An Entire Village Flees Mexican Drug Violence

The devastating drug wars ravaging Mexico have escalated to a new and disturbing level. Violence between rival cartels has forced the population of an entire town to flee for their lives, a refugee movement unseen in the country since the Mexican Revolution. Host Liane Hansen speaks with NPR's John Burnett about a Mexican border town where nearly all of the residents have fled in the wake of drug cartel violence.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

The devastating drug wars ravaging Mexico have escalated to a new and disturbing level. Violence between rival cartels has forced the population of an entire town to flee for their lives, a refugee movement unseen in the country since the Mexican Revolution.

NPR's John Burnett joins us from Miguel Aleman, a town on Mexico's border with Texas. And, John, what are we talking about? Where did these refugees come from? Why did they flee their town?

JOHN BURNETT: There's a little town west of here, Liane. It's called Ciuadad Mier, M-I-E-R. It's a city of about 6500, right across from south Texas, and there's only about 500 people left. There's no police there. There's no city government. There are very few businesses open, maybe one store. The schools are almost empty. And it's because of these two groups - organized crime groups. In this case, the Zetas and the Gulf cartels that are fighting for domination of the city. And they've absolutely terrorized the residents to such an extent that they have completely fled.

And I am sitting in front of a Lions Club in the nearby town of Miguel Aleman, where about 400 of them have come for refuge.

HANSEN: Can you describe that scene for us, John, at the Lions Club?

BURNETT: I mean, you know, Ive covered lots of natural disasters all over the United States and Latin America, and it's as though they were fleeing a flood or a tornado. There are all these people staying in this shelter. They're sleeping on donated mattresses. They're eating donated food. And they're just sitting there forlornly waiting for peace to return to their town.

The Mexican army, they tell me, has not been able to bring any security to Ciuadad Mier that they left. And so they're just sitting and waiting to see when they can go back home.

The narcos have burned buildings. They've hung limbless corpses in the central plaza. Theyve burned all the police cars. It's an extraordinarily frightening situation.

HANSEN: And you said the Mexican army is not able to provide security. Can the Mexican government do anything about this?

BURNETT: No. I mean, this city is pleading for help from the federal government so that they can put down these two drug mafias and allow people to live safely in their own city. And that's absolutely not happening. The narcos own the town and they do what they want to at will with utter impunity. And right now, people have all had to flee for their lives because of it.

HANSEN: You know, many Mexican citizens and officials are pointing a finger at the U.S. as the source of arms for these conflicts. Do you think that's an accurate accusation?

BURNETT: Mexico has been screaming about the flow of weapons from the U.S. to the drug cartels for about five years now. And they claim correctly that the Mexican organized crime is armed by arms sellers, largely from the United States, largely from the border states. And, in fact, Houston is sort of a number one gun market for the cartels. And so they've been clamoring for the U.S. to do something about this, to cut down on this flow of illegal weapons going south.

HANSEN: It may be coincidence, but there was a review last week of the U.S. program to stop the movement of guns across the border. What was in that report?

BURNETT: It was a very tough review of what's called Project Gunrunner. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives has been, in the last five years, trying to choke this flow of weapons from the border states into Mexico. And it's called Project Gunrunner, and the inspector general of the Justice Department took a hard look at it and was very critical. And he said we found significant weaknesses in ATF's implementation of Project Gunrunner.

He said ATF agents don't systematically exchange intelligence with either their U.S. partner agencies, like the DEA and Immigrations and Customs Enforcement. And they don't share intel with their Mexican counterparts.

But to be fair, they also flawed the very permissive gun laws in the U.S., the lack of reporting requirement for multiple sales of rifles. So that anybody can go into a gun store in the U.S. and buy a number of rifles, and there's no reporting requirements and there's no way to trace those. And long rifles are the weapons of choice by the cartels.

HANSEN: Any chance this report will make any difference?

BURNETT: Well, the ATF has responded and said they are going to try to improve the failings of this program. So we'll see.

HANSEN: NPR's John Burnett in Miguel Aleman, a border town in Mexico. John, thank you very much.

BURNETT: Thanks, Liane.

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