Citizens Protest Mexican Drug War After Murder

Guests

Nicholas Casey, staff reporter, Wall Street Journal
Ruben Martinez, professor, Loyola Marymount University

The toll of Mexico's drug war continues to grow — nearly 35,000 dead, countless kidnappings and mass graves, and police and government officials rendered helpless in many cases by violent cartels. Sunday, more than 10,000 people took to the streets of Mexico and declared: No more blood.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

In today's New York Times, on the bottom of page A9, a small Associated Press story reports the death of 13 people over the weekend in a gun battle between Mexican marines and marijuana smugglers on an island near the border with Texas.

And just yesterday, the story continued, 11 decapitated bodies were found in two different places in the northern state of Durango.

As small as that story was, the Times was one of the few American papers to run that news story. Just another day in Mexico's long and bloody drug war.

But there was another story on Sunday, the conclusion of a march to protest the seemingly endless violence, with tens of thousands on the streets of Mexico City. And in Los Angeles, in the Times, there a professor named Ruben Martinez argued that all us need to take personal responsibility for the blood in Mexico.

CONAN: If you've ever used illegal drugs, are you in some part responsible for feeding the drug violence in Mexico? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, a counterfactual history of the capture of Osama bin Laden. But first to Mexico City, where Wall Street Journal reporter Nicholas Casey joins us by phone. Nice to have you with us today.

Mr. NICHOLAS CASEY (Wall Street Journal): Hi, how are you?

CONAN: And this march started in Cuernavaca, Nicholas, on Thursday, several hundred strong. By the time it got to Mexico City, it was quite a bit larger. Can you describe the scene for us?

Mr. CASEY: Yeah, well, it started out as a few hundred people who were marching in Cuernavaca with plans to have a large rally in the zocalo, which is the main plaza in Mexico City, where historically most rallies take place.

And by the time it reached there, people had come from, you know, not just the - Cuernavaca and those that were marching, but others had bused in from other parts of Mexico. A couple of people had come down from Ciudad Juarez, one of the places which has had some of the most violence. And it was in the tens of thousands by the time people were in the zocalo.

CONAN: And what kind of march was it - loud? Or we read some descriptions of it as saying most of the people were dressed in white and marched silently.

Mr. CASEY: Yeah, well, the idea of the march itself to begin with was a silent march. But by the time that it got to the zocalo, you know, it became a little bit of a political rally.

There were people who were making speeches there. The leader of the march, Javier Sicilia, he's a poet from Cuernavaca whose son was killed in March by what looks like a drug trafficking hit. And he made a very fiery speech where he spoke out against the president, who he's against, and also asked for things like the resignation of Genaro Garcia Luna, who's the chief of public security here, like the top cop in Mexico.

CONAN: And has there been any response?

Mr. CASEY: Well, the day after, it's definitely caught the president's attention. He'd already met with Javier Sicilia, the poet, once before. I talked to Sicilia, who said the meeting didn't go well. He said he didn't think that Calderon was listening to him.

But it looked like, for his part, the president was trying to say that he was listening. He said he'd like to invite people, the organizers, over for some kind of dialogue. But he did say that he wasn't firing the chief of police, that he was going on ahead there.

CONAN: And was there any response from - well, the drug cartels also had to be a target of this protest as well.

Mr. CASEY: They are. And they're kind of a different target. It's an odd question of when you're trying to hold a protest against organized crime, basically people who don't have any incentive to listen to you, do they respond? No. No response. I mean, mainly these groups see themselves as drug trafficking businesses and criminal rackets, and they don't have to answer to crowds, no matter how big they get.

CONAN: And some have described this, and we'll get to Ruben Martinez, who used this expression himself, in just a moment, but he described it as sort of Mexico's "Network" moment: I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore.

Mr. CASEY: Well, there's been a few of these that were tried before, back in 2004, just as the drug war was beginning. The violence was still pretty high at that point. There was a group of almost 200,000 people who gathered in the zocalo.

The problem is that it didn't keep momentum. And since then, another 40,000 people have been killed. So I think one question everybody was asking now is: Hey, where is sort of the outrage here in Mexico? Are people going to kind of stand up and try to do what they can to protest against that?

And certainly that's what they're hoping this will become. You know, it remains to be seen whether it's going to get sort of a broad base among all of Mexico, but that's certainly the idea.

CONAN: Well, stay with us if you would, Nicholas Casey of the Wall Street Journal. Let's bring in Ruben Martinez on the line. He's a professor of English at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. And he wrote a piece in the Los Angeles Times op-ed section, in which he quoted the poet Javier Sicilia of Cuernavaca.

What I want to tell you today about those mutilated lives, wrote Sicilia of his son and by extension all victims of the drug violence, about that suffering, about the indignation that these deaths has provoked is simply that we have had enough.

And Ruben Martinez, apparently that translation does not do justice to that last phrase.

Professor RUBEN MARTINEZ (Loyola Marymount University): Right. Thank you for having me on the show. I placed that last phrase, we've had enough, in italics in the piece in the Times because it's an imperfect translation of a very colloquial Mexican phrase, hasta la madre, which is very colloquial, verging almost on impolite speech. You certainly wouldn't hear the president say it or politicians say it necessarily.

But Javier Sicilia is a highly regarded poet, and in his anguished manifesto - he wrote this manifesto, this open letter, just a couple of days after his son's death - he uses hasta la madre as kind of like his mantra throughout the piece.

Hasta la madre, you know, we've had it up to here, but it's invoking, as Mexicans often do, the word for mother. And we've had it up to our mother. And if you kind of, you know, read it more closely, I mean it becomes a kind of poetry in the context of the drug war, I think, because it's saying: Look, this violence has struck at the heart of the Mexican soul, the Mexican spirit. Something sacred has been violated here.

And of course this march took place just before Latin Americans celebrated Mother's Day. So there's all kinds of symbolic resonance here. And Sicilia has channeled the energy of the Mexican people in a way that nobody has been able to thus far.

And it took the death of his - it took the death of the child of a poet to come to this moment. But I have many friends across Mexico, especially in the Mexican capital, and everyone that I know in the Mexican capital was at that march on Sunday. It really has turned out people in way that we haven't seen before, I think.

CONAN: And you also, in your piece in the Los Angeles Times, argue that there is a cross-border connection too. The market for those drugs is on this side of the border. The market for the guns on this side of the border is often in Mexico.

Let me read again from your piece: I am years clean, long finished with the cocaine I was once addicted to, but I cannot claim that my hands are clean. I was part of a global market, played my role as a consumer, entered the vast constellation of relationships that pushes and pulls drugs, money and drugs and guns across the border, and it takes its toll on both sides.

So you have blood on your hands.

Prof. MARTINEZ: I feel like I do. I feel like we all do on this side of the border. And it's an incredibly complex, as I say there, a complex constellation of relationships. That is partly, you know, consumer demand on this side, but also has to do with the fact that Mexico remains an underdeveloped nation in a free trade agreement with two very highly developed nations.

You know, the inequitable relations economically, politically in this hemisphere are the part of the blood on our hands. And the price that we pay - it's not just our responsibility, but the price that we pay in communities across the country, in cities and in the heartland towns, I mean, the devastation that methamphetamines have wrought throughout the country in the rural areas in particular - and of course most of the methamphetamine now is produced in Mexico and shipped across the border.

So there's no bloodshed like the horrific violence that's taking place in Mexico and the United States, Falcon Lake notwithstanding. I mean, it's right there on the border, as you mentioned in your news report. But our bloodshed, perhaps, is in the devastation of drugs, which - the scourge of which continues unabated in our communities here on this side of the border.

CONAN: And Nicholas Casey, to get back to you for a moment, you've talked about the tens of thousands dead in Mexico. But there's also a, well, tangible political price that the state there has played. There are important parts of the northern parts of that country that are simply not ruled by the central government.

Mr. CASEY: You're absolutely right. There are whole sections of Mexico's northern - remember, these are the parts which are right on the border with Texas, with New Mexico, with Arizona, where there is a state. There's a governor. There's a chief of police. But you know, their presence is sort of beside the point.

And these people themselves are being targeted. I'll give you an example from last year that shocked everyone, was just days before the election for governor in the state of Tamaulipas, which shares about 230 miles of border with Texas, connects with places like Brownsville and McAllen -just days before the governor's election, the lead candidate was shot dead on the highway, in broad daylight.

This was something that was blamed on the Zetas cartel, one of the main rackets which is there, which is now getting a very fierce firefight for control of this state with another group called the Gulf cartel.

And in this fight, which is drawing, you know, not just cartel gunmen but also any of the innocents who are on the street, this is happening in addition to the police and the military, the government has become like a bystander.

There's not really much that the government is really able to do, including, you know, an attempt in Tamaulipas, the state I was mentioning here, of putting ex-military chiefs as head of many of the police departments there.

They did this in the town of Nuevo Laredo on the border at the beginning of the year. And by the end of the month, the same police chief, who was an ex-military general, had been shot dead by the drug traffickers.

So yes, it's a very good question of what role the state plays in any of this, besides sometimes just looking on.

CONAN: We're talking with Nicholas Casey, staff reporter for the Wall Street Journal, based in Mexico City. He covered on Sunday a march that began in Cuernavaca and ended tens of thousands strong in the central square of the Mexican capital to protest the drug violence, the policies of the government there.

Also with us, Ruben Martinez, an English professor at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles and the host of "Variedades," the performance salon at the Echo in Southern California, which will shortly be focusing on the drug conflict. And he says that we are all, in some part, responsible, that we all have blood on our hands. Do you, if you have used illegal drugs? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

The grim statistics in Mexico's drug war speak for themselves: more than - well, maybe as many as 40,000 dead; countless others victims of kidnapping and intimidation, police and government officials rendered helpless, in many cases in the face of brutal violence at the hands of drug cartels. And there's plenty of blame to go around.

A year ago, in Mexico City, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Washington must do more. We know that the demand for drugs drives much of this illicit trade, she said, and that guns purchased in the U.S. are used to facilitate violence here in Mexico.

If you've ever used illegal drugs, are you in some part responsible for feeding the drug violence in Mexico? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can join the conversation on our website. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Our guests: Nicholas Casey, a staff reporter for the Wall Street Journal, based in Mexico City; and Ruben Martinez, English professor at Loyola Marymount, and there's a link to his L.A. Times op-ed, "Mexico's Drug War: Crossing Borders," at our website.

And here's an email that we have from Kevin(ph) in Davison, Michigan, excuse me. When I was in college, he writes, it made me crazy that friends who participated in boycotts of different companies for their perceived antisocial corporate acts would also use illegal drugs like marijuana.

They saw that supporting corporations, buying their products, helps fund activities they disapprove of but could not see how their drug use funded the violence surrounding the drug trade. And Ruben Martinez, you say in your piece there is no recreational drug use.

And Ruben Martinez, are you there? We've lost contact with Ruben Martinez at our NPR West, our studios in Culver City, California. We'll hope to get him back on momentarily.

In the meantime, let's see if we can get another caller on the line, and let's go first to Nelson(ph) and Nelson with us from Draper in Utah.

NELSON (Caller): Hello.

CONAN: Hi, you're on the air. Go ahead please.

NELSON: Okay, so I am originally from Chile, and we've got a situation very similar to what you have between Mexico and the U.S. now. We have, you know, a more blooming economy. And we were the (technical difficulty) between Peru and Chile.

And so I - as a teenager I was an occasional marijuana user and different drugs, and we all thought that it was just a normal thing and something to do. And in school they showed us this video.

It was a very gruesome video, to tell you the truth. It's not something I would like my kids to see. But I saw this movie in which they showed how drug dealers in Peru would kill Chilean people and put drugs on their bodies. So when they ship them back to our country, they smuggled the drugs within them.

And I can still remember the face of this girl that (foreign language spoken). I can still remember that face. And I really felt I had blood on my hands. I - you asked the question: Do we, as consumers, do we have a part in that? And I definitely think we do.

CONAN: And in the time since, Nelson, you're obviously in this country now. Do you see it any differently?

NELSON: No, I see it the same. And it's something I preach very often to whoever I can talk to. I stopped my consumption from that day, and I explained it to my friends and whoever I could. Yeah, I feel (technical difficulty), still, I think that's all demand and supply. It's - you know, the reason why these things happen is because there is demand.

CONAN: Okay, thanks very much for the call, Nelson. This email sort of on that point from Monica(ph) in Mill Valley, California: Should the North American school system, which teaches children about the problem of illegal and inappropriate drug use, include an education about how drug use in the United States is the root cause of the current chaos in Mexico?

I know my children have never mentioned that issue. And Ruben Martinez, are you back with us?

Mr. MARTINEZ: I am.

CONAN: Okay, we apologize for the technical problems there. And have you - I know that you're talking about drug education in "Variedades," but in the school systems there in Los Angeles, is there any education about what the drug problem in this country is doing in Mexico?

Mr. MARTINEZ: There's basics in the curriculum, of course. But I think it's - they are variations of the 1980s discourse, of the early war on drugs, you know, the famous, or infamous, Just Say No campaigns haven't evolved all that much, I think, in our basic curriculum.

And what we need is - I think we have an opportunity for a much bigger discussion. Mexico has had its - as I said in the piece - you know, it's "Network," mad-as-hell moment, where everybody, you know, is kind of together, a discursive unity that is opening up into a much broader discussion of what needs to happen.

It's not just a slogan that's going to take care of things. It's not just one march. It's going to be an integrative solution, which includes, by the way - in your earlier news segment, where we have President Obama on the border today - immigration reform has to be part of the discussion, because ultimately, this is taking place within the context of a relationship not just between a producer and consumer of drugs but between two nations that share a 2,000-mile-long border. And they share an economy and cross-border culture and politics.

All of these things have to come into play. We have to talk -legalization of drugs has to be on the table. There was a moment, a couple years ago, when President Calderon talked about it. Here, now and again in libertarian circles and in certain circles, you will hear legalization talk. And here in Los Angeles, of course, we have de facto legalized marijuana.

But the discussion hasn't been taking place on a larger, societal level. And we tend to think of this as Mexico's war. It's Mexico's violence. But if anything, it is our war. It is our violence, and the bloodshed has completely suffused across the line at the border.

CONAN: Nicholas Casey, I wanted to ask you if you could characterize how Mexicans describe the U.S. involvement in this conflict.

Mr. CASEY: Well, yes, that's definitely what often comes up when you talk to any Mexican about why this is happening in Mexico's north is that, obviously, these drugs are going to places like New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago.

But I think Mexicans are also very well-aware of the second part of this problem here, which is the fact that in Mexico, there's, as you mentioned earlier, not the same kind of rule of law as you have in the U.S.

One thing which Mexico lacks to go after drug traffickers with, for example, is a police force that you can trust. Many of the police in many of these small towns and even in some cases federal policemen themselves are involved with drug traffickers.

I can give you one example that happened last year, which was in the town of Santiago, which is near the business capital of Monterrey. The mayor of the town, who was kind of trying to clean it up, along the lines of these same things that the protesters who were out in the zocalo on Sunday were asking for, well, this mayor was making a decent attempt at that.

Well, he was found dead on the side of a highway. It turned out the people who had killed him were his own police officers. And this is a big problem.

Earlier this year, Mexicans were getting terrified by getting onto buses. This is still going on right now, which is that cartel hit men are stopping buses in places like Tamaulipas and San Luis Potosi, ordering people off and taking them and in many times killing them.

Now, these buses, which got stopped, continued on their way. Their driver continued. The passengers were there, as well. And the suitcases for the people who were on these buses who were taken piled up in the station.

What it looks like is that nobody reported what had happened. Why? It's because in many Mexicans' minds, the question is: Who exactly do you report it to, particularly when you might call the equivalent of 911 here, and the person on the other end of the line was somehow involved in the drug trafficking business or the extortion racket themselves?

And that itself is very terrifying to Mexicans here. Yes, they do realize that the consumption is coming from the U.S., but, you know, a big part of this burden is on the institutions in Mexico itself right now.

Many of them are rotten and corrupt, you know, beyond our imagination in the U.S. when we try to picture these things, from the cops to the judges and all the way to the prison systems itselves(ph), where many drug traffickers are running their businesses from jail.

CONAN: Here's an email from Kathleen(ph): I feel a sense of responsibility. It really hit home when I heard the story of a five-year-old being injected with battery acid in his heart. When I used drugs, I didn't want to see it as part of an illegal industry. I wish I could go back and talk some sense into the old me.

Let's go next to Harvey(ph), Harvey with us from Golden, Colorado.

HARVEY (Caller): Yeah, I'd like to make a comment on the proposal that just a user of a narcotic in the United States has blood on their hands from this conflict in Mexico.

There's been - throughout history, the users of narcotics have been supplied by different people in their civilizations. I don't really see why there needs to be such an escalation of the violence. It hasn't happened historically, and it seems to me like there might be something different going on in this Mexico situation that necessitates this violence or gives rise to it.

CONAN: So it's a situation of the supply-side violence and not the demand side for asking for the drugs?

HARVEY: That's the way I see it. I mean, how many years, 3,000, 5,000 years of documented narcotic use of all these civilizations, and there's never been this much violence attributed to strictly the supply of narcotics before.

CONAN: Well, Ruben...

HARVEY: So I don't really understand why it's happening now.

CONAN: Ruben Martinez?

Prof. MARTINEZ: No, I hear you. There is something that is different today, specifically with Mexico. I mean, if we were having this conversation 10, 15 years ago, we would have been talking about Colombia. And there was this big, huge interdiction effort, cooperation between the Colombian government and the United States government, which was called Plan Colombia, for those listeners who have a long memory. We don't hear about, you know, the daily carnage in Medellin today that we used to hear about 10, 15 years ago.

And people say that the relative success of what occurred down there is due to several factors, one of which is that a lot of the cocaine that is grown, the coca that is grown in Colombia, is produced now - in other words, turned into cocaine in Mexico and shipped across the border. So part of the production process was shifted over to Mexico because of the military pressure brought to bear on Colombia.

But also, Colombia realized that a purely military solution was not workable, that ultimately there was - there had to be a social/political solution to it as well, which meant giving a generation of kids that had been exposed to the drug violence and swept up into it, education, jobs, opportunities, a whole new culture of politics for the young to give them incentives to do right, to do the right thing.

Mexico has been pushing the military solution very, very strongly. The United States has given up close to a billion dollars in helping - in technical support to the Mexican military, which, by the way, has thousands of human rights complaints lodged against it, even though it promotes itself as a clean institution above the corruption. Nevertheless, it's distrusted by many if not most Mexicans, just as much as any other state institution.

So we are now supporting the Mexican government much as we supported the Colombian government. And there's where, I think, the problem is. Any purely military solution on that side, just as any purely carceral - in other words, you know, all the kids that we just throw away into jail for drug offenses, with terribly long sentences - there's a couple of generations of young people in the United States in our prisons now. So there is a linkage, I believe, here and things have changed and have placed us in a unique historical situation.

CONAN: Harvey, thanks for the call. We're talking about the drug war in Mexico and crossing the border. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And Nicholas Casey of the Wall Street Journal in Mexico City, is the approach there strictly law enforcement, strictly military?

Mr. CASEY: No. This is - when they look into the short-term solution, I think military is what they've looked at. And when President Calderon became president here and had six years and thought this was a problem which would be cleaned up in six years, the military looked like the solution. Now we're almost at the end of his term, it's obviously not that. Yes, Mexico has been trying to look into how can it improve its education system, how can it, you know, do more social programs for people in places like Ciudad Juarez.

But if you think about this more clearly from a government's point of view, that's not going to show results in a few years. And the problem is, many politicians here are mostly concerned with what can be achieved by the end of their terms. And that's why you haven't seen as much of an emphasis on social programs, frankly, over law enforcement.

But not to forget, law enforcement is extremely important here. And there is a difference, I feel, between the military approach, which hasn't worked, which was an experiment, which I think is considered by most, seen as a failed one - and the idea of actually trying to reform the police system here in Mexico and replace dirty cops with clean ones.

You know, frankly, no matter how many social programs you have in Mexico, if you do not have police that are not involved in kidnappings, that are not, you know, helping to do extortions and are certainly not turning the other way when there are drug traffickers within their sights, you're not going to get to the bottom of the solution.

As I think everyone here in Mexico sees, it's a two-pronged thing. The first prong is what they've been trying but haven't been able to figure out yet, which is exactly how to enforce the law. The second one is the longer term strategy, which is how do you lift the standard of living in Mexico high enough that young people aren't thinking of going into drug trafficking as a means of, you know, as a means of making their living, as a means of trying to, you know, get beyond where their father and mother were? Neither of those they've figured out. They're partway through the first. They're very, very far and almost nowhere near the beginning of the second one there.

CONAN: And here's a couple of emails. This is from Christine: It's prohibition that is responsible for violence, not only in Mexico but in our inner cities and many other places across the globe. I support legalization of drugs not because I use them, and I don't, but because we need to cut funding to street gangs, criminal organizations, terrorist groups and reduce rates of robbery and prostitution.

This from Pat in Sierra Vista, Arizona: We live on the border. The blood on our hands involves human smuggling as well as drug smuggling. The human smuggling has also become violent here on the border and in Mexico, with kidnapping, rape and murder occurring, especially to the immigrants.

And this is from Bryan in Sedona, Arizona: When I was in high school, we all saw, my friends and I, a feature on Channel One News about drug use and drug violence in Colombia. The feature ended with a Colombian farmer saying something to the effect that every time you spark up, you are killing Colombians. Our response to this was to use the term killing Colombians as our new slang for smoking marijuana. Looking back, I think we did this for two reasons: One, we understood our contribution yet were unwilling to change our behavior; two, we recognize that everyone makes their own choices in life, and the thought that a bunch of stupid teenagers getting high after school truly had blood on their hands was somewhat absurd.

Which, again, goes to your point, Ruben Martinez. How does one person change anything and change behavior?

Prof. MARTINEZ: And - right, exactly. And - but one person in Mexico, in Cuernavaca, Javier Sicilia, shouted like the proverbial, you know, cry in the desert and people heard him. So this movement is literally, you know, as was said earlier, we have seen signs of protest movements, you know, in Ciudad Juarez and other places, but nothing that's caught fire quite like this - so one voice began, an anguished voice, somebody who felt the pain.

And I must say that, you know, I feel this issue very, very personally because - not just because I spent part of my year in Mexico City and in Guatemala with my family. We don't - our lives - we are (Spanish spoken) of this because we feel this in every part of our lives. We can't take our children out to the places we use to take them to. Our lives are completely circumscribed by this now. We are literally (Spanish spoken), and things do have to change. And Javier Sicilia has told us - has given us a voice for that.

CONAN: Ruben Martinez, thank you very much for your time today. Appreciate it.

Prof. MARTINEZ: Thank you.

CONAN: And, Nicholas Casey, we thank you for your time as well.

Mr. CASEY: Thanks.

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