Drug War Tops Obama's Mexico Agenda

Correction April 17, 2009

We said, "I think that President Obama and his administration are quite aware that the United States provides 90 percent of all the weapons that are being used in the mayhem currently taking place in Mexico." In fact, the 90 percent figure originated with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, which concluded that 90 percent of the firearms recovered in Mexico and traced successfully originated from various sources within the continental U.S.

President Obama is in Mexico to meet with Mexican President Felipe Calderon. They will be talking about how to combat drug cartels. Bruce Bagley of the University of Miami talks about the rise of the cartels and how to stop them.

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SIEGEL: As we just heard from Scott, among the items on President Obama's agenda today, finding ways to stop the flow of drugs coming north and to cut off the massive amounts of cash and weapons moving from the U.S. south into Mexico. Yesterday, Mr. Obama targeted three Mexican drug cartels, adding them to the list of banned foreign drug kingpins.

MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

Last year there were more than 6,200 drug-related killings in Mexico. That's up 100 percent over the year before. So, who are the people who run these cartels? How do they operate? And can even the combined efforts of the Mexican and U.S. governments do anything to stop them? Joining us to answer some of those questions is Bruce Bagley. He's chair of the department of international studies at the University of Miami. Professor Bagley, welcome.

P: Thank you.

BLOCK: How many cartels are operating in Mexico right now, and how powerful are they?

P: Well, there are seven major groups, and they are quite powerful. They have a $15 billion industry that they're fighting over. The firepower that they can obtain in the Unites States gives them better equipment than the Mexican military and police have. And this allows them significant capacity for bribery and corruption. So they are among the most powerful criminal organizations in the 21st century.

BLOCK: Better equipment than the Mexican military. So the military is outgunned. Are they also outmanned? I mean, are there simply more members of the cartels than there are of the military?

P: Well, the Mexican military is fairly large, but many of them are not well-trained or well-equipped. And the cartels, especially the Gulf Cartel, has a number of deserters from the military - elite special forces, some of whom were trained at Fort Benning in the United States by our own military personnel who are among the best trained of all and among the most brutal and violent. So in terms of personnel, they are at least the equivalent of most of the Mexican military.

BLOCK: I suppose when you think about the pull of the cartels, you're thinking not just about the foot soldiers, but also any number of people who might be on the payroll, which would include judges, politicians, police, prison guards, it goes on.

P: Absolutely. Mexico has had a long-standing problem with, if you like, institutional corruption in its police forces. There are some 16,000 different units of the police and more than 250,000 policemen in Mexico. But most of them don't have even a primary education. Given the profitability of the drug industry and the sales of drugs in industrial quantities within the U.S. market, they have more than enough money to bribe lowly or underpaid public officials across the board in Mexico.

BLOCK: Besides President Obama's action yesterday to list these three Mexican cartels on the list of foreign drug kingpins, what else do you think the U.S. should be doing to pressure the Mexican cartels?

P: Well, I think that there are several things that the United States can do, and I applaud President Obama's kingpin strategy of going after the profits. I think that the United States could do a great deal to further lower demand in our country, which would help. Particularly we need prison reform rather than imprisoning young people. I really think we need to provide vocational training, educational opportunities - and for nonviolent drug crimes, opportunities in life rather than jail.

BLOCK: The 90 percent figure quoted above originated with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, which concluded that 90 percent of the firearms recovered in Mexico and traced successfully originated from various sources within the continental U.S.]

But ultimately, it's the Mexicans that are going to have to be more vigilant on their own border. They're going to have to eliminate corruption in their border patrol, in their customs. And they are going to have to inspect, just as they want the United States to inspect, on their side of the border.

BLOCK: We've been talking with Bruce Bagley. He's chair of the department of international studies at the University of Miami. Prof. Bagley, thanks very much.

P: Thank you, Melissa.

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