Crackdown Big Victory In Mexico's Drug War

Mexico's attorney general gave a speech this week addressing the battle against drug cartels that continue to wreak havoc across the nation. The speech comes one day after the U.S. Justice Department announced a major crackdown on U.S. operations of Mexico's La Familia drug cartel. Host Scott Simon talks to NPR's Jason Beaubien in Mexico City.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Foreign ministers from Central America, the Caribbean and Colombia are in Mexico City this weekend to talk about how they can work together to fight narcotics trafficking. This follows what U.S. law enforcement officials call their largest operation ever against a Mexican drug cartel.

On Thursday, Attorney General Eric Holder announced the arrest of more than 300 presumed members of the La Familia cartel, after raids in 19 states from coast to coast. In just two days, under what was code name Operation Coronado, agents seized millions of dollars in cash, 730 pounds of methamphetamines and almost 400 weapons.

Attorney General Holder said La Familia had rapidly developed a sophisticated drug distribution network that extends into every state in the country.

Mr. ERIC HOLDER (Attorney General): The sheer level and depravity of violence that this cartel has exhibited thus far exceeds what we unfortunately have become accustomed to from the other cartels.

SIMON: NPR's Jason Beaubien has been reporting on this story and joins us now from Mexico City. Jason, thanks for being with us.

JASON BEAUBIEN: It's good to be here.

SIMON: How significant are these arrests?

BEAUBIEN: They're really quite significant. I mean this was a major operation that the U.S. launched against La Familia. And down here, what's really significant about it is it shows that the U.S. is walking the walk.

There's often a feeling in Mexico that Mexico is fighting this drug war all by itself. Despite pledges of aid by the U.S. government, oftentimes the public perception here is that Mexico is on its own fighting a drug war that is driven by U.S. demand for drugs, thousands of people are getting killed, and the U.S. isn't really doing its part.

And this was splashed all over the front pages of the newspaper here in Mexico City and nationwide. And there was really sort of the sense that, yeah, the U.S. is stepping up and going after these cartels, too.

SIMON: Jason, what do we know about La Familia?

BEAUBIEN: Part of what's so interesting about La Familia is that a couple of years ago, people had never even heard of them. And they stepped into this market and rapidly developed into quite a big drug cartel. They're based in the Mexican state of Michoacan. They operate in ways that are somewhat different from other cartels. They really try to get out the message that they are good guys.

They call in to radio talk shows. They go on local TV stations over the phone. They run ads in the newspaper. They post videos on YouTube. And constantly their message is we are looking out for you. We are the good guys here. And despite the fact that they chop the heads off their rivals, and at one point they killed 12 federal police all in one go, they constantly are pushing this message that we are the good guys and that's their modus operandi. They're attempting to win the hearts and minds of the people of Michoacan.

SIMON: So I don't have to tell you, Jason, it has been the depressing real-life experience of many people involved in law enforcement that if you bust a hundred dealers, you find 150 people who are willing to take their place. Is there any assurance that these arrests in Operation Coronado are actually going to affect the business of selling drugs in the U.S.?

BEAUBIEN: That is really the conundrum of this, and it's amplified in Mexico. I should point out that the minimum wage in Mexico is less than $5 a day. And there are young men who are quite willing to step up and get involved in this trade. And, yes, it does seem like if you wipe them out, there'll be other people who are willing to come in and also set up these drug distribution networks that stretch from Michoacan all the way across the United States.

SIMON: NPR's Jason Beaubien in Mexico City, thank you.

BEAUBIEN: You're welcome.

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