Reporting Weekly From Mexico's 'Murder Capital'

With some 3000 murders a year, Ciudad Juarez is considered the "murder capital" of Mexico. Few U.S. journalists venture regularly into the violence-plagued region, but Angela Kocherga and her cameraman Hugo Perez cross the border and cover the story every week.

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NEAL CONAN, host: With some 3,000 murders a year, Juarez in Mexico, is considered the murder capital of that country. Nobody is immune. Ordinary citizens, journalists, immigrants, customs and border patrol agents all can get caught up in the violence. American journalist Angela Kocherga and her cameraman Hugo Perez cover the story daily, crossing and re-crossing from El Paso to report on the cartels, the violence and the victims.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SERIES, "BORDER WARS")

ANGELA KOCHERGA: They will actually plan the killings right before a newscast so they'd get live shots, so they could show what they did to their rivals and terrorize communities and say, we're winning this war.

CONAN: The National Geographic series "Border Wars" focuses on life along the Mexico-U.S. border, and Kocherga was a guest on last night's episode, "Murder Capital." If you live along the U.S.-Mexico border, tell us your story. What are you seeing? 800-989-8255 is our phone number. Email: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation at our website. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And Angela Kocherga joins us now by phone from her office in El Paso. Nice to have you with us today.

KOCHERGA: Thank you, Neal. Glad to be with you.

CONAN: And you report, I gather, almost exclusively on the border regions and the often brutal drug violence that comes with that territory. What have you been seeing lately?

KOCHERGA: Well, it's hard to overstate how much life has changed here along the border. There was really a lot of back and forth and really, like one community, not just El Paso-Juarez, but up and down the border. Now you have a lot of people afraid to go into Mexico. Even to visit relatives and those who live there are fleeing. The violence is just unimaginable. Beheadings are common, shootings in broad daylight. And it can happen anywhere - outside a school, outside a busy mall. We - that National Geographic show, we went to a mall during the day where a police officer had been shot, and people had to flee for their lives and take cover.

CONAN: And this is not unusual. We've read, also, that cartels will sometimes take over a town for various reasons.

KOCHERGA: Yeah. Right now, Juarez is still - it's kind of a free-for-all. There's a huge battle for this key smuggling route. So it's not been taken over, and that's why you see all this violence. Some of the more quiet areas actually should be of more concern because that means one cartel has taken charge and controls the area.

CONAN: And it is unusual, as we suggest, for American reporters to cross over to report on this. How come, do you think?

KOCHERGA: I think a variety of reasons. I mean, we do have people coming here to the murder capital of Mexico to cover the violence, but it's very sporadic. They kind of parachute in and leave. I think it's tough for people, even on this side of the border. There is a lot of fear involved. And Mexican journalists try to do the best they can, but in some regions of Mexico, they have to self-censor in order to survive because they're under attack. So we do go into Juarez. It's very violent. We do have the luxury of coming back home to peaceful El Paso on the evening.

CONAN: Peaceful. Well, as you just said a minute ago, more and more Mexicans are coming home to peaceful El Paso in the evening too.

KOCHERGA: Well, we actually have a term here for it along the border. It's called the Mexidus. We have a mass exodus of middle- and upper-class Mexicans who can afford to leave and often have dual citizenship. And they are leaving, packing up, taking their families and actually buying homes here, starting new businesses. So it's been kind of a little boom on the U.S. side of the border, not just here, but elsewhere, yeah, along the Texas border. But it means Juarez is dying a slow death, which is very difficult to watch.

CONAN: And do they come across here, and then cross back to work on the Mexican side during the day and come back at night?

KOCHERGA: Some people do. I mean, some people have - are just - move their businesses on to - over to the U.S. side. Others sneak back and forth. When I say sneak back, they take kind of a lower profile. I mean, we heard from, you know, even doctors who would get these old jalopies and clunkers in order to drive into Juarez and not attract attention because kidnapping is a huge problem, especially for doctors--kidnapping for ransom.

CONAN: Do you also report on the government's attempts to sustain the rule of law?

KOCHERGA: Yeah, we've seen the big buildup of both the federal forces, soldiers and federal police here in Juarez and - to stem the violence. And it - you know, by all accounts, you talk to local residents, they do not think that strategy has worked. And, you know, these cartels have been, especially the Juarez Cartel, have been here for generations. They're deeply embedded in the local community. So it's an urban warfare style of fight, and the Mexican military has not been able to weed out much of the leadership. They've caught a few big fishes, but, you know, there always seems to be someone ready to take their place.

CONAN: Somebody ready to take their place, so that no matter what you do, it's one step forward and two steps back?

KOCHERGA: Exactly.

CONAN: As you look at the situation, though, obviously, corruption is a large part of this. The cartels, as you say, are deeply embedded, and they seem to be informed of anything that happens before it happens.

KOCHERGA: Well, you do have a lot of people here, questioning what can be done to really fix this problem. We've got - corruption is a huge issue within the police force in Mexico both at the local and state level, even federal level. We have 10 police officers here in Juarez arrested for extortion. They were shaking down local businesspeople for money. And so, you know, that's the big challenge for Mexico.

You know, the big talk today, Neal, is, you know, that comment by candidate Perry, governor of Texas, Perry, saying, let's send in U.S. troops. And a lot of people, you know, on a national scale say, oh, that's outrageous. How could it be? But, you know, we just came back from Juarez where I talk to people out on the street, and they - some of them are in favor of that idea.

CONAN: Really? They would like to see American forces come in?

KOCHERGA: It sounds crazy, but yeah. I mean, some people are so frustrated, so fed up and willing to try anything that, you know, average people are saying, well, you know, our Mexican forces haven't been able to handle it. Maybe the U.S. troops will. And, of course, here along the border it's a different view than there is in interior Mexico, that idea is very much looked down upon because of sovereignty issues. And we already have the U.S. ambassador - I mean, the Mexican ambassador in the U.S., saying there's no way that's going to happen. That's not on the table.

CONAN: People remember the last time U.S. forces went into Mexico they took about a half of Mexico when they returned.

KOCHERGA: Exactly. It lost half its territory.

CONAN: Let's get some callers in on the conversation. 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. If you live along the border, what's it like? We'll start with Karen, and Karen's on the line with us from Tucson.

KAREN: Hi. Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

KAREN: Yes. I live in Tucson and so many of us go down to Rocky Point, which is about three and a half hours away, for vacationing, and I just won't go down there. My sister just called me today from Boston and said, hey, do you think we could go down if we come out on vacation during Christmas? And I said, absolutely not. And I feel terrible, because the livelihood for these people is tourism, and I just - I do not want to go down there. It is just way too risky.

CONAN: Angela Kocherga, a fair amount of tourism was the lifeblood of Juarez too. I assume that's dried up.

KOCHERGA: Well, yeah. I mean, they used to have more of a day tourism. We'd have people coming across to buy pharmaceuticals and, you know, get eyeglasses and that type of thing. But that Rocky Point area was a driving destination for lots of people who want to go to the beach, and it has been hurt because there's concerns about some of these narco blockades on key highways. And, you know, for - by and large, U.S. tourists have not been targeted or attacked directly, and lots of tourist destinations in Mexico are perfectly safe. But we do get those calls all the time. Can I have my wedding in Cancun? And by and large, the answer is yes.

CONAN: Karen, thanks very much. You're not going to go though.

KAREN: Not right now.

CONAN: OK. Thanks very much.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: You talked about the Mexodus. Is the violence being exported across the border?

KOCHERGA: You hear a lot of politicians talk about the spillover violence - and violence per se, no. We don't have running gun battles on the streets. We don't have grenades going off in downtown El Paso. We've had a few stray bullets hit buildings on our side of the border because it, you know, they're so close. But, no, we have, you know, a working justice system. We have a police force that works, and so the consequences are a lot, you know, I mean, people will get caught and prosecuted here, wherein Mexico, the impunity rate is just through the roof. So nine times out of 10, people are not going to get caught or face consequences.

CONAN: Even if they're caught, they're not going to face consequences.

KOCHERGA: Well, there's always this question as - did you get the right guy or is it a scapegoat. And especially in the high-profile cases, they tend to catch people pretty quickly. But there's a real concern about is justice being served.

CONAN: Let's Megan on the line. Megan, with us from Portland.

MEGAN: Hi. I'm calling because my husband is - it's kind of a sensitive subject, but he's actually an illegal immigrant, and we've gone through lawyers and everything in order to fix his papers. And they've told us that the only place he can go to in Mexico, I think it's the American Embassy or whatnot - in Ciudad Juarez. And just to know that he's gonna be sent over there and he has to be in the town in order to fix the situation, I think, just shows that the problems, unfortunately, are not only there but they definitely come back to the states as well. And it's definitely a - it's a hot topic, so it's something that people can't really talk about and feel safe about it, I guess.

CONAN: Can't even talk about it?

MEGAN: I'm sorry?

CONAN: You can't even talk about it.

MEGAN: You can't at all. And I mean, I think, I mean, I'm shaking just to talk about it over the radio right now, but, you know, there's a lot of pressure in, you know, groups all across America to stop these illegals and everything. But it's hard to know that, you know, at the end of the day, these are families, these are people that are getting separated, and you don't know where they're going off to and you don't know what's going to happen when they're over there.

CONAN: Angela Kocherga, people in Megan's situation, there's more people like her than there are drug lords.

KOCHERGA: Well, you do have a lot of those heart-wrenching stories of people divided, divided families, people who are afraid to go into Mexico to visit relatives, and people who can't come here because their paperwork is not in order. And she's correct, the one place you'd go to get your documents in order is that U.S. consulate in Juarez. And so anyone who wants to come in, you know, as a relative for that type of visa has to go through that consulate.

And when we had this car bomb threat last year, there was - at one point they shut down the consulate for a couple of days while they were doing a sweep to make sure everything was safe, and people were just trapped in hotels in one of the worst cities in Mexico at that point. So yeah, there are a lot of families caught up in the middle of all this.

CONAN: Megan, we wish you the best of luck.

MEGAN: Thank you very much.

CONAN: And we thank you for the call. This - Mark from Minnesota emails: Mexico is a big place. Is the violence spreading? How many states in Mexico have ongoing drug violence? Is it safe for tourists, Cabo spring break? he asks.

KOCHERGA: We did a spring break story last spring, to remind people that, you know, by and large, these destinations - we talked to experts in that, yes, you should be fine. But, you know, do a check before you go. See if the situation has changed. A lot of the tourist's destinations, especially if people stay on those tourist areas, are very well protected and have not had problems.

Acapulco, scratch that one off the list. That one has become a big turf battle and had beheadings and teachers' protests, you know, on the streets because they're dealing with kidnapping and extortion. So no, that would not be my first choice. But the other main destinations for Americans tend to be safe.

CONAN: We're talking with Angela Kocherga, journalist with Belo TV who covers El Paso, Texas, and Ciudad Juarez in Mexico. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And next is Why - Charles, excuse me. Charles in Why, Arizona.

CHARLES: Hello. Yes. I'm a park ranger/biologist here, down on the border at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. And I cross the border two or three times a week, down to the little border town of Sonoita, and I feel safe down there. But talking to the local people there, business is way down, and they blame it on the army because the army is cutting down on the cartels, and so there's not a big - there's not a lot of money flowing around all over the place. And all of the local papers down there are just full of stories about executions and beheadings and everything. And, fortunately, the photos are of very poor quality. Otherwise, they would just be absolutely too horrible to contemplate.

And we did have one of our park ranges killed by spillover violence, back in 2002, and we've had a couple of bodies dumped across the border from time to time. But overall, it's not near - I mean, it may sound bad, and it is. It was, especially for our poor ranger who got killed. But overall, it's not nearly as bad here as what we read in the press all the time. But I feel very sad for Mexico, that this is happening down there. They deserve better.

CONAN: Charles, thanks, and we all do. Charles, thanks. Thanks very much. Angela Kocherga, I know that one of the things that you've been reporting on is how this is affecting young people, children, and what they're future is like.

KOCHERGA: There's a whole generation in Juarez that some people are calling the lost generation. The vast majority of those being killed are under 20, definitely under 30, and lots of them are young teenagers who were given handguns and sent out to become foot soldiers and hit men. Lured by gangs, gangs on both sides of the border, but in Mexico, in particular. And they've got - the cartels have gone into these very poor neighborhoods where there are too many unpaved streets and not enough schools, and they've been able to recruit heavily, some of the best and brightest kids, the kids they see that have leadership skills, who have leadership skills that they can exploit.

And that's often why we see a lot of these mistakes and these mass murderers, like the one at the birthday party for those teenagers a year ago. Apparently, it was a mistake. They targeted the wrong group of kids. And so when you've got a 14-, 15-, 16-year old with gun, you see problems like that arise.

CONAN: And they don't have a lot of options other than the gang.

KOCHERGA: Well, you see now, Mexico and the U.S. together, even though there's immediate initiative, there's an effort to really look at building up social infrastructure and providing more opportunities, educational opportunities and jobs for these kids so that they don't get lured into these cartels and make these resilient, safer communities from the ground up.

CONAN: We have this email from Gabriela in Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. My family and I grew up in Juarez and went to school in El Paso. My father still resides in Juarez, and it has hurt tourism and torn apart families. I have a friend who asked for refuge in Canada. Her family's been robbed, kidnapped and killed. People are incarcerated in their own houses and are afraid to even step out, afraid of driving because a bullet might kill them.

This is not a way to live. The U.S. military should be in Juarez and stop wasting their time in Iraq. This has works in Colombia during the Pablo Escobar reign. I miss Juarez, and I would like to go back and visit without fearing for my life. We talked about the U.S. military, part of that. But is her description of Juarez accurate?

KOCHERGA: Yes, we hear that from people all the time. They feel like prisoners in their own homes. I mean, you go there on a certain day, and it'll look kind of normal. People have to go to work. They have to go to school. They can't be trapped in their homes for economic reasons. But then, at night, they all go back and kind of hide out.

Juarez is starting to get a little better? There is a glimmer of hope. The murder rates have dropped a little bit from last year. Instead of eight - an average of eight a day, it would cut about six. I mean, we had over 3,000 murders last year. And then it totals, since the drug war started, more than 8,000, so the numbers are almost staggering and incomprehensible. But when you hear those descriptions about the day-to-day toll, like from your caller, those are very, very accurate.

CONAN: And this email from Paul reminds us, one of the great most unspoken facts is the reason for all the violence in Mexico is the demand for drugs here in the United States and that cannot be overlooked. We've been describing what has been happening, but certainly, that's the reason why it's so lucrative to control these smuggling roads.

KOCHERGA: We do hear a lot of people saying why not just legalize – especially since the majority of the drugs coming across that they're fighting over, it tends to be marijuana as far as Mexico - obviously, of harder drugs too. Even Mexico's president has tossed that idea out as he's traveled the U.S.

But, you know, a lot of extras will tell you that the cartel drugs are now made by half of their profits. They're involved in everything, from human trafficking to kidnapping, extortion, even pirating, and Mexico is one of the top countries for pirating of movies and music, so black market sales. I mean, there's just untold number of ways organized crime gets in on the illegal activities, so it's not just drugs.

CONAN: Angela Kocherga, thanks very much for your time today. We appreciate it.

KOCHERGA: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: Angela Kocherga, a journalist with Belo TV, covering life among the border between the United States and Mexico. She joined us from her office in El Paso. You may have seen her last night on National Geographic's "Border Wars."

Tomorrow, we'll talk about fugitives and what it takes to live on the lam. Plus, French Chef Jacques Pepin. Join us for that.

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

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