Border Drug Wars Plague Cities in Mexico and U.S.

Drug cartels have made Juarez the deadliest city in Mexico. But they also operate just across the border, in El Paso, Texas — one of the safest cities in the U.S. NPR's Jason Beaubien speaks with host Andrea Seabrook about efforts to stop the violence.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

ANDREA SEABROOK, host:

From NPR News, it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Andrea Seabrook.

As Mexico's government pushes forward with its war against the nation's drug cartels, the place that's seen the greatest conflict is right across the U.S. border from El Paso. Ciudad Juarez has become the deadliest city in Mexico. There have already been a record number of murders in Juarez this year. This has some people on the U.S. side concerned that the violence could spill over into the streets of El Paso.

NPR's Jason Beaubien reports.

JASON BEAUBIEN: More than 500 people have been killed in Juarez since January. As two of Mexico's most powerful drug cartels, battle for control of this lucrative smuggling corridor. President Felipe Calderon has sent in thousands of soldiers and hundreds of federal police to try to stem the violence. But since the arrival of the extra security forces, things have only gotten worse.

In addition to the murders, nightclubs and restaurants are being burned down, kidnappings for ransom are on the rise, and the local police force is in shambles. Meanwhile, on the other side of the Rio Grande, El Paso is one of the safest cities in America. In all of 2007, El Paso recorded 17 homicides. Juarez can rack up that many murders in a single day.

Mr. GREG ALLEN (El Paso Police Chief): We haven't seen any spillage of violence over into the El Paso area directly.

BEAUBIEN: Greg Allen is the police chief in El Paso. He says the huge spike in drug-related killings in Juarez is a concern, but he thinks it'll be contained on the Mexican side. Since the beginning of the year he says there have been three incidents in which people injured in gun battles in Juarez have ended up in El Paso for medical treatment.

This forced the hospitals to go into lockdown modes. One of the shootings was of a Mexican police commander.

Mr. ALLEN: Immigration and Customs Enforcement brought him over and then we were all obligated to contribute to his security there for the safety of everyone involved.

BEAUBIEN: Chief Allen and other security analysts say that the problem in Juarez is that a culture of corruption in the local police force has caused a breakdown in the rule of law. Organized criminals have been able to establish major smuggling operations. And the Juarez police department, even according to its own top officials, is in no position to confront the drug gangs.

At his nightclub in Ciudad Juarez, Francisco Aguirre(ph) is fed up with what he calls the state of ungovernability. He's put his nightclub called Desesperados up for sale. Business at clubs such as his is down significantly. No one's been interested in buying him out, but he says if security doesn't improve soon, he'll walk away from his business and move to El Paso.

Mr. FRANCISCO AGUIRRE (Club Owner): (Spanish spoken)

BEAUBIEN: I'm not afraid, Aguirre says. I'm terrified. This is terror. Here in Juarez, it's very sad. We've lost the capacity to be amazed. We go out in the street and see the devil every day and it doesn't surprise us. Local newspapers each day run photos and stories of people gunned down, chopped up, dumped in ditches and trunks of cars.

Some days the death toll is only one or two. Sometimes it's 10, 15, even 18 murders. If the federal government cracks down on drug smuggling, the cartels have ramped up extortion rackets and other scams. Last week local media on both sides of the border reported that a relative of U.S. Congressman Sylvester Reyes was kidnapped in Juarez.

She was released after American law enforcement agencies intervened. There are no exact figures, but Aguirre guesses that thousands of Juarez residents have moved across the border this year to Texas. Some seeking permanent residency, some moving illegally.

Mr. AGUIRRE: (Spanish spoken)

BEAUBIEN: Ciudad Juarez has been very good to me, Aguirre says, referring to the business he's built up. And the idea of selling and having to leave the city that's given me so much is very difficult. The situation's difficult for me, for my workers, for my family, and for the people of Juarez.

Professor TONY PAYAN (University of Texas at El Paso): One of the problems in Mexico is that we have a partially failed state.

BEAUBIEN: Tony Payan at the University of Texas at El Paso says for years, law enforcement in Mexico at all levels has been unwilling or unable to seriously challenge organized crime.

Prof. PAYAN: We talk about failed states as if they were in Somalia, Haiti, or even Iraq. I think right across the border there is a semi-failed state.

BEAUBIEN: U.S. Drug Enforcement officials acknowledge that the same Mexican narcotics gangs that are shooting each other with AK-47s in the streets of Juarez also operate in El Paso and many other American cities. But they do it with a lower profile. Payan says the Mexican cartel members in El Paso are still violent.

Prof. PAYAN: But usually what happens here, even in El Paso, is that they get taken to Juarez because they know that if they kidnap somebody in El Paso and they kill them and dispose of them in El Paso, then there will be panic and the state - the force of the state will come down. So what they do is they take the violence across the border where the state is weak.

BEAUBIEN: According to Payan and U.S. law enforcement officials, this practice has historically kept the violence from washing over into El Paso. But the killing spree that's rocking Juarez right now is unlike any in the city's history. Ciudad Juarez is on track to have three times more murders in 2008 than it's ever had before. And the big question is whether such a huge surge in violence can be held back on the Mexican side of the border.

Jason Beaubien, NPR News.

SEABROOK: Jason, just hold on the line there for a second. I have a question about the bigger picture here in this war between the drug cartels and the Mexican government. This crackdown, it does not seem to be going well.

BEAUBIEN: It's not going well. This certainly has been a bloody endeavor by the federal government to attempt to rein in the drug cartels here. You've got police officers all over the country being mowed down. I mean, there's more than 450 officers so far in the last year and a half that have been killed, that includes the very top federal police officer who was killed inside his apartment after he'd been dropped off by his bodyguards in Mexico City.

Last week another top commander with the federal police was also gunned down in Mexico City. This is really an all out war between the federal government and the cartels and then you've also got the cartels fighting each other. It's really getting messy.

SEABROOK: I read that the president of Mexico, Felipe Calderon, has taken some criticism about his inability or the police's inability to freeze the funds of these drug cartel heads. Leaving them, you know, with guns and money and in this bloody war with the police.

BEAUBIEN: That's true. He has come under fire for that, but at the same time, I'm hearing from both U.S. and Mexican law enforcement officials that the cartels have switched the way that they operate. And they've started to move most of their proceeds back into Mexico in cash which is a logistical problem for them and that they've got to move, at times, semi trucks loaded with cash in them.

And just like they're smuggling the cocaine and the marijuana across, now they have to smuggle the U.S. dollars back into Mexico. But it makes it very difficult for the government to crack down on it. Because when things are moving in cash, they're sort of moving just backwards through the pipeline that the drugs are moving in. And you can't just crack down at the banks in Mexico City and be able to cut off their supply of money.

SEABROOK: NPR's Jason Beaubien, our Mexico correspondent. Thanks very much, Jason.

BEAUBIEN: You're welcome.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Related NPR Stories

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.