Mayhem In Mexico: Official Struggle To Curb Violence
MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin and this is Tell Me More from NPR news. In a few minutes we'll hear about a new television documentary series that focuses on cold case murders from the civil rights era. We'll talk to the filmmaker and to a woman who hopes to get justice for her father who was murdered half a century ago.
But first, we're going to continue our international briefing. We're going to Mexico where violence from the country's drug war seems to be becoming an epidemic. Just this past Monday, the bodies of 12 people were found in the vacant lot next to an elementary school in Tijuana. And last week, grenades were launched into a crowd of people celebrating Independence Day, killing eight. In the two years since he was elected, President Felipe Calderon has used the army and federal police to fight narcotics traffickers who use Mexico as a way station, shipping drugs from South America to the U.S. But more and more innocent bystanders seem to be becoming casualties.
In an effort to stem the violence, this week President Calderon sent a sweeping security initiative to Congress aimed at weeding out police corruption and improving cooperation between Federal and local governments. Joining us to talk about all this is Malcolm Beith. He's the Mexico section editor of The News. It's an English language daily newspaper in Mexico. Welcome, thanks so much for speaking with us.
Mr. MALCOLM BEITH (Mexico Section Editor, The News): Thank you very much, Michel.
MARTIN: And Malcolm, it seems that, you know, we've been talking about violence in Mexico for some time now. How is what's happening now different from what we've seen in the past?
Mr. BEITH: Crimes in certain cities like Mexico City, among them crimes like kidnapping, hit their height in the '90s and then, you know, the rate fell. What we're seeing now is drug cartel on drug cartel violence. With the army, with the use of the army when the president deployed the troops - and this is, you know, effectively about 40,000 troops by now. At first, there was, you know, a few thousand. He tried to break up these cartels who have their smuggling networks and their production networks. What is happening now is they're fighting each other for control of territory, and as well as fighting the army, obviously. And so what we're seeing is just the daily level of violence around the country. Every day you read, you know, 12 bodies found in Tijuana. To be quite honest, our reaction here in the newsroom, for instance, was, oh, another 12. That day, actually, there were 45, I think it's 45 people killed around the country, and that's the daily headlines.
That how it's changed. I mean, it used to be, you know, one person killed in drug-related violence, police find a body. Now it's daily. You know, sometimes hourly. And it's located in certain cities, which are basically hotbeds of cartel activity.
MARTIN: It does seem, though, that the impression you get, though, was in the past, the targets were people who had some connection to the specific activity. Either they were involved in the drug trade or they were trying to send a message to law enforcement to back off. But this seems different. Am I right about that? It seems to me that there seems to be less regard for people actually being involved, there seem to be less regard for innocents?
Mr. BEITH: Put it this way. It does seem the way of late, especially after the September 15th attack in Morella, which is the president's hometown, actually. And that was a clear message to him and to the authorities. I mean, eight innocent people were killed. There was - two grenades were thrown into a crowd. Obviously, innocent people were going to be killed. But by and large it still people allegedly connected with organized crime.
The media estimates in (unintelligible), one of the top newspapers here, does a daily count across the country, and more than 3,000 people have been killed by their count. Now they just released on Tuesday that more than 150 people - innocent people have been killed. That is an increase, but by and large, proportionally, 3,000 to 150, clearly most are still connected.
MARTIN: They were also targeting law enforcement though, clearly. How does President Calderon propose to address this? I mean, given that law enforcement, forgive me, has such a poor record of solving these crimes to begin with.
Mr. BEITH: Yeah. I mean, one of Calderon's initiatives and the one that he's really pushing this week is the police overhaul. Now they're also pushing this in Mexico City, and they have pushed these things before, is that throughout law enforcement in this country, you have, you know, federal, state and local police, and the federal police have largely been trustworthy. They are not as corruptible. They are paid better. I'm not sure the exact number, they're not paid that well, but they are paid better.
And one of the problems is, you know, in the past they've often had the local police are often in the hand, you know, in the pockets of the drug cartels. And that's something that they really need to rectify. And to be honest, I've never seen a really viable solution to that because there are people who say, well, if you pay them, the police better, they won't go to other side. But the truth is, the cartels right now, their line is, you work with us or we kill you. It's not a matter of money. So you could pay them a million dollars a year and they would still face, you know - the alternative to cooperating with the drug cartels would be to be killed.
MARTIN: How do the drug cartels get so powerful to begin with? It almost sounds like they're a parallel government.
Mr. BEITH: Yeah. I would hesitate to call them a parallel government only because the Columbia connection is often made. The cartels in Columbia, for instance, were linked to the government. I mean, they really had - they wanted to be more involved in the political spectrum. Whereas here in Mexico - effectively, you know, it depends which drug experts you talk to but, you know, back in the '70s, they controlled areas. They were the main financial - main source of income, drug production, drugs - at that time it was still drug smuggling for the Columbian cartels. And what's happened is, you know, you go to a place - the mountains of Sinaloa in the northwest, I was there recently, and everything is drug controlled, drug funded, schools, they are the power.
The government effectively does their bidding if they want it because they have the money. And of course, the consumption is always there. The market in the U.S is huge. And what Calderon is trying to do is disrupt the system that has been working fine for three or so decades. And that's, I mean, that's why this war is going on.
MARTIN: How have these, finally - just a minute or so we have left. How is this whole situation affecting day-to-day life? I mean, obviously that would sort of depend on where you live. But what about...
Mr. BEITH: Sure.
MARTIN: You know, for you? If you don't mind my asking.
Mr. BEITH: Sure. Here in Mexico City, the drug cartels and organized crime is not the problem. Mexico City has always had kidnapping gangs. It's always had - in the '90s, as I said, the kidnappings here were horrendous. Actually here, you know, on a daily basis, life is normal.
Now you go to a city like Ciudad Juarez or Tijuana, you know, often frequented by U.S. visitors, and people know them to be not the safest cities in the world, but they are really affected. I was up in Juarez recently, and residents, you know, they don't go out. Tourism in those cities, you know, even if it's just daily cross border, you know, going to Tijuana to buy some - whatever you buy, is down. And people really do feel it. They have a real, I guess, climate of fear. Whereas here, daily life in Mexico City not affected at all except when, you know, you read these headlines, you watch the news and you see, you know, 14 people decapitated. That obviously has an impact. But you know, in terms of safety, I mean, I walk around and I have no problem.
MARTIN: OK. Malcolm Beith is the Mexico section editor of The News. It's an English language daily newspaper in Mexico. He joined us by phone from his home in Mexico City. Thank you so much.
Mr. BEITH: All right. Thank you very much, Michel.
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