Some Say U.S. Support Might Not Be Enough To Curb Mexico Drug Violence

Senior members of the Obama administration met with Mexican officials Tuesday to pledge support for that country's war on drugs. Mexico continues to spiral into a cycle of violence among warring drug cartels as support from the U.S. hinges on a new approach: less military support and more civilian defense. But after years of failed policy, some wonder if the strategy is too little, too late. Guest host Allison Keyes speaks with reporter Dudley Althaus, who lead's the Mexico City bureau for the Houston Chronicle.

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ALLISON KEYES, host:

I'm Allison Keyes, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin is away.

Just ahead, we'll speak with Johnathan Lee Iverson. He's the ringmaster of Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus. And we have some music for you, too.

But first, the drug war in Mexico. Senior members of the Obama administration met with top officials in the Mexican government yesterday to pledge support for the war on drugs. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton led the delegation and said the administration would have a new drug policy that would include strategies for reducing drug demand.

Secretary HILLARY CLINTON (Department of State): We know that the demand for drugs drives much of this illicit trade that guns purchased in the United States, as we saw some of the examples outside, are used to facilitate violence here in Mexico. And the United States must and is doing its part to help you and us meet those challenges.

KEYES: Drug cartels that operate along the border are a problem for both countries and they've agreed to step up security. Here to tell us more about this is Dudley Althaus. He's the Mexico City bureau chief for the Houston Chronicle. Thanks, Dudley, for joining us.

Mr. DUDLEY ALTHAUS (Journalist, Houston Chronicle): Hi, Allison.

KEYES: So, give us a few notes on this new anti-drug strategy. What is it in a nutshell?

Mr. ALTHAUS: Well, it's been in the works for quite a while. I think it's just going to enhance cooperation. I think with the Obama administration making the marry that initiative, which the Bush administration started with Mexican President Felipe Calderon in 2007, it's kind of making that initiative its own and assuring the Mexicans that it's going to continue. It runs out at the end of this year.

KEYES: How much different is that than the old strategy?

Mr. ALTHAUS: Well, I think they're basically tweaking it more than anything else. There has been a lot of concern in Mexico and in Washington that the use of the military in this drug fight isn't really being effective. Soldiers are not policemen. They're very effective when they have direct combat with the narcos, but they're just not policemen.

In Ciudad Juarez, which had nearly a division of soldiers and federal police on its streets for more than a year, the murder rate's higher than it was last year.

KEYES: Secretary Clinton said that the U.S. is trying to help strengthen the rule of law in places like Ciudad Juarez. How are people reacting to that? Do they believe this is really going to help?

Mr. ALTHAUS: You know, I haven't been in Juarez since the secretary of state was here, obviously. But I think you're going to run into a lot of, like, I'll believe it when I see it. There have been many promises over the years of strengthening the rule of law in Mexico and places like Juarez that haven't come to fruition. So I think people are going to be cynical, very Missouri-like, show me.

KEYES: If this doesn't work out, what's the worst case scenario here? How much worse can this get?

Mr. ALTHAUS: Well, I mean, it could get very much worse. You know, the thing is, and I sort of feel sorry for Mexico I'm writing a lot of these stories this is not happening all over the country and their tourism industry has just been suffering. It would be akin to say if there's bad parts of New Orleans or bad parts of Houston, Texas, you wouldn't go on vacation in Florida. And so, but people have avoided Mexico because of news about this violence.

But having said that, there is violence and there is insecurity in a great part of Northern Mexico at least, even in small towns. Not so much just drug trafficking, it's extended into extortion, kidnappings. You have towns that are very much under siege. It is pretty much a cancer as far as into the public life of Mexico.

As far as the violence, I hope it doesn't get much worse, but the Wilson Center, the Mexico Institute at the Wilson Center in Washington I think issued a report yesterday estimating that if the murder rate continues the way it has the first three months of this year, it's going to far exceed last year's toll, climbing about 8,500 gang men executions this year.

KEYES: Is it to the point that people can't even walk down the street there? I mean...

Mr. ALTHAUS: No, I mean, that's the thing about these towns. In a place like Juarez or Reynosa, which is down on the South Texas border down towards the Gulf of Mexico, which has also seen a lot of trouble this past month, the cities seem very normal until they're not. People are going about their business. They're going about their lives. The streets are crowded, the traffic jams are there. Having said that, though, a lot of stores have closed up. There's a lot of fear at night. In a place like Ciudad Juarez, people are not on the street. And so it has a psychological impact and at times a very physical impact for a lot of people. But it's not this is not Sarajevo. It's not under siege like that.

KEYES: Is there a difference between the number of foreigners and Mexicans being affected? I mean, if I'm American girl walking down the street in some crazy earrings, am I more of a target than someone who lives there?

Mr. ALTHAUS: Actually, I don't think so. And I think that it would be very rare for and there have been, obviously there have been cases and there will be cases, and it is of a concern if you're in certain places in certain cities that, you know, you want to be very careful. But, no, I think Americans are not particularly targeted in this at all.

KEYES: Do the people there want other governments to become involved?

Mr. ALTHAUS: You know, I think it varies. Considering the history of Mexico and the United States, there's a lot of suspicion of the United States down here in Washington's designs or interest on Mexico. That said, you know, people in Juarez have become so frustrated that even, like, civic leaders have called for the United Nations to send in peacekeepers, which is definitely not going to happen.

I think more military involvement on the part of the United States is definitely not going to happen. That said, I think there's a lot of interesting people on the border with having more help, because they realize that their own government is so far hasn't been up to the task.

KEYES: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're speaking with Dudley Althaus. He's the Mexican bureau chief for the Houston Chronicle, and he's talking to us about the new drug policy in Mexico.

Secretary Clinton basically said yesterday that, look, you know, demand for drugs in America is fueling a lot of this. Is that what people in Mexico are seeing? Or are there other underlying things happening?

Mr. ALTHAUS: No, absolutely. People in Mexico, the U.S. demand for drugs obviously has enriched the Mexican cartels, and people in Mexico feel that and they're very angry about guns coming from the United States, whatever percentage there are. You know, the Mexican government last year started saying that 90 percent of the guns in the hands of the gangsters came from the United States. I think that figure is way high. Other estimates say 20 percent. I think that's probably low.

But a great percentage of the guns being used here do come from the States, do come from Texas from gun shows or wherever else. And people are angry about that. That said, it also becomes, you know, it's always easier where someone in the United States might blame the Mexicans for drug use in the United States, I think this goes the other way around. You know, I think that the drug use inside Mexico has really increased and people are realizing that.

President Calderon and other officials have talked about that and actually justified this crackdown on the fact that keeping drugs away from Mexican kids. So, it's really mixed. Calderon will criticize the United States all the time for this drug use and the lack of, you know, real programs to decrease demand. But that's kind of local consumption as well. This is definitely a shared responsibility. It started with the United States' demand, but it's kind of gone way beyond that. And I think a lot of people, especially Mexican policymakers know that.

KEYES: Since this new strategy is supposed to shift away from military assistance into more civilian law enforcement, is there any thought whether that'll work at all?

Mr. ALTHAUS: Well, you know, that's the big issue. That's why the military's being used now. That's why Calderon sent them in. I think he and other Mexican officials have been very much surprised by just how weakened the local state and even federal police forces had become over the years when they started this crackdown.

There's talk, in fact, just this morning the headlines in the papers this morning that governors are now signing on to the idea of abolishing local municipal police forces and having statewide police forces, with the idea that theyd be better trained and more able to take on these guys. That having -that is going to be a long-term prospect over years, maybe decades to get these people up to snuff.

You know, last weekend in Monterrey, the third largest city, which is just south of the Texas border, South Texas border, a very large and important city, gangsters blocked the roads and the highways in various locations, a number of locations with hijacked cars and trucks. And it turned out the state policemen were arrested for helping the gangsters do that. So, it's a long-term challenge.

KEYES: I know one of the things that really appalled people in the U.S. were the murders of the American U.S. consulate employee and her husband and the Mexican husband of another employee. Were people in Mexico as appalled by that? I mean, there were kids in the car, they left an infant crying in one car, the two kids were injured in the other cars, or was that just, okay, here's a small thing that happened to U.S. people, but way more Mexicans are being hurt?

Mr. ALTHAUS: Well, exactly what you said. It plays both ways here. People were shocked, obviously, that these civilians were targeted and especially with children in the car. And in the case of the Mexican national, the husband of one of the consular employees whose children were actually injured when he was killed in the car. That sort of attack is, unfortunately, less and less shocking in the past two years. Families have been targeted, children have been killed, that just didn't use to happen here. And I think people were shocked at that respect, not so much that it was Americans or American related people.

There was the reaction that you just mentioned that people who said, you know, okay, so you care a lot about a few Americans but we've had, you know, 18,000 Mexicans killed in the past two years. And what many see as basically, again, it plays all kinds of ways here. But many do see this as the Mexican military, the Mexican society carrying the water for U.S. drug policy. Others see this as a very important fight for Mexico itself. So, I think it plays both ways.

KEYES: Is there any part of this new strategy that's going to combat the corruption?

Mr. ALTHAUS: Well, you know, there are long-term plans and I'm not sure what this new strategy, you know, officials like to announce new strategies that have been developed over time and will play out over time. And so I'm not sure that - this was not a huge, dramatic shift. This is more what I consider more tweaking, I think. And I think it's important that it's more the Obama administration taking things on with their own kind of, like, stamp.

But, yes, there are programs and they're going to be enhanced under what Secretary Clinton announced yesterday to reinforce the rule of law, to try to build up the courts, try to build up the prosecutors and try to build up the police forces to really make prosecution of justice more effective here, which is the big part of the problem in a place like Juarez is you can murder somebody and your chances of getting prosecuted and actually going to jail for many, many years for doing that are minimal at best.

KEYES: Dudley Althaus is the Mexican City bureau chief for the Houston Chronicle. He was kind enough to join us by phone. Thank you for a very interesting conversation.

Mr. ALTHAUS: Thank you, Allison.

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