Mexican Drug War Creeps Into U.S. Border Towns A drug war is raging across the border. Over 6,000 people were killed in drug-related violence in Mexico last year. The body count is mounting, and the violence is spilling into the United States. Tony Cox explores how U.S. officials are addressing the growing crisis. Plus, how can travelers stay out of danger?
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Mexican Drug War Creeps Into U.S. Border Towns

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Mexican Drug War Creeps Into U.S. Border Towns

Mexican Drug War Creeps Into U.S. Border Towns

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TONY COX, host:

From NPR News, this is News & Notes. I'm Tony Cox. The numbers are staggering - over 6,000 people killed in drug-related violence in Mexico last year. Now, the war against the drug cartels is right at our doorstep. With gun battles on the streets of Tijuana, beheadings in Juarez, and contract killings happening across the Southwest, how should U.S. officials deal with the conflict? And how has this grim portrait affected tourism, and how can travelers stay out of danger? We now turn to Andrew Becker, a staff writer for the Center for Investigative Reporting, and Ken Ellingwood, a correspondent in the Mexico City bureau of the Los Angeles Times, and author of "Hard Line: Life and Death on the U.S.-Mexico Border." Gentlemen, welcome to News & Notes.

Mr. KEN ELLINGWOOD (Correspondent, Mexico City Bureau of the Los Angeles Times): Pleased to be here.

Mr. ANDREW BECKER (Staff Writer, Center for Investigative Reporting): Thank you.

COX: Ken, let's start with you. Mexican President Felipe Calderon has said that this recent explosion of violence is a war. Let's talk about what this war is about. Is it just a matter of drugs and guns, or is something else involved here?

Mr. ELLINGWOOD: Well, I would say that it's really three different wars that are happening at the same time, and to really understand the level of violence, I think you really have to understand that. The government of Mexico initiated a war against organized crime a couple of years ago. That's been one of the big fronts in the war as Calderon sent troops and federal police out into the streets. The second war is one between drug cartels, which are fighting over turf and fighting over routes to get drugs into the United States. And then the third war that we're seeing, which is mainly along the border, is within drug-trafficking organization. There's sort of generational changes. Some of the old folks, leaders have been either killed or sent off to prison, and you see power struggles within them, which has led to a lot of the violence in places like Tijuana, for example. So, there's different kinds of violence taking place all along the border and within Mexico.

COX: Well, Andrew, how much does American demand for drugs play into this whole conflict, and the wealth and power of the drug dealers in Mexico?

Mr. BECKER: Well, I think you're seeing people on both sides of the border - certainly the Mexicans have long said that the U.S. demand really is driving a lot of this. And I think more and more, you're seeing people, politicians in D.C., acknowledging that the drug consumption in this country that funds the drug cartels to the tune of just billions and billions of dollars a year is really the - it's the biggest drug market in the world. And it's lucrative, and that's what the battle's for.

COX: Now, Ken, you're in Mexico City right now. Is the Mexican government really working against the cartels? I ask that because a number of law-enforcement personnel have been accused of working for the cartels, in fact, and it seems that it's hard to tell who the good guys are.

Mr. ELLINGWOOD: Yeah, that's often true down here. The problem of corruption is age-old in Mexico: the corruption within police agencies, the corruption within the prosecutor's office, even as going up to the level of the country's former drug czar, who has been accused of having colluded with one of the big drug-trafficking groups in Sinaloa. It's a big problem in Mexico. It always has been. Calderon said, look, you know, we are - the recent arrests that you've seen in Mexico, they are a sign that we are now finally getting a grip on this. We know we have a lot of work to do. The Calderon government has initiated a program to try to clean up the police, starting with the federal police. But a lot of the problem is at the local level with local - municipal police and state police, and it is a very, very difficult problem to eradicate.

COX: Well, Andrew, Mexico is a popular tourist destination, and some American universities this year, particularly, have discouraged their students from making Mexico their spring break destination. Does the violence that is occurring, does it stay within the drug gangs or is it spilling over into areas where travelers are at risk?

Mr. BECKER: Well, there's been some areas, Cancun has had some problems. But for the most part, it stays away from the tourist areas. There's the rare occurrence where it might spill. But for the most part it's staying outside, and people are still headed to Mexico. I mean, with the peso falling and the dollar strengthening, you can get a pretty big bang for your buck in Mexico.

COX: Well, Ken, I know that you recently reported on some high-profile violence that had - took place, in fact, in Cancun, which is the beach town that is quite popular with spring breakers - one of the many, actually, in Mexico. Tell us about that.

Mr. ELLINGWOOD: Well, I was there and wrote a story about the killing of a retired army general who had been just hired to help clean up the city's police force. That city's police force, like many of them around Mexico, was, you know, had a corruption problem. The mayor brought in this retired general to help reform the police. In his second day on the job, he was killed with two other people. Their bodies were found miles outside of the city, and it was sort of a reminder that in spite of all the postcard images of these places as being resorts and tourism spots, that there's another side to a lot of these tourist cities, and that that other side, you know, is rife with violence and has, you know, drug dealing going on and the same kind of violence that you see in other places. I would completely back with what Andrew said about the tourist zones, however. In Cancun, for example, you know, the spot where this former general was seized by gunmen and then later dumped, is really - we're far away from where the tourists gather on that - on the strip along the beach. And the same thing holds with a lot of other tourist areas. The tourism zones in Mexico tend to be very confined, and they tend to be quite distinct from the cities that they are really a part of. And if you, you know, go to some of these places as a tourist from the United States, you may spend the entire week never having really seen any real Mexicans except for the people who drive the taxi or the van to the resort and the people who work there, because they really are quite distinct. On that score, if it is - if a person goes and travels in Mexico and minds their own business and uses common sense, the odds are that they're not going to have a problem.

COX: But Andrew, that's a different situation, is it not, if you go to a place like Tijuana, or if you go to Juarez, which are both border towns, and there have been a high number of reported deaths occurring in both of those cities?

Mr. BECKER: It's really been the places where most of these drug-related killings have occurred. And again, for the most part, these killings are involving people who are in the drug trade, as Ken elaborated - warring or battling cartels that are killing each other. There has been this sort of encroaching lawlessness that has started to take over parts of Tijuana and Ciudad Juarez that might even be a potential - I don't know if I'd call it a full-out war, but perhaps a fourth front in this battle happening in Mexico. And that is where, because of the police forces being either widely corrupted or just really overtaken by the cartels, or in some places the military stepping in and enforcing the law, or at least concentrating on the cartels, that crime - criminals, opportunists are starting to turn toward the citizens and the residents of these towns that has created a new migrant class of people, mostly middle class, upper middle class, who are unlike the traditional economic migrant, who are looking to come to the United States to really wait out this drug war.

COX: You know, it's interesting you should mention that. Ken, I'm going to wind the conversation down with you on this point because we've already mentioned that you worked for the L.A. Times. One of your colleagues, Hector Tobar, just wrote a column, in fact, about the border town Tijuana, and the drug wars and the fears. And he talked about how the recession in the United States is creeping southward and impacting the lives of the people there. I ask that as a backdrop to this question: The Homeland Security officials are now saying that if the border problems continue to escalate the U.S may - may - send National Guard troops to border towns. Is this likely to happen, and what impact do you think it will have?

Mr. ELLINGWOOD: It seems like a long shot at this point. There hasn't been the spillover yet in a big way that would provoke the United States government to send troops to the border. In the same comments in which President Obama said he would consider such a thing, he also said he has no interest in militarizing the border. Sending thousands of troops to the border would be a highly symbolic and pretty volatile action to take, and I think it would take some kind of serious incident of violence on the U.S. side of the border to provoke that kind of action.

COX: Really briefly, this has never happened before, has it, the U.S. sending military troops to the border?

Mr. ELLINGWOOD: Well, I mean, you know, there have been various times when the, you know, the U.S. and Mexico back in, you know, in the olden days, you know, didn't get along too well. I mean, the U.S. sent troops along the border during the days of Pancho Villa, during the Mexican Revolution, in modern - and has, you know, sent troops to Mexico proper, you know, when the - in earlier times. In modern times, the U.S. has sent National Guard troops to the border for the purpose of constructing the barrier that's been going up along the border.

COX: All right...

Mr. ELLINGWOOD: But not for patrol.

COX: All right. I appreciate the information, gentlemen. Thank you both very much.

Mr. BECKER: Thank you.

COX: Andrew Becker is a staff writer for the Center for Investigative Reporting. He spoke to us from the studios of KQED in San Francisco. Ken Ellingwood is a correspondent in the Mexico City bureau of the Los Angeles Times, and author of "Hard Line: Life and Death on the U.S.-Mexico Border."

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Mr. CLARENCE PAGE (Nationally Syndicated Columnist, Chicago Tribune): Hi. I'm Clarence Page, a nationally syndicated columnist for the Chicago Tribune. And I've really appreciated News & Notes for giving us a more in-depth view of what goes on in Washington, but also how it has an effect on real people outside the Beltway.

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COX: This is NPR News.

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