Mexican Army May Be Colluding With Drug Mafia

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Drug cartels have been linked to corruption, killings and a spike in drug-related violence in Mexico. In a four-month investigation, NPR found evidence that the Mexican army is colluding with one of Mexico's most powerful drug mafias. NPR correspondent John Burnett shares what he uncovered in Mexico.

NEAL CONAN, host:

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

Tonight, President Barack Obama welcomes Mexican President Felipe Calderon to hold a ceremony of a state dinner at the White House, but there's plenty of substance on the agenda, too. President Calderon wants to talk about immigration and Arizona's tough new law. President Obama has concerns about the drug war that threatens to spill over the border.

A four-month investigation by NPR News uncovered evidence that Mexico's army takes a side in this bloody conflict, and backs one drug cartel over its rivals. You may have heard reports on this investigation from NPR's John Burnett in the past couple of days. He joins us in a moment.

If you have questions about Mexico's drug war and the role of the Mexican army, give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation at our website, that's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And John Burnett joins us now from Austin, Texas. Nice to have you on the program as always, John.

JOHN BURNETT: Hey, Neal. Good to be here.

CONAN: And in your stories, you've described a battle taking place between two factions fighting for control over the border city of Ciudad Juarez, La Linea and the Sinaloa cartel.

BURNETT: That's right. Let me also just add something to your intro to our conversation here. What we've been reporting this week is that elements of the Mexican army appear to be compromised in this fight against the cartels. We're really not saying that the army as a monolithic institution is completely committed to one side.

CONAN: Well, that's what I was going to say. Is it fair to say that in fact one of these cartels has bought more of the Mexican army than the other one?

BURNETT: That's exactly right, yeah. And where we did found most of our evidence and certainly spent most of our time, myself and producer Marisa Penaloza, was in Ciudad Juarez, which has been called Murder City. It's the -has the highest homicide rate in Mexico. It's ground zero of the cartel war.

And we went into federal court to look at testimony in the U.S. We interviewed former law enforcement officials in the U.S., in Mexico, talked to dozens of folks on the ground there, and came away with a very strong belief that elements of the Mexican army are colluding with the Sinaloa cartel, which is locked in a battle for the territory of Juarez. That's really a very valuable smuggling corridor into the U.S., as we know, and that the army has been used by the Sinaloans, which is Mexico's largest, richest and oldest drug cartel. They've been using the army to help them defeat the Juarez cartel, which is also known as La Linea, sort of the local mafia that's been there for decades.

CONAN: Now the guys on the line, the border. Is that the...

BURNETT: Exactly. La Linea, the line.

CONAN: Yeah. And the evidence that you have compiled includes some looking at the evidence provided by the Mexican government itself.

BURNETT: We did an analysis of the - all of the press releases that are posted by the Mexican attorney general's office, called the PGR. And there were more than 4,000 of these press releases, and we found 2,600 names of defendants who'd been arrested and associated with the cartel. There are seven major drug cartels in Mexico. So 2,600 people arrested and associated with those cartels.

And just staying with Juarez for a minute here, we found that, in the first place, there were very few in Juarez. Only 104 people arrested, considering that President Calderon has dispatched 10,000 soldiers and federal police to Juarez. It is Mexico's most patrolled, most policed city, in an attempt to try to quell that drug-related violence. And yet only 104 arrests, 88 of them were of the Juarez cartel, 16 were of Sinaloan members. And this echoes what everybody in town has been telling us, that there seems to be a one-sided attack of the drug war - to the extent there was any attack of it in Juarez.

CONAN: Well, some people in your piece said, wait a minute. It's understandable, La Linea was in place there. They're the established people there, the ones who've been - more of them are going to get arrested by virtue of numbers.

BURNETT: That's right. That's kind of the common default explanation. Well, of course, La Linea is going to get arrested more because they were - that's the hometown gang. They're going to be more of them. But that doesn't explain a central fact, and that is that as some these local freelance traffickers who were backed by the muscles of a Sinaloa cartel - That's - they're the ones who were trying to take it over. As they come into to take over all this drug-smuggling territory, Juarez cartel members flip. They join the Sinaloans. Others are killed, but they're replaced. And so all those street corners and all those traffickers are being replaced, one by one, by the interlopers, the new guys, and yet you don't see them being arrested at the same rate as the Juarez people. So this was one of a number of pieces of evidence that we thought was very telling.

CONAN: There is also a considerable American role in this. Well, not necessarily there on the ground in Juarez but...

BURNETT: Watch it there, Neal.

CONAN: Well, the United States is funding a lot of this.

BURNETT: That's right, and again, there are two real (unintelligible).

CONAN: On both sides of the conflict for that matter.

BURNETT: News hooks, that we say in the business and one is obviously President Calderon is in Washington today, meeting with President Obama and he's got his entourage meeting with the State department and the DEA. And they're going to talk about the drug cartel war.

And the United States has committed $1.3 billion in the Merida Initiative to Mexico. For this - they consider President Calderon to be a partner in crime-fighting of the President of Mexico that has done more to try to defeat all the drug cartels of all his predecessors. And so he is really has a lot of cheerleaders in Washington and we're giving Mexico an unprecedented amount economic and judicial and police and military aid all the way from X-ray, scanners to training better prosecutors to helicopters.

And so how we are investing this money if, as our sources say, elements of the Mexican government are favoring their largest drug cartel?

CONAN: There is also local authorities who were concerned about this on the other side of the border.

BURNETT: Yes, and one of the them was this - really a great border character, his name is Sheriff Arvin West of Hudspeth County. And he's terrified that his huge county, very lightly populated, it is right there on the Rio Grande, it's right across from the valley of Juarez, which is one of the most violent battlegrounds right now between these two cartels. And Sherriff West is afraid of this spillover drug violence. There's already people wounded that are coming across the Rio Grande with bleeding wounds being raced by ambulance to El Paso hospitals. It's really quite dramatic.

And Sheriff West is an old border hand. He witnessed - back in 2006, his deputies watched a Mexican military Humvee escorting a drug shipment across the river. They got it on tape. He testified about it before a congressional subcommittee. So Sheriff West knows there's funny business going on across the river and doesn't think much of it.

CONAN: NPR Correspondent John Burnett with us from Austin. If you'd like to joint the conversation: 800-9898-255. Email us: talk@npr.org. And Paul(ph) is with us from Cool in California.

PAUL (Caller): Hi Neal, thanks. Hello?

CONAN: Yeah. You're on the air. Go ahead.

PAUL: Hi. Thank you so much. Given the longstanding history of institutional corruption in Mexico, I honestly don't see anything that unusual about what's going on here. And I'd kind of like to get your guest's opinion, you know, that this, you know, these army - elements of the army have just been bought and paid for by these Mexican drug - this particular Mexican drug cartel. And also do you see a continuing possibility that Mexico is becoming a failed narco state right on our border? I'll take my answer off the air.

CONAN: All right, Paul.

PAUL: Thanks.

CONAN: Thanks very much.

BURNETT: Good question. It is just business as usual? I think what sets this apart is, again, the character of President Calderon, that he has committed his administration uniquely among all of his predecessors, that he is taking this fight to the cartels, that he is committed some 45,000 federal troops and police to this battle to take them all down.

And what was interesting to us, Paul, is throughout Mexico, you hear this story, this rumor, this conspiracy theory that (Speaks foreign language), that Calderon is protecting Chapo, which is an overstatement, because we didn't implicate the president. However, this is this sort of shadow story throughout the country of what's going on and we actually were able to find that there is certainly - there's a pattern of facts and interviews and evidence that can lead one in that direction. And so that - we think that makes it - it kind of stands out a bit, but yes, corruption is endemic in Mexico, we all know that.

CONAN: And what we saw was a pattern where, first, local authorities seem to have been corrupted, local prosecutors, and then indeed government prosecutors. And now that the army has been applied, it looks like that's been pretty well corrupted as well.

BURNETT: Well, elements of the army, once again.

CONAN: Yes.

BURNETT: I'm not talking about the whole institution because there are also -there are soldiers and sailors who are fighting the Zetas in La Jamila Michoacana(ph) who are dying in the battle against them. And so, you know, that needs to be...

CONAN: Acknowledged as well.

BURNETT: ....acknowledged as well, correct.

CONAN: Let's get another caller in. This is Alonzo(ph) Alonzo with us from Fort Collins in Colorado.

ALONZO (Caller): How, Neal, how are you doing? This is Alonzo from Fort Collins?

CONAN: Go ahead.

ALONZO: Neal, a big fan of the show. I also wanted to let you guys know I have family members that live down there in Juarez. And they know the situation pretty well. It seems like the army, like your guest is saying, it is true. Components of the army, if they're getting paid better by the Sinaloa cartel, I'm sure they're going to take their side. I think Chapo Guzman is a very powerful guy, and he's - if he can find his way out of cell in Guadalajara, I'm sure he can find his way to (unintelligible) people on the north end of Mexico as well.

CONAN: And he is talking about Chapo Guzman, the head of the Sinaloa cartel.

ALONZO: That is correct.

BURNETT: Who escaped from a maximum security federal prison in Mexico by bribing is way out in 2001 in a laundry truck.

ALONZO: Yeah.

CONAN: And quite a character, and indeed there are narco-ballads, as your story illustrated, John Burnett, written about several of these characters and about the ongoing battles that they have.

BURNETT: But I think what really distinguishes the Sinaloa cartel, again, from these six other very violent mafias is that the Sinaloans have been there the longest. And interestingly, some of the drug lords who started the other cartels around the country, from Tijuana to Juarez, even to the Gulf, that they all came from Sinaloa.

Sinaloa is the Sicily of Mexico, and that is the heartland where Chapo, who is the world's most wanted drug lord, that's where he hides out, it is believed. And he has actually been able to expand his territory in the last nine years, many of sources say, because of the favoritism that he's curried with the government.

CONAN: We're talking with NPR correspondent John Burnett about the story that he's been reporting on MORNING EDITION and ALL THINGS CONSIDERED about how elements of the Mexican army have been, apparently, taking one side in the vicious border war - the drug war. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's get Bill(ph) on the line, Bill with us from Centennial, Colorado.

BILL (Caller): Thanks very much. Several years ago, there was a book written, I believe, called "Down by the River." I'm sure your correspondent is well familiar with it.

BURNETT: I am.

BILL: And among other things, the thesis of that book was it was in neither the U.S.'s or Mexico's best interest to prosecute a war on drugs, the economic impacts would be too great for both countries. I wonder if you think there's been a change in the recent years or was that thesis incorrect?

BURNETT: You know, I believe you said that there had - that they were not interested in prosecuting...

CONAN: No, that they had - that their interest did not lie in prosecuting...

BURNETT: Right.

CONAN: ...not that they weren't interested in it, right.

BURNETT: Ah, okay.

BILL: That in - if they seriously prosecuted the war on drugs, the adverse economic impact on both U.S. and Mexico would be so great that the rigorous pursuit in prosecuting such a war was really not in the best interest of either country.

CONAN: John?

BURNETT: I think that that kind of theory requires a belief in a type of conspiracy that I'm not willing to accept.

BILL: No.

BURNETT: Certainly, in that if there's some sort of decision that holding back on - in - of fighting the drug war is bad for business or that it's bad for Mexico, that's certainly not the case on this side of the river. In Mexico, it gets more complicated. It gets in to how have the different sexenios, the different six-year presidents, you know, fought against the cartels to the extent they did it all. There's a lot of talk in Mexico that there - that under the old PRI, the Institutional Revolutionary Party, which was voted out of power in 2000, that there was a certain orderliness to the drug trade, and that there were regions and there were understandings of which cartel operated in which corridor.

And all that was off the table when the PRI was voted out of power and the PAN, the National Action Party, the party of the current president, came in and that now it's a sort of a free-for-all and all bets are off. But I can't say that in Calderon's case, there seems to be a sincerity in fighting some of these cartels, because, again, we've seen - we really have seen firefights between his forces and particularly the Zetas in northeast Mexico. You haven't seen these kind of firefights with federal forces and the Sinaloans.

BILL: Thank you.

CONAN: Bill, thanks very much. Let's see if we can go next to Bill(ph) -another Bill, this one from Star in Idaho.

BILL (Caller): Thank you and what a - once again, TALK OF THE NATION, the most timely subject you could possibly discuss today with President Calderon being in this country. The book "Murder City" has a quotation that's just chilling in it. It's a saying that goes around Juarez and it's: Killing - dying is easy. Killing is fun. Taking that first ride is what's hard.

Given the conditions in Juarez, with the poverty, and given the conditions in the United States with 40 years of a drug war, is this ever going to get resolved without legalization of drugs in this country?

BURNETT: That's a giant question, Bill. He's talking about the new book by Charles Bowden, longtime author of - along the border called "Murder City," which is about the drug war and the chaos and the killing in Juarez. President Calderon would like to invest more in the social infrastructure of Juarez to try to create better conditions, the jobs, better education, to keep some of the kids from the clutches of the cartels. You talked about the poverty that's very much a factor in that and in other Mexican border cities.

CONAN: Big question, John, we got 30 seconds left.

BURNETT: Okay, the larger question, legalizing drugs? Let's see, 25 seconds to answer that. Calderon himself said in Spain recently that if you legalize drugs tomorrow, do you expect all of these murderous drug cartels to all open up tacarias and join the Catholic Church choir? He thinks that's simplistic and I agree with him.

CONAN: John Burnett, NPR's correspondent in Austin. There's more to come on this story, John?

BURNETT: Yes. Today, ALL THINGS CONSIDERED part two.

CONAN: We'll tune in for that. Coming up, we'll be talking about others things - also on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. John Burnett joined us from Austin, Texas. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News in Washington.

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