Mexico's Drug War On Both Sides Of The Border

More than 28,000 people have been killed in the violence since 2006, as drug cartels fight the government and each other. Some public officials in border regions are relocating to the U.S., and worries of spillover violence are growing. NPR Mexico City correspondent Jason Beaubien explains what's behind the violence.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

It's been four years since Mexican President Felipe Calderon promised to wipe out the drug cartels responsible for so much violence and corruption - cartels that operated as a law unto themselves. The cost of the conflict that followed includes some 28,000 dead, including mayors, governors-elect, prosecutors, police, soldiers, journalists. The killings and kidnappings continue. Most of the cartels continue to thrive, and they've spread into areas once considered relatively stable.

NPR Mexico City correspondent Jason Beaubien has been covering the drug war there for the past two years. He's here in Washington, D.C. at the moment, and joins us here in Studio 3A.

Thanks very much for coming in.

JASON BEAUBIEN: Neal, it's good to be here with you in person.

CONAN: If you have questions for Jason about what's happening in Mexico and why, give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org.

And, Jason, let me begin in the northern city of Monterey, which, in some respects, is booming, auto parts factories there rebounding this year after a dismal 2009. But, also, there is escalating violence.

BEAUBIEN: Absolutely. Monterey is a very interesting example of how this drug war is permeating out into other parts of Mexico. It's not just right on the border. Monterey's about two hours south of the border. This is a place that - it's the third-largest city in Monterey - in Mexico. It's also a place that most of the big, multinational companies that wanted to get out of Mexico City moved there and are headquartered there. Some of the biggest companies in Mexico are there. It's a place that's known to be quite safe. It's got the best university, sort of the Harvard of Mexico. Monterey Tech is there. But this year, the place has just been torn apart by violence. And there's been a fight between the Zetas and the Gulf Cartel for control of Monterey. And at times, the narcos just shut down the city entirely. They call...

CONAN: What do you mean shut down the city?

BEAUBIEN: They call them narcobloqueos. And what happens is they get upset about the army or the marines or the federal police doing a major arrest on one of their people. And they go into the streets, and they just start puling people out of their cars at gunpoint, take the vehicles, block the freeways, take tractor trailers, take buses, just shut down the entire city with these blockades. They can go all across the city. And this is happening fairly regularly.

And at the same time, you're also getting confrontations - heavily armed confrontations between these guys and the authorities. They're launching grenade attacks on federal courthouses, on prisons. There was - just a couple of weeks ago, just middle of a square at 10:30 at night - when a lot of kids actually go out normally at night, just outside of Monterey - a grenade exploded and injured 12 people, including quite a few children. You're getting a level of violence there that was just unheard of a year ago.

And even the Chamber of Commerce in Monterey has been desperately calling on authorities to do something about it, publicly. And despite throwing the federal police at it, despite trying to throw more military in there, things seem to be continuing to get worse. You're getting shootouts in the middle of the day.

Yeah, Monterey's an example of a city that should be sort of the best of Mexico. It's a place that was much more prosperous, a place where there's a lot of business, where the economy has rebounded quite rapidly from 2009. And yet they're really struggling with this violence problem.

CONAN: The government will point to Tijuana, just across the border from San Diego, and say, look. Things are getting better.

BEAUBIEN: And Calderon did exactly that just recently. And then just yesterday, they seized 105 tons of marijuana coming right through Tijuana, obviously heading for California. And Tijuana, actually, is interesting. It appears that things have settled down in terms of the violence. You're not getting as much blatant confrontations between the cartels. You're not getting as much blatant confrontations between authorities and drug cartel members. But, clearly, the drugs are still moving through there.

So it seems like you're getting more things to sort of smooth out, and you're just not getting the violence that you were getting before. But, clearly, as we can see from this hundred tons of marijuana that were seized yesterday, Tijuana remains a major shipping operation point for these cartels. Yeah.

CONAN: And Mexican presidents are elected for six years at a time.

BEAUBIEN: Correct. Yeah.

CONAN: And it seems like the four years since Felipe Calderon came into office, has been completely dominated by this one issue.

BEAUBIEN: Absolutely. And I think the I think he would even tell you that he would like that that was not necessarily the case. There are other things that he would like to be focusing on. But he initiated this fight immediately after coming into office, in what was a very contentious election. He won by a very thin margin. Some people accused him of starting this fight to, sort of, try to legitimize his presidency. That's, you know, an issue that's up for debate.

But he jumped into it. He's thrown tens of thousands of soldiers, tens of thousands of federal police at the problem. And by almost every indicator, things continue to get worse. I mean, if you look at the number of people killed in Juarez, right across from El Paso last year, it set a record at 2,600 people killed. There already 2,500 people killed this year. So the numbers are just continuing to rise there in what's you know, one of the most deadly cities in the world.

You look at the number of drugs that are getting seized, that continues to be incredibly high. You know, you look at the insecurity, it seems like more parts of the country seem to be more insecure. Tamaulipas, which also it's just above Monterrey, is sort of below south Texas, below Laredo, McAllen, Brownsville, that area - that's where they killed these 72 migrants earlier this summer. That part of the country really feels I find it frightening being there at times. And people don't go out at night. You get major shootouts. The press doesn't report anything about what's going on.

You know, I was up there just two weeks ago, and the Zetas actually have lookouts along the river. And they're just...

CONAN: The Rio Grande?

BEAUBIEN: Along the Rio Grande, on their side, making sure that no freelancers go and just sort of move people without paying Los Zetas off to...

CONAN: So the Mexican the American government can't patrol the border, but the Zetas do.

BEAUBIEN: Yes. Yeah. It's incredible. And the migrants are terrified of them. And the locals know that if you want to move migrants across or if you want to smuggle across here, you have to cut a deal with the Zetas in order to do this. And there's a sense, in that part of Mexico, particularly, that things are really under the control of the cartels. And when you start talking about failed state I don't believe at all that Mexico is a failed state. But there are parts of it which feel like they have failed and which feel like the government is completely not in control.

CONAN: Here's an email from Kevin: I'm an American citizen, who's been living in central Mexico for about 10 years with my Mexican wife. As the drug cartel violence escalated along the borders to levels touching on a low-level military insurgency, I have my company transfer me out of the country this year, to Canada, because the daily perception of threat to our safety in central Mexico was too great for comfort. One Mexican neighbor of mine experienced her brother being kidnapped and then killed after the ransom was paid.

And this is, of course - can happen in other places other than the border, but the borders really where it's worst.

BEAUBIEN: The border is where is at its worst. But it is interesting that the problems at the border are replicated elsewhere. And, you know, down if you look in Michoacan, which is in sort of southwestern Pacific side, you got a lot of problems there that are similar. Sinaloa has a lot of problems. It's not just the border where this is happening. And there are other parts of Mexico which are completely peaceful and safe.

CONAN: It's a big country, yeah.

BEAUBIEN: It's a big country and people go about their daily lives. That's another thing to remember. You know, life goes on there. But the insecurity and the structural problems which have allowed the cartels to function, seem to be able to be replicated almost anywhere. Because at times, things will be completely peaceful in, say, Tepic(ph). And then, all of a sudden, you're getting shootouts to the point where, last spring, they actually shutdown the schools early. It was like three weeks before school was going to end, they sent all the kids home. They said, we're just closing the schools because it's just too dangerous. People are too worried about their children. Here, we're not gonna (unintelligible) schools, you guys take them home. And so and that was a place that you don't hear about much. And, again, that is also on the Pacific Coast.

So it is something where a lot of people are just going about their daily lives, but also, this is something that's a Mexico problem. And it's a structural problem of these cartels have been able to set up shop and set up bases throughout the country.

CONAN: Jason Beaubien, NPR's Mexico City correspondent. 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. John(ph) is on the line from Virginia Beach.

JOHN (Caller): Yeah. Thanks for taking my call. Jason, I'm curious. There's been a little bit of press coverage recently, about Vicente Fox and Cardozo from Brazil, and I think a former Colombian president, the three of them together publishing a paper advocating some level of legalization to decriminalization as a solution. What's the perception of that proposal within Mexico?

BEAUBIEN: Yet certainly, in Mexico, it's clear that Vicente Fox has basically come out and said that this isn't working - he's the ex-president - and that Mexico should move towards some level of legalization, decriminalization. There's a lot of acceptance of that in Mexico. There's very much a sense that this problem is a U.S. problem, that the U.S. demand for drugs is causing the problem at the moment, because if the U.S. wasn't asking for this illegal product, you wouldn't have this illegal activity happening through Mexico, and you wouldn't have these levels of killings.

President Calderon, however, doesn't support this at all. He said he's willing to talk about it. So, at times, people have said, oh, he's on board. But he actually isn't. He said he's willing to talk about it. But whenever he's pushed on it, he actually says that he's not interested in decriminalization or legalization. And I think, quite rightly so, that if it's not legal in the U.S., it's not really going to solve the problem.

I'm just opening it up, and you're just going to have more - I think you'll just end up having more drug use and more problems - of social problems in Mexico, really, to eliminate the rents that these guys are able to charge because it's illegal. It needs to change in the U.S. for that to disappear, and that financial incentive to disappear. But yes, there's definitely this talk about it in Mexico.

CONAN: John?

JOHN: (technical difficulties) Thank you.

CONAN: Okay, John, thanks very much. Again, we're talking with Jason Beaubien. And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's see if we can go next to - this is Scott, and Scott's calling from West Palm Beach in Florida.

SCOTT (Caller): Yes, hi. Good afternoon. Just a comment. I'm a videographer, a journalist. And I go to Mexico fairly often, and I've been on Iraq also. I was more scared in Mexico than I was in Iraq, because I don't know who the bad guy is down there or who the bad guys are, I should say. I've been in Matamoros. I've been in Juarez. I've been in Tijuana. And it's a beautiful country, one of the prettiest places I've been to, but you don't know who to be as afraid of, so I'm afraid of everybody.

BEAUBIEN: No, it's absolutely true. I mean, there's nothing to me more scarier than pulling up to a roadblock in Mexico, because you don't know necessarily who it is until you get right up to the roadblock. It could be in the middle of the night. There's guys there with big weapons, and you're pulling up to a roadblock, and you just don't know what's going to happen next.

SCOTT: Right.

BEAUBIEN: Yeah, I completely agree with you. I - there are parts of -there are other parts that I feel completely safe in. But where you're talking about, up in Tamaulipas, Matamoros, that area, yeah, it's - I find it - yeah, it's really scary moving around there.

CONAN: What kind of precautions do you have you take?

BEAUBIEN: I just - I tried to not be moving at night in those types of places, to not be driving at night. I try to keep a very low profile. I try not to attract a lot of attention. And, you know, quite frankly, it is interesting from a journalistic perspective. I don't act as a journalist the way I would, necessarily, in the U.S.

When Rodolfo Torre Cantu, who was on the verge of becoming the governor of Tamaulipas, was assassinated - he was shot along with most of his campaign staff, and they were campaign vehicles. I think it was two or three Chevy Suburbans. It was a week before the election. He was clearly about to win this election. And I went to these press conferences right afterwards about it, and no one else is asking any questions about the investigation, about, you know, is anyone attempting to gather evidence. And I realized, I'm not going to either.

You know what, it was clear that there were people in the room who were - the press looked so cowed that I realized, well, I also don't want to be the guy to be sticking my neck out here at the moment, because you feel completely unsafe. There's nowhere to turn there, if you get into trouble. You can't necessarily trust the police. It's a very yeah, it feels scary, and some of those other reporters were basically telling me that they have been - there's actually a press secretary for the Zetas there in Tamaulipas, and all the press know who he is. And if they step over the line, this guy comes and whips them back into shape, sometimes, you know, physically.

CONAN: Scott, thanks very much for the call.

SCOTT: All right.

CONAN: Let's see if we can go next to - this is Alex(ph), Alex calling from Ann Arbor.

ALEX (Caller): Hi, I'm a Mexican citizen from the city of Tampico, Tamaulipas. And I was just calling to see what the U.S. role should be in helping in Mexico combat the drug traffickers.

BEAUBIEN: It's an interesting - I mean, it's an interesting question. And certainly, there's the Merida Initiative, which is a government to -from the U.S. and Mexico to pour millions and millions of dollars in there for training for judges, training for police, trying to professionalize the police. And that is happening. That is actually happening. They're helping also with some computer programs to help do better, you know, searches and keep better track of criminals and, you know, and things like that.

But the big issue is that Americans want these drugs. And, you know, if Americans really want to stop what's happening in Mexico, you know, the simple answer is, you know, America needs to stop demanding these illicit drugs that are coming through Mexico, and the U.S. needs to do more to stop the flow of weapons south into Mexico. 'Cause it's also clear that most of the weapons that these cartels are using are coming from U.S. gun shops.

CONAN: And just a few seconds left - and Alex, thanks for the call -this is an issue of sovereignty, to some degree, for the Mexican government.

BEAUBIEN: It is. I mean, certainly they do not want, at all, to see U.S., you know, DEA agents flooding in or, you know, other officials from the U.S. flooding in. And they have definitely said that they want to deal with this issue on their own, and that's what they have been attempting to do.

CONAN: Jason Beaubien, our Mexico City correspondent, will be returning there shortly to resume his coverage of, among other things, the long-running war between the Mexican government and the drug cartels. And he was kind enough to join us here in Studio 3A. Good luck to you, Jason. Thanks very much.

BEAUBIEN: Thank you.

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