Thousands Dead In Mexico Drug War
TONY COX, host:
I'm Tony Cox, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin is away.
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First, the death toll is at 28,000 and climbing in Mexico, killed directly or indirectly by the country's drug trafficking wars. One massacre last week left 72 migrants from South and Central America dead. And the investigator leading the probe into that massacre has gone missing, as well the mayors of two Mexican cities, Santiago and Hidalgo, were assassinated.
One bright spot for Mexican authorities, the arrest of La Barbie, whose real name is Edgar Valdez Villareal. He is a U.S.-born former Texan who police say rose to the tops of one of Mexico's most powerful and brutal drug cartels.
Ioan Grillo, who contributes to Time Magazine and other media outlets, is here with us to talk about La Barbie, the violence and the cartels. He's in Managua, Nicaragua working on a book about them. Also joining us is George Grayson. He authored a book called "Mexico: Narco-Violence and a Failed State?" And he teaches government at the College of William and Mary. Welcome to both of you.
Mr. IOAN GRILLO (Contributor, Time Magazine): Thank you.
COX: Ioan, let me begin with you. There have been other arrests, but apparently none as significant as that of the man known as La Barbie. How significant do you see his arrest?
Mr. GRILLO: Well, it is significant in that he was a powerful player. He was involved with distributing tons of cocaine and other drugs to the United States. He was a particularly violent player in this conflict. He's believed to be the person who first started the use of narco snuff videos in which he would kill rivals, often cutting their heads off or shooting them, film it, and broadcasted that video on the Internet.
He was a very, very violent player. And to have him off the street is obviously a big hope for people. The one problem that has confounded the Mexican government and one fundamental problem in this war is whenever you arrest one cap per one major drug trafficker, people simply fight to try and take their place.
COX: Professor Grayson, Mexican President Felipe Calderon said that he was going to clamp down on drug violence, but things have taken a turn for the worse. And Juarez and Cancun recently, Mexico City, even Acapulco, I believe, have seen drug-related violence.
You're just back from Mexico, what is it like for citizens there? Is there no place that is safe and is no one safe?
Professor GEORGE GRAYSON (Author, "Mexico: Narco-Violence and a Failed State?"): Tony, most of the country is safe. It just doesn't behoove you to go to, say, Ciudad, Juarez, which is really a failed city -late at night or certain areas of that particular municipality. There are areas such as the so-called the Golden Triangle, where Chihuahua, Sinaloa and Durango come together, which is a no-man's land. And there are no authorities - at least civil authorities - who can control that terrain.
COX: Ioan, the Associated Press reported that the Zetas cartel is one of the potentially most responsible for the recent killing of 58 men, 14 women about 100 miles from the U.S.-Mexican border. Let me ask you why a drug cartel such as that would go after 72 migrants from Central and South America where apparently most of the dead were from?
Mr. GRILLO: That massacre, which is indeed very, very sad, very tragic, 72 migrants and even one pregnant woman, and people not involved in drugs, people just traveling up to the United States to try and get jobs, try and live the American dream.
Now, that re-underlines one of the big problems in this whole conflict. The Zetas, as well as trafficking drugs, have used their power and the power they have by having so many armed men to extort and shake down everyone in their territory.
Now, they've seen all these Central American migrants passing through the east of Mexico where they're very strong. They decide they just want to shake them down over several years by doing these mass kidnappings. Now, you may think the poor migrants might not have that much money to give. But by holding these people, torturing them, phoning their families and getting maybe $1,000 from each one, they've made tens of millions of dollars.
And somewhere along these lines what's happening - when it turned from a mass kidnapping into a massacre.
COX: Professor Grayson, it's one thing for a cartel such as the Zetas to be involved in the crime that they have been involved with. But recently, we saw the arrest of several Mexican police officers who were working both sides of the street. What can you tell us about the impact of that?
Prof. GRAYSON: Tony, Mexico never in its history has had an honest police force. For 71 years, the PRI, the Institutional Revolutionary Party, governed Mexico in a rather authoritarian fashion. They created hundreds of police forces, but they also corrupted them, because the law enforcement agencies were designed to advance the economic and political goals of the regime. And so it's not that Calderon is attempting to reform a police establishment that's gone bad. It's that he's starting from scratch to create police who have a terrible reputation in Mexico.
COX: Now one of the issues internationally is how the United States and Mexico both are dealing with this. Now, Congress and the president recently worked together to add $600 million to border security details. The question is whether or not that's going to help or hurt on both sides of the border, particularly, Professor Grayson, as it relates to this issue of violent crime.
Prof. GRAYSON: Well, more and more Mexicans are trying to escape the dangerous situation, and they're attempting to make it across the border and it's far more difficult. But if the violence continues, I think there will be a stampede to try to get into the United States, and that's going to lead us to use not only the Border Patrol and the National Guard, but perhaps even regular military units there.
COX: Ioan, what do you think that the U.S. will be able to do to affect the violence in Mexico?
Mr. GRILLO: I think the Obama administration haven't really got a key idea or strategy about how to deal with this. They inherited the deal from the Bush administration of pumping $1.3 billion into Mexico's kind of military institutions and police institutions to try and crack down on this, and then expanded that a bit. And they give quite mixed signals. I mean, on one side, you see members of the administration saying there's a crisis. Mexico could be falling apart. Then you see other people, you know, you saw Hillary Clinton on her first visit to Mexico saying, no, there's no failed state in Mexico. This is not the crime wave that the U.S. had back in the 1980s and 1990s (unintelligible). So I think they're really struggling to have a clear strategy or understanding of what is happening in Mexico.
COX: Professor Grayson, I want to close the conversation with you. You made a point earlier about Mexico being safe, unless you went to certain areas. Now, you know, that in the resort town of Cancun, just a few days ago, we had eight people who were killed. True enough, they were not in the tourist area, per se - about five miles away from it, as I understand it. Is it your view that Americans should feel safe traveling into Mexico?
Prof. GRAYSON: I think you have to use common sense. And if you're going to a resort, don't delay your arrival, because the resorts have private security agencies, and the police are concerned about protecting resorts because they're so crucial in earning the foreign exchange that Mexico desperately needs.
COX: Professor George Grayson joined us from member station WHRO in Williamsburg, Virginia. His latest book is called "Mexico: Narco-Violence and a Failed State?" - ending with a question mark. He teaches government at the College of William and Mary.
We also spoke with freelance journalist Ioan Grillo, who joined us Nicaragua, where he is writing a book about Mexican drug cartels that will be published in 2011.
Gentlemen, thank you both.
Prof. GRAYSON: Thank you.
Mr. GRILLO: Thank you.
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