Mexican Drug War Brings Violence To Arizona

Home invasion and kidnappings are on the rise in Arizona. State authorities pin the blame on Mexican organized crime. Host Cheryl Corley speaks with Ariz. Attorney General Terry Goddard about how he hopes to address the problem.

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CHERYL CORLEY, host:

I'm Cheryl Corley, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin is away. Coming up: former "Top Chef" contestant Carla Hall swings by our studios to tell us what's cooking in her life. But first, Mexico's narco war reverberates north of the border, in Arizona. State authorities attribute a rise in home invasions and kidnapping to Mexican drug lords. Well, joining us now is Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard. Welcome to the program.

Mr. TERRY GODDARD (State Attorney General, Arizona): Thank you very much.

CORLEY: You know, Mr. Goddard, there's been so much news about the violence and kidnappings in Mexico associated with that country's drug war. How, exactly, is this battle in Mexico affecting people in Arizona?

Mr. GODDARD: Well, it seems to be increasing here, but in a different way. What you read about in Mexico are the savage killings, the beheadings, the characteristics of an open warfare between drug cartels and each other using high-powered weapons - instruments of war, as they're described in Mexico - and the government. Both the law-enforcement officials and the army are being deployed south of the border. What we're seeing and for some time - this is not a sudden occurrence in Arizona - are home invasions, but they're gang-on-gang violence. Somebody will have a drop house with 20 or 30 people being held as virtual prisoners while whoever is arranging for their smuggling into the United States pays for their transportation.

And that's usually about $2,000, and it's usually transmitted by a wire transfer. So those people are held as virtual prisoners. It's not uncommon for another gang to try to seize that load, to try to get those people so that they can get the ransom money, as opposed to the original smugglers. Those often turn violent and often involve kidnappings, hostage taking and extortion.

CORLEY: Well, as you mentioned, you said that this is a problem that's been going on for some time. Why is it worse now - or is it worse now?

Mr. GODDARD: Well, it seems to be somewhat worse. I didn't want to say that this is suddenly burst on the scene in the last month or two and the news media discovered it. It's something we've been wrestling with in Arizona because we're a corridor state for people being smuggled into United States from Mexico. So we see almost a million persons a year coming through our state, usually for trans-shipment to some other part of the United States. And so these smugglings, these hostage takings, these drop-house murders have been happening for the last five or six years, but increasing recently. I don't think there's any doubt about that. The number of kidnappings in the city of Phoenix reported has now gone to almost 300 a year. So we're, unfortunately, at about one a day.

CORLEY: Wow. Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. Well, I want to talk to you a little bit more about that. But last month on TELL ME MORE, we had the Mexican ambassador to the U.S., Arturo Sarukhan, on the program, and he drew this really sharp contrast between gun-control laws in his country, and gun-control laws here in the United States. And here's what he had to say.

Ambassador ARTURO SARUKHAN (Mexican Ambassador to United States): Mexico has very, very stringent gun-control laws. There are no gun shops, no gun shows in Mexico. You can't purchase a weapon in a sports store.

CORLEY: So while he's talking about smuggling of a different sort, and I was wondering if you thought whether or not there should be a ban on the sale of assault weapons.

Mr. GODDARD: Well, I don't have to get there. The bottom line is it's illegal to buy a gun to transport it to Mexico - in the United States today, under our current laws. That's what needs to be enforced, at least initially, and it hasn't been. Mexico has made a very poignant plea to the United States, saying look, at least enforce what you've on the books right now. If somebody buys a weapon at a legitimate gun store in the United States, they have to fill out a form saying what the purpose for that weapon is. If they say it's for personal use, it needs to be for personal use. If they say it's for personal use and then immediately turn around and give it to somebody else who they know is -taking it, who pays them for that privilege, and who is taking it to Mexico, they've committed a crime.

And we are prosecuting - starting tomorrow, actually - one gun shop owner in Phoenix who is known to have been involved in the illegal transfer of as many as a thousand AK-47 derivative-type of weapons to Mexico. So we need to enforce the laws we have.

CORLEY: So how do you - so you're taking on this dealer, and I would imagine other dealers along the border, but how do you handle the so-called straw buyers, those folks with clean records who purchase the guns that then go into Mexico?

Mr. GODDARD: Well, in this case, they're informants. So we're handling them very carefully. But they're committing a violation as well. Essentially, they are making a misstatement on an official form and can be prosecuted for that, both under federal and state law. So I want to send a message - and we hope that this prosecution does that, at least within the State of Arizona - that we're doing everything we can to watch these transactions. They are illegal under Arizona law. They are going to fund - those weapons are going to end up in crime scenes in Mexico. And whatever money these straw buyers are paid, that blood is on their head, and it's also a very serious felony crime.

CORLEY: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE. I'm Cheryl Corley, and I'm speaking to Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard. You know, one of the measures that you've tried, seizing wired money transfers from the United States to Mexico, was challenged in court by an immigrants' rights group in Chicago. With this kind of measure, how do you really avoid punishing people who are simply trying to send money back home to relatives and friends?

Mr. GODDARD: Well, the answer to the question is every way we can. We are working to make sure that if we make a seizure of a money transfer, that it is one that has a discernible link to illegal activity. And we believe we've been very successful in that effort. If there have been any people who were involved in innocent activity whose money we interrupted, we don't believe any of it was seized finally, but we sometimes interrupted people's transactions in order to take a closer look at what it was they were doing. We've managed to facilitate the return of that money very quickly. I think it's an inevitable consequence of a huge industry smuggling people into the United States. It costs about $2,000 per person. And the primary way that that illegal activity is paid for is through wire transfers because it's not like the drug trade, where there's an established business relationship between the dealer and the supplier.

In this case, the person who's the smuggler gets one shot at getting the money from the smugglee, from the person that's being brought into this country. And that usually is done by instantaneous transfer, and there really is no other method to make the payments. So we watch the wire transfers. We make no bones about that, and we try to make sure that whatever is involved in the human smuggling trade gets interrupted.

CORLEY: Let me take you back to the gun issue. And I was wondering, from where you stand, do you think Mexico has the capacity to win this war on drug traffickers?

Mr. GODDARD: I think they do, and I've got a number of reasons for saying that. First, I think there's a lot of misstatements in the press and elsewhere that Mexico is, like Pakistan, becoming a failed state. I want to emphasize, and I think people need to recognize, that the current battle in Mexico was initiated by the government. The president of Mexico, I think in a very courageous and a very necessary move, basically declared war on the drug cartels. And by bringing in the army, by mobilizing whole new law-enforcement forces that have never been seen in this battle before, he destabilized the market. And the rolling thunder, the huge violence that we now see south of the border, is because of an enforcement action taken by the government of Mexico.

So instead of sort of slipping into a disorganized state, they have basically taken what I think is a very courageous and correct action, which is to stand up to the cartels, who are becoming incredibly powerful. Now, by doing that, they've, unfortunately, have brought down on their heads a rain of unprecedented violence. We need to support them because the violence that we see today south of the border in Mexico could very easily come north of the border. What the cartels are fighting over is corridors, drug trafficking and human trafficking corridors.

Those corridors exist in Mexico and in the United States. So there is no absolute reason why the same kind of free gunfire that exists in Mexico - the hostage taking, the beheadings, the horrible crimes that are part of this fight - might not end up in the United States unless we can help Mexico take the battle directly to the drug cartels.

CORLEY: You were scheduled to be in Washington, D.C., today. We're speaking with you, you're in Arizona. You had to cancel your trip because of the weather. Were you planning on requesting any kind of specific assistance from the Obama administration?

Mr. GODDARD: Yes, I was. And it's terrible. I'm sweltering in 90-degree heat…

CORLEY: Oh, I feel so bad for you.

Mr. GODDARD: …while Washington is digging out - it's been a disappointment for me. But yes, we're very optimistic that this new administration is going to bring a new spirit, a new intensity to some of the problems we have here on the border. And by that, I don't just mean raising fences and digging in. I mean being more intelligent about curbing the drug trade, the weapons trade, the transfer of - the illegal transfer of cash. We need some federal guidance in this area. Now, the Bush administration helped with something called the Merida Initiative, which did open the door to providing real, military-style assistance and services and goods to the Mexican government. And I think that was a great first step.

CORLEY: Mm-hmm. Lastly, given the scope of the drug war, I was wondering whether you thought it made sense to begin considering the possibility of legalizing certain drugs. I've only got only about 30 seconds here.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GODDARD: Well, it can't be handled in 30 seconds. I think the debate has to go on, though, because the cartels in Mexico get the overwhelming amount of their profits that leads to the violence that we're seeing today from marijuana. And I think the United States needs to look hard at the fact that we're the market that is providing the profits to the drug cartels, which are killing, literally, thousands of people in Mexico. That's a serious debate and needs to be held in a serious manner.

CORLEY: All right. Well, thank you so much for joining us. Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard, he joined us from KJZZ in Arizona. Thank you.

Mr. GODDARD: Thank you.

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