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STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

All this week we've been exploring what seems like a nightmare world. It's the drug war in Mexico. Even the tourist spots have been affected and there's a booming business in armored cars. Since Mexico's president started a crackdown, close to 30,000 people have been killed. Today NPR's Jason Beaubien concludes our series by asking how we got here. Much of the story involves the political party that ruled Mexico for decades.

JASON BEAUBIEN: The Institutional Revolutionary Party, or the PRI, as it's known in Spanish, ruled Mexico for most of the 20th century. After seven decades in power, the party finally lost the presidency in the year 2000. Mexican journalist Diego Enrique Osorño, who wrote a history of the Sinaloa Cartel, says that in the 1960s, '70s and '80s, organized crime was intertwined with the government.

DIEGO ENRIQUE OSORNO: (Spanish spoken)

BEAUBIEN: In this period you have to remember that the PRI had control of everything, Osorño says. The PRI controlled the press, the oil fields, politics, and even the narcotics trade. Osorño obtained the memoirs of Miguel Felix Gallardo, the founder of the Guadalajara cartel.

ENRIQUE OSORNO: (Spanish spoken)

BEAUBIEN: Gallardo viewed himself as essentially a soldier of the PRI, Osorño says. He worked for the system to maintain order. Back then the PRI had a monopoly on power. George Grayson, a professor at the College of William and Mary, says the PRI covertly cut deals with the criminals to allow a particular trafficker to operate in a particular part of Mexico.

GEORGE GRAYSON: The capos would pay bribes to local, state and federal officials. In return, the government would turn a blind eye to their activities.

BEAUBIEN: But Mexican drug gangs under the PRI had to follow strict rules. They were supposed to act discreetly, spurn kidnapping, avoid killing civilians and not encroach on another cartel's turf.

GRAYSON: If the cartels broke the rules, the PRI had the capacity to come down on them like a ton of bricks.

BEAUBIEN: One of the major narcotics traffickers at the time was Pablo Acosta. In the mid-'80s, Acosta controlled smuggling along a swath of the Texas border South of El Paso. Terrence Poppa, a reporter at the El Paso Herald Post, started writing a biography of Acosta to try to explain how the Mexican drug trafficking business worked. Poppa says what he discovered shocked him.

TERRENCE POPPA: There was an organized type of protection that ran all the way to Mexico City and involved the top layers of government, including the president of Mexico.

Poppa found that the Chihuahua governor's office had sold Pablo Acosta the right to control drug smuggling around the Big Bend area of Texas. Each month, Acosta paid the local police, military and particular PRI officials a cut of his profits. Those PRI officials in turn sent money each month to their bosses further up the governmental hierarchy.

POPPA: It was, you know, a protection set-up. And this is what Pablo Acosta benefited from. And that was how he was able to operate, and all other traffickers in Mexico. It was like a universal system.

BEAUBIEN: With so many people in government getting bribes, there was little incentive to crack down on the narcotics trade. Poppa says the PRI's kickback system even encouraged the cartels to expand. The cartels ramped up their arms smuggling networks, they diversified into legitimate businesses to launder their profits, they recruited Special Forces soldiers to be their muscle. Then the PRI lost the presidency in 2000 to the PAN, and Mexico was left with a monster it couldn't control.

POPPA: The PRI gave an enormous amount of space to organized crime to flourish, an enormous amount of space.

BEAUBIEN: Now, as the government under President Felipe Calderon tries to reclaim that space from the cartels, organized crime is fighting back with heavy weapons, grenades and even car bombs. Calderon's offensive against the cartels has destabilized significant parts of the country, scared away foreign investment, and left thousands dead. Some of the corrupt structures established under the PRI still exist.

Elsewhere protection networks have crumbled, causing chaos. In the Mexican Congress there have been calls for the country to give up the drug war entirely and legalize all narcotics. Poppa, who's watched the Mexican drug trade for decades, says he now agrees with those calling for the decriminalization of drugs in the US. It would be a way to eliminate, he says, the huge profits garnered by the brutal drug cartels.

POPPA: In my view the best reason for ending drug prohibition is to save Mexico, to save the democracy of Mexico that the Mexican people have struggled so hard to gain.

BEAUBIEN: Denise Dresser, a political scientist in Mexico City, says one of the effects of the unrelenting drug violence has been a resurgence in popularity for the PRI.

DENISE DRESSER: It's as if the Communist Party were resurgent in Russia. We're witnessing in many ways the return of an authoritarian party that governed Mexico for 71 years.

BEAUBIEN: The PRI is promising that it can manage the cartels far better than President Felipe Calderon. The drug war has dominated Calderon's term in office. Most of his other initiatives have faltered and despite Calderon's declarations to the contrary, there are few signs that he's winning.

Whoever wins the 2012 elections is expected to take a new approach towards the cartels. Many voters may even hope for a return to the days when the PRI let organized crime run drugs unfettered up to the US border but kept the violence off the streets.

Jason Beaubien, NPR News, Mexico City.

INSKEEP: Jason's weeklong series and an interactive map of Mexico's drug cartels is at our website, npr.org.

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