Covering Mexico's Brutal War; A Journalist's Report

Almost four years ago, the Mexican government began its war on the country's drug cartels. The brutal conflict has since claimed tens of thousands of lives. Host Liane Hansen talks to NPR's Mexico City correspondent Jason Beaubien about the consequences of Mexico's ongoing war and his experiences reporting on the conflict.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

Almost four years ago, the Mexican government began its war on the country's drug cartels. The Mexican drug war, as we've reported, has been a brutal conflict that has claimed tens of thousands of lives.

NPR's Mexico City correspondent Jason Beaubien has been covering the story. But he's visiting Washington, D.C. and is in our studio.

It's so Good to see you, Jason.

JASON BEAUBIEN: It's good to be here with you in person.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HANSEN: Finally, yes.

BEAUBIEN: Finally.

HANSEN: We finally meet. When all of this started back in 2006, what was the Mexican government's vision? What were they trying to accomplish?

BEAUBIEN: President Calderon basically said his vision was to wipe out these drug cartels that are operating in Mexico, and have been operating for decades in Mexico. Many people don't believe that he really believed he could completely wipe them out. But that was what the stated goal was, that these criminal organizations have become too large, too powerful, and it's time for Mexico to break their backs.

HANSEN: That's pretty ambitious. Is Mexico making any progress, then, in this war?

BEAUBIEN: What is really so sad, looking at it at this point, is that it doesn't appear that Mexico is really making significant progress in this battle against what are now some of the most powerful criminal organizations on the planet. And if you look at this drug war from the number of deaths - the number of drug-related killings continues to rise.

You look in Juarez, right across from El Paso, 2009 was a terrible year for them. They became sort of the murder capital of the world. Well, this year is even worse. This year, the number of killings is going to be even higher. I mean, just last week in Tijuana, you had 105 tons of marijuana seized in a huge drug bust there. So clearly, the drugs are still flowing.

And also, if you look at the instability across the country, more parts are feeling less stable because of the violence between these cartels and between the forces, as they try to take them on. And I think if you go talk to most Mexicans, they will feel like this has not turned a corner. It just continues to get worse.

HANSEN: Just to be clear, is it just marijuana we're talking about?

BEAUBIEN: No. The drug cartels are involved in marijuana. It's a huge part of their revenue stream. But also, they are now the primary movers of Colombian cocaine - not just into the U.S., but around the world. The Mexican cartels have really that taken over. They also do methamphetamines, heroin. But cocaine and marijuana are their two main sources of revenue.

HANSEN: And what are the social, economic implications?

BEAUBIEN: Well, in terms of - the social implications is this sense of less security. People feeling more insecure. The drug cartels are also involved in kidnapping and extortion. That has been on the rise.

Economically, it's kind of hard to gauge exactly what the lost opportunities are here. But as the U.S. and as the Mexican economy come out of this global economic downturn, recession, there are huge opportunities for companies to be moving into Mexico, to be expanding their operations in Mexico.

Mexico has actually rebounded quite fast from this downturn. But it probably would have been even more if companies had felt comfortable going in, expanding their operations, particularly international companies and particularly companies from the U.S.

HANSEN: And what role does the U.S. play in all of this?

BEAUBIEN: From a Mexican perspective, Mexico views this as a U.S.-driven problem - that is, the U.S. demand for drugs that is causing this entire problem.

HANSEN: Hmm. But has the Mexican government asked the United States to change any of its policies to help them in the war with the cartels?

BEAUBIEN: They constantly are asking that the U.S. does more to stop the flow of money, because it's cash, for the most part, that's flowing from the U.S. in, in terms of the revenues - billions of dollars a year, we're talking about -and in terms of the weapons. Most of the weapons are coming from the U.S., as well. They're bought up in gun shops in small parcels. And Mexico would like to see the U.S. crack down even more on those two things.

HANSEN: On a personal note, how difficult is it to cover a conflict such as this, where mayors and police officers and even journalists are regularly targeted and killed by these drug gangs?

BEAUBIEN: It is difficult. And for the very first time in my career, there are times when I just simply say I am not going to touch that. There was a time when there were some allegations that El Chapo Guzman, the leader of the Sinaloan cartel, was living in this particular village. And a bishop in that area - I think he was a bishop. He was - some clergyman said he's living in this town.

And I thought, wow, you know, let's go see that town. That could be interesting. This is supposedly the premier criminal in Mexico. And the next day, several army investigators who had gone to the town had been beheaded. And I was, no, you know, I'm not going to do that story.

I'm just not going to do it. And it's easier for me because I can, as a foreign correspondent, you can go in, do a story. The local reporters really are under incredible pressure from the cartels. The cartels make it very clear to them what they can report, what they can't report.

You know, I've talked to reporters who have been threatened. I've talked to reporters who have been beaten. Nobody that I know has been killed, but reporters have been killed on a regular basis. And the cartels are very serious. They don't warn people twice. They make it very clear: If we warn you this is what you're going to do, this is what you do.

And it's having impacts in terms of even just what the society knows about what's going on in their own communities, because people are terrified of these criminal organizations.

HANSEN: NPR's Mexico City correspondent, Jason Beaubien. Thanks. It's nice to see you.

BEAUBIEN: It's good to be here.

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