Mexico Elections Could Shift Drug War
MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.
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But first, while America celebrates its independence this weekend, a significant political shift may be in the works south of the border. Sunday's vote and nearly half of Mexico states will likely serve as an unofficial referendum on President Felipe Calderon and his response to the drug violence that's gripping the country and U.S. border states as well.
That violence is not only a campaign issue, it is affecting the campaign. On Monday, gunmen killed a front-running candidate for governor in a Mexican state that borders Texas. We wanted to know more about the elections which could have a significant impact on the drug war and relations with the U.S., so we've called in Mexico City, Ioan Grillo. He's been writing about the drug cartels and violence in Mexico for TIME magazine.
And also here with me in our Washington, D.C. studio is Jesus Esquivel, the Washington correspondent for Processo. That's a political magazine in Mexico, and I welcome you both and thank you for joining us.
Mr. JESUS ESQUIVEL (Washington Correspondent, Processo): Thank you for the invitation.
Mr. IOAN GRILLO (Reporter, TIME Magazine): Thank you.
MARTIN: Jesus, I'll start with you. In this country, if a gubernatorial candidate were to be assassinated days before the election, it would be a major political crisis. And I wanted to ask you, and I hope it doesn't sound like a ridiculous question, is this what effect is this having in Mexico?
Mr. ESQUIVEL: Well, there is a political crisis in Mexico - the assassination of Rodolfo Torre Cantu. But it's probably the PRI is taking advantage of that, trying to criticize the war on drugs that President Felipe Calderon has carried on for more than three-and-a-half years.
And the problem right now is, politically, nobody feels that the elections are going to be secure in terms of will we know the hands of narco-traffickers in some states? There are also rumors that some candidates already cut the deals with narco-traffickers. So it's a big political crisis, a big political security problem in Mexico right now.
MARTIN: Are voters themselves as risk as they have been in some places, like, I mean, the comparison is made to Iraq, or is it mainly candidates?
Mr. ESQUIVEL: I think depends where. In the northern border of Mexico, probably we are going to see some kind of violence. I hope not, but the voters are so afraid of the security situation everywhere in the country. The narco-traffickers are killing civilians, are killing politicians, are killing each other. So there is no guarantee that everything is going to be safe on Sunday.
MARTIN: Ioan, you've been reporting on this. You reported on the murder of the PRI or pre-candidate Rodolfo Torre, what is being said about this? Is there any sense of the motive? Is there any sense of who did this?
Mr. GRILLO: Well, yes, there is some sense. But going back to, first, is to exactly what you asked Jesus. I mean, it's a very interesting point. You say it is a crisis in this country. If this was in the United States, I mean, people would be going absolutely crazy if they killed the leading favorite candidate on the eve of the election.
Now, it's very interesting what the response in Mexico has been. I mean, the nature of this murder was quite incredible. He was leaving the state's capital to go to the airport. Fifteen men dressed in military uniform stopped him at a checkpoint and then opened fire on him, killing him and four other campaign aides.
Now, in the days following this, we haven't really seen, I mean, most places in the United States or in Europe or in many other countries in Latin America, you would have them now at this stage say, here's where the investigation is going, we're catching these guys. But so far, we've really seen very little progress in the investigation.
Now they have said some military people have said, but only off the record, this has all the marks of the very violent drug gang, the Zetas, who are a very extremely ruthless gang of former military operatives who have been set up in northern Mexico. And they're the ones that are pointing their finger out for the murder.
MARTIN: And what would be their motive? What would they gain from this? What's their objective?
Mr. GRILLO: Well, the Zetas were first formed as a gang to work as enforcers to enforce the tracking organization of the Gulf cartel. Now, in recent years, these guys have spread all over the country like a virus. They've come everywhere and specialized in extortions, in kidnappings. And a lot of police forces and even other gangsters have started to see the Zetas as a real threat, as a real problem, as the real bad guys in the movie.
Now, in recent months, there's been a real effort to exterminate the Zetas by the military, the police and by the gangsters. And you've seen actions like in a prison in Mazatlan, Sinaloa where 28 Zeta prisoners were killed with automatic weapons inside the prison. They think the authorities might have been complicit in that killing.
And the Zetas are feeling very desperate, so they're lashing back against the establishment. And the PRI control the establishment in Tamaulipas, the state where he was killed. They're thinking, okay, how do we hit back and send a message to the establishment. You can't attack us. This is how we do it. We kill the gubernatorial candidate.
MARTIN: Now, you know, I have to ask you, though, about the PRI. Jesus made the point that, you know, the PRI is obviously that Rodolfo Torre was a candidate for the PRI, the P-R-I, which ruled Mexico for more than 70 years. The next presidential election is in 2012. You know, there are those who make the argument that the and I know that it may sound offensive to those who believe in democracy, but there are those who do make the argument that the loss of the PRI as a ruling force, created this power vacuum that has, in part, led to this explosion of violence. And I'm going to ask each of you. Jesus, I'll ask you to start. Is that a credible theory?
Mr. ESQUIVEL: Well, in some parts it is. There are some D.A. officials who really believe that during those years under the PRI government, narco-traffickers were having deals with the government in terms to control security and to let them work freely. And since President Calderon took the Mexican military force to the streets to combat the narco-traffickers, we see the violence. And I really believe President Calderon had used the control of this strategy to combat the narco-traffickers.
That's the big question is if the PRI get back to the presence of Mexico, we are going to see low-level violence. That will mean the new government will make deals with narco-traffickers. That's a big question for everyone in Mexico. So far, I really understand as such. Mexican citizens, I really believe there are many people in my country who really wants the new government to make deals with the narco-traffickers.
MARTIN: That they do want them to make deals.
Mr. ESQUIVEL: They do want. I mean, if the...
MARTIN: Because they want peace.
Mr. ESQUIVEL: They want peace. I mean, there's a lot of violence everywhere in Mexico and probably have you seen the pictures of how the Zetas or these narco-traffickers are killing people. They are gross, gross murders.
MARTIN: Ioan, do you is this being seen as a referendum in part on Felipe Calderon's performance? And if so, what is your sense of how voters are reacting to this?
Mr. GRILLO: Well, I think it generated a lot of dissatisfaction with the Calderon policy. And certainly there's a lot of move back to the P-R-I, to the PRI. From the point you were saying, the central point, now, is this in some ways the product of the move of Mexico from this one-party rule. The PRI was in power from 1929 to 2000, to this multiparty (unintelligible). I think that it totally is. I think that's the nail on the head, and I think a lot of the serious academics are recognizing that.
Obviously it's not saying to say that this case is not saying, well, democracy is a bad thing. But we have to recognize that under the PRI during 71 years, it managed to keep the country more or less under control, through electoral fixing, often through very authoritarian leadership. It managed to keep the country under control.
And then this multiparty democracy has been very dysfunctional. You've got different power bases around the country. You've got different ex-state forces, military guys, police guys, secret service guys working for the cartel, and a lot of confusion. That's a very similar situation to what happened in the Soviet Union.
The Soviet Union was a very powerful establishment. When it stopped immediately, a lot of the former KGB guys started working for the gangsters, becoming gangsters. A lot of former Soviet military guys started working with gangsters. And that's a, you know, it's a real case here, and we have to try and address that concern.
MARTIN: You're saying that electoral observers say that the intimidation, the combination of the fear of violence and the corruption mainly to the courts deciding the results of up to half of the races. How does that work?
Mr. GRILLO: Well, that's correct. I mean, more and more in Mexico, and again, it's another real problem with the Mexican democratic experiment. Since Mexico was - they've got 71 years where elections were fixed by the PRI, we started this multiparty democracy. And the first big presidential election after the change, in 2006, when you had the first democratically-elected president against another contender, he accused him of fraud and said the whole election was a fraud. That ended up being decided by the court.
Now, since then, more and more cases where people had don't trust the system, don't trust the electoral system and they're sending it to the court. Now, when you've got cases like this where you have a gubernatorial candidate killed, also in Tamaulipas state, we've seen a mayoral candidate murdered in the town of Valle Hermoso. We've also seen another mayoral candidate who fled her home after it was torched. People close to her were killed.
Now, in that kind of situation, you know, armed groups moving around the state, I mean, we've seen incredible things in Tamaulipas this year. We've seen hundreds of people killed, battles raging during the day, heavy weapons used, how serious an election be and if somebody loses an election in those kind of conditions, the first thing they're going to go is this election wasn't fair. My candidates were intimidated, let the court decide this.
So the courts have to look through these papers and really decide, you know, are elections fair, or can they overrule the result of elections and bring them back to more and more the decision of putting these people in power goes to the electoral tribunals.
MARTIN: And, Jesus, we only have about a minute left. How is Washington likely to respond to this? You're here reporting on both capitals.
Mr. ESQUIVEL: Well, they condemned the assassination, obviously, but I think they are really afraid to say more because the (unintelligible) for the consumption of drugs in the United States. So the government of President Barack Obama is just saying that we have to continue to support President Felipe Calderon's strategy to combat the narco-traffickers. And we are ready to do whatever we can to help Mexico to get peace again.
MARTIN: Well, keep us posted, if you would. Jesus Esquivel is the Washington correspondent for Processo, that's a political magazine published in Mexico. From Mexico City we heard from Ioan Grillo. He covers the drug violence and politics in Mexico City writing for Time magazine. And if you want to read his coverage we'll have links on our site. Gentlemen, thank you both so much for speaking with us.
Mr. ESQUIVEL: Thank you, Michel.
Mr. GRILLO: Thank you.
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