The Fuel Behind Mexico's Escalating Violence

Forensic workers load a truck with bodies after gunmen opened fire in a nightclub in Monterrey, Mexico, Friday July 8, 2011. i i

Forensic workers load a truck with bodies after gunmen opened fire in a nightclub in Monterrey, Mexico, Friday July 8, 2011. Hans-Maximo Musielik/ASSOCIATED PRESS hide caption

itoggle caption Hans-Maximo Musielik/ASSOCIATED PRESS
Forensic workers load a truck with bodies after gunmen opened fire in a nightclub in Monterrey, Mexico, Friday July 8, 2011.

Forensic workers load a truck with bodies after gunmen opened fire in a nightclub in Monterrey, Mexico, Friday July 8, 2011.

Hans-Maximo Musielik/ASSOCIATED PRESS

This past weekend, at least 20 people were killed when drug cartel members opened fire in a bar in Monterrey, Mexico. To learn why the country is facing more violence related to drug cartels and gangs, and what can possibly alleviate the situation, host Michel Martin speaks with Tim Padgett, TIME magazine's Latin America bureau chief.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host: I'm Michel Martin and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. As space shuttle Atlantis continues its last mission, we check in with some famous firsts. We'll speak with a member of the Saudi royal family who, back in 1985, became the first Arab, the first Muslim and the first member of royalty to make a trip into space. That's part of our Flying High series. And it's coming up in a few minutes. But first, we take a look at the violence that continues to rage closer to home in Mexico.

This past weekend, at least 20 people were reportedly killed when members of a drug cartel opened fire in a bar in the northern city of Monterrey. That kind of over-the-top violence is one reason the Obama administration yesterday ordered gun dealers in four states along the border to report multiple sales of semiautomatic rifles as an effort to stem the flow of guns to Mexico from the U.S. But given how routine the killing has become, many people forget it was not always this way.

Tim Padgett is a Latin America bureau chief for Time magazine. He's been covering this story for almost 20 years and, in fact, reported the July 11th cover story about it. He's with us now to give us some context. Welcome. Thanks for joining us.

TIM PADGETT: Thank you.

MARTIN: Why is this, that many people forget that it - that this was not always routine. And your magazine cover article says that gang-related homicides have increased more than fivefold when you compare the period between 2001 to 2005.

PADGETT: Right. Well, what happened was that before 2000, Mexico was ruled by a very dictatorial party and they had a tacit agreement with all the drug cartels in Mexico. And that helped to keep a lot of the drug violence down. But when Mexico finally democratized in 2000 and the opposition parties took over, those agreements with the drug mafia sort of fell apart. And the drug cartels splintered. They became much more violent. And by 2005, the violence was just getting too hard to ignore for the Mexican government.

And in 2006, when new president Felipe Calderon took over, he began a military offensive against the cartels and that sort of, you know, turned the, you know, Mexican drug conflict into a full-blown war.

MARTIN: Wait. Can you just stop for a second? When you say that there were agreements with the prior government, many people may remember that the PR, the PRI...

PADGETT: Right. The PRI, the institutional revolutionary party was essentially a tacit partner of the drug cartels.

MARTIN: And when you say that, what do you mean?

PADGETT: The PRI was a very corrupt party, very dictatorial, but also very corrupt. And it had a tacit agreement with the cartels. As long as you, you know, give us a taste of all of the billions you're making and as long as you, you know, keep the violence, you know, amongst yourselves, we'll let you operate. Again, that agreement broke down when the PRI was defeated by...

MARTIN: So they essentially didn't enforce the laws in regards to drug trafficking as long as the violence was contained. Is that a reasonable...

PADGETT: That's a reasonable way of putting it, yeah.

MARTIN: You know, often when we speak with Mexican officials about this, they point to the Americans consumption of illegal drugs, something like $65 billion out annually in illegal drugs and that's certainly a factor. But the American's consumption of drugs has not changed that much in recent years, has it?

PADGETT: Not really. But it really hasn't gone down appreciably either. And when you're spending $65 billion a year on drugs right next door to a country where there really are no reliable police and judicial institutions, then the drug trafficking in Mexico is just going to, you know, be rampant. And couple that with the fact that so many high-powered weapons are being smuggled from the U.S. into Mexico at the same time, that's a very deadly cocktail.

MARTIN: One of the things that I think has caught the attention of, you know, Americans and certainly is a terrible burden for Mexico to endure is the operatic quality of some of this violence. I mean, people just - it's almost unimaginable. You know, shooting up a graduation party, you know, displaying bodies, you know, in a school yard, things of that sort. What is that about?

PADGETT: Well, you've got six or seven major cartels fighting for turf and trafficking lanes in Mexico. And what has happened, especially now that they're under pressure from the Mexican military, each cartel feels that it has to show that it's the cruelest, the meanest, the toughest, the most violent, you know, on the playground. The problem really became acute when a group of former army commandos, known as the Zetas, went over to the dark side about a decade ago and were recruited by a cartel known as the Gulf Cartel in northeastern Mexico to be their sort of enforcers.

They then morphed into their own cartel, but they're a particularly blood-thirsty group. They're the ones who introduced beheading, for example, into the whole violent mix and other ghastly practices in the Mexican drug war.

MARTIN: You've mentioned that Mexican President (unintelligible) Felipe Calderon has instituted his own war on drugs. What steps is he taking and is there any sign that this is effective in any way?

PADGETT: As I mentioned before, he went after the cartels when he took office in December of 2006 with the military. And the reason he had to use soldiers was because he has no reliable police institutions, really, to rely on in Mexico. The problem with that is, soldiers do not defeat organized crime. Police, functioning, professional investigative police forces are what defeats organized crime. So that's his dilemma. His fight is sort of a short-term strategy to try to sort of contain the violence with soldiers.

But in the long run, the only thing that's going to save Mexico from this situation is genuine police and judicial reform. And we're starting to see Mexican politicians become a little bit more serious about that now, largely because you're seeing victims groups emerge in Mexico that are putting pressure on Mexican politicians to get more serious about it.

MARTIN: Well, we've talked about that in this program, for example, the death of a young man, a student named Juan Francisco Sicilia, whose death sparked demonstrations that had not previously been seen, in part because his father was a very well known respected, you know, poet...

PADGETT: Poet, right.

MARTIN: And people were going out and saying, you know, we've - enough is enough. Is there...

PADGETT: Well, that's what's happened when - as a result of the cartels becoming so indiscriminate with regard to killing innocent people in this drug war and Juan Francisco Sicilia being a perfect example. And his father has begun this movement of outrage and those movements are putting pressure on President Calderon and Mexican politicians to get more serious about reform.

MARTIN: What would a reform look like? What are the reforms that are considered to be most vital?

PADGETT: The most important right now, I think, is one being considered by the Mexican congress. It's a proposal by President Calderon to eliminate local police, which are the most corrupt in Mexico. In fact, local police often just join local police forces in Mexico so that they can be recruited by the drug cartels to moonlight for them. What he's proposing is a more uniform network of police across Mexico, much like what Columbia has, a more unified national police force, which really, back when it was formed or reconstituted back in the '90s, it did a lot to help rein in the drug cartels in Columbia, which were wreaking their own terror there about 20 years ago.

MARTIN: And finally, and this is obviously an issue that people in civil society in Mexico far beyond people who are directly involved in the drug trade. I mean, you know, kidnappings, you know, the assaults on innocents going about their lives, a lot of that has been in the news. Are there signs that the drug war is spilling across the border?

PADGETT: Right now, the fears about this violence coming across the border really haven't materialized. In fact, the U.S. side of the border, those states, Arizona, Texas, New Mexico, California, that border corridor of the United States is one of the safest zones in the United States of America. And it points to the fact that we have real, bonafide professional police forces on our side of the border. Unfortunately, on the Mexican side, you do not. That's where the basic difference lies.

MARTIN: Tim Padgett is the Miami and Latin America bureau chief for Time magazine. If you'd like to read his piece in its entirety, and we hope you will, will link to it on our website. Go to NPR.org, click on Programs, then on Tell Me More. Tim Padgett was kind enough to join us from his home office in Miami. Tim, thanks so much for joining us.

PADGETT: Thank you.

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