that these drug trafficking organizations have not moved into the U.S. That is certainly the case. They've set up networks on that side, on the U.S. side. But so far the level of violence has not been carried over.

MARTIN: And finally, Tracy, obviously this is a complicated and ongoing story, which you are continuing to cover, and we can't dissect all of the nuances. But you do have to ask whether the president of Mexico, Felipe Calderon, is perceived as having any viable strategy for dealing with this. I mean we talked about 35,000 people since 2006. In U.S. terms, if you sort of scale that to the population, that would be almost 100,000 - more than 100,000 people in the United States, to put that into some context, killed because of this ongoing drug war. Is there any sense that he has any viable strategy for stemming this violence?

Ms. WILKINSON: Well, there's strong public support for the idea of cracking down on the drug cartels and their affiliated gangs. But increasingly polls are showing Mexicans are running out of faith in the government's strategy. Increasingly they are - the public is saying that while they support the idea, they believe that the cartels are winning. They do not see a viable strategy here.

Now, the government would argue that the strategy is that you, you know, provoke war between, among the cartels. A lot of the killing - most of the killing going on is among the drug gangs themselves, which is, in fact, a good thing because ultimately you weaken the cartels, you fragment them, and then you can contain them. But that's a very long-term strategy if it works at all -years. And the government recognizes it could take years.

And I think what we're seeing is that the Mexican public is just not willing to endure this level of violence for that many years. And of course the other question is whether subsequent governments will also be willing to sustain this kind of policy, because remember next year is a presidential election year. And all indications are that the opposition pre-party will take over from the current ruling party.

And so can this strategy, even if it were to work eventually, will it be sustained and can the public continue to support it? And I think we're increasingly seeing that may not be the case.

MARTIN: Tracy Wilkinson is the Los Angeles Times bureau chief in Mexico City and she joined us from there. Tracy, thank you so much for joining us.

Ms. WILKINSON: Thank you.

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