Mexico's Drug War More Sophisticated, Deadlier

Mexico's army claimed a victory this week against one of the country's most powerful drug cartels. Soldiers shot and killed Ignacio "Nacho" Coronel, a top lieutenant to the kingpin of the Sinaloa cartel. Guest host Jacki Lyden talks to reporter Michael O'Boyle about the latest developments in Mexico's drug wars.

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JACKI LYDEN, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.

A top lieutenant of Mexico's most powerful drug lord was shot and killed this week in a quiet suburb of Guadalajara. This strike was a victory for President Felipe Calderon, who has been waging a bloody battle against the nation's drug gangs. But there are concerns that the killing could lead to a spike in violence as other drug gangs rush in to fill the vacuum of power.

Reporter Michael O'Boyle joins us from Mexico City. Hello, Michael.

MICHAEL O'BOYLE: How you doing, Jacki?

LYDEN: So who was this man who was killed and how did the military find him?

O'BOYLE: Well, his name was Ignacio Coronel. And he was one of the leaders of the Sinaloa cartel, which is run by Joachim Guzman. He's Mexico's most wanted criminal. Coronel ran labs where methamphetamine is produced. He was known as the king of crystal meth. He's been a major figure in the drug trade since the '90s. Military spies targeted him in a wealthy suburb of the capital of Jalisco state.

More than 100 troops surprised Coronel in his home. He allegedly opened fire on the troops and was killed.

LYDEN: So just how big a victory is this for President Calderon, who seems like he maybe needed a victory in this drug war?

O'BOYLE: This represents the biggest hit yet against the Sinaloa cartel since Calderon took office back in 2006 and sent the military out into these key regions of Mexico that have been controlled by drug gangs for decades.

But some experts are more cautious. Drugs are so lucrative that any time a leader is taken out, there are plenty of other traffickers ready to take their place. And whenever we have seen top leaders killed or arrested, it has often spurred a further wave of violence as rival gangs move in to take over. We saw this after the military killed Arturo Beltran Leyva back in December. Since his death, violence has exploded around the beach resort of Acapulco and Hornivaca(ph), which is a weekend getaway from Mexico City.

Guadalajara, where Coronel was been operating, has been largely spared from these street gunfights that have rocked other parts of Mexico. But now there are fears that Guadalajara could see more bloodshed.

LYDEN: Now, the U.S. government closed its consulate in Ciudad Juarez a while ago. Is this a sign that the Mexican government is losing ground with the drug gangs?

O'BOYLE: Well, it's certainly not a good sign. The U.S. closed the consulate to conduct a security review. Earlier this year three people tied to the consulate were killed by hit men. And recently the bloodbath in Juarez seems to be only getting worse. We just saw the first sophisticated car bombing where gangs set a trap for police. That bombing has raised fears that drug gangs could begin to stage attacks against civilians, like we saw during Colombia's drug war.

LYDEN: A lot of people have been unhappy with Calderon's effort. Is there more that the Mexican government could be doing?

O'BOYLE: Well, they could be cracking down harder on the corruption that has riddled local police forces. I mean, they are trying but the scandals just keep piling up. Sixty-two officers were arrested in Baja, California this week for colluding with traffickers. One of the accused was the liaison with U.S. law enforcement.

In another instance, the warden at a prison in the state of Paila was arrested. She was allegedly giving weapons to inmates and letting them out of prison so they could stage a string of massacres around the city of Torreon.

Now, it was drug traffickers themselves that brought this to light by releasing a video of an interrogation of a police officer. In connection with this, four journalists were kidnapped. It appears the Sinaloa gang wants TV stations to air more videos that allege authorities are working with their rivals.

So, the kidnapping of these journalists is another very worrying sign that gangs are stepping up their intimidation tactics.

LYDEN: Is there any word on what happened to the journalists who've been kidnapped?

O'BOYLE: Well, one of the journalists has already been released. They believe the other three are still alive. Now, the media outlets connected to this have actually been very tightlipped about what's going on. They don't want to endanger, you know, the reporters. But it certainly just marks a whole new level of intimidation, as I said, you know, what the drug gangs are trying to do. And it's sewing much more fear among, you know, the media community that is covering the drug war on a day-to-day basis.

LYDEN: Well, thank you for briefing us on all of this.

O'BOYLE: My pleasure, Jacki.

LYDEN: We were speaking with reporter Michael O'Boyle in Mexico City.

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