Mexico's Cross-Border Drug War In Mexico, the phrase drug war is no metaphor. The number killed and injured qualifies as war-like by anybody's standard. The conflict inevitably affects many on this side of the border as well. Reporters covering drug-related violence in Mexico and the U.S. talk about the rising death toll.
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Mexico's Cross-Border Drug War

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Mexico's Cross-Border Drug War

Mexico's Cross-Border Drug War

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. In Mexico, the phrase drug war is no metaphor. The number killed and injured qualifies as warlike by anybody's standard. Just this week, a shootout between the Mexican army and a large group of gunmen left 21 dead. Over one particularly violent seven-day span in December, 100 people died, including 20 police officers. Headless corpses had been discovered in mass graves. A couple of weeks ago, a man called the Stew Maker admitted that local gangs put him on a salary of $600 a week to dissolve human bodies in a bath of chemicals, about 300 in all. The conflict inevitably affects many on this side of the border as well. And we begin with Jose Contreras, a security consultant with offices on both sides of the Rio Grande, one in Juarez, Mexico, the other in El Paso, Texas. He joins us today on his cell phone as he drives to a job in Mexico. Thanks very much for your time today.

Mr. JOSE CONTRERAS (Security Consultant; Chairman, Committee on Border Relations, El Paso, Texas): You're welcome. It's my pleasure.

CONAN: As I said, offices in two cities - I understand you had to close the office in Juarez. How come?

Mr. CONTRERAS: Well, we got a few messages that were not too friendly. I made some comments that merchants should arm themselves and act in self-defense, and I got a call that, you know, said if I keep opening my mouth, I was going to have some problems. So, since I have mostly retired federal people that are working for us as consultants, you know, we don't want to put them in danger.

CONAN: So, you decided to close the office in Juarez, but it was not just your consultants, your employees, who were in danger.

Mr. CONTRERAS: Yes, well, obviously, they're Americans, and we feel much better working in El Paso, in Texas, rather than across the border. So, when we do consulting for the plants over there, we drive over there and do whatever we have to do in the plant and then come right back because I don't want to put my people in danger.

CONAN: But it wasn't just your employees who were in danger; it was your family.

Mr. CONTRERAS: Well, yes, yes. We had an office over there with my wife and my kids. They were all working - we were all working together, and you know, I decided it was just not the proper thing to do when we have a security firm doing consulting to have my family over there.

CONAN: As a security consultant, how can you advise people to keep themselves safe? You said, well, get some guns. They're illegal in Mexico, and besides that, how can workers at a factory hope to outgun these gangs?

Mr. CONTRERAS: Well, no, no, I think you do have it a little bit wrong. There are some guns that are permitted. You can get a permit for them in Mexico as long the army - it's not an army type of gun that is used by the army. You can get a permit for those. The thing about the plant that you're talking about, we are talking about securing the premises so that nobody will break in. Also, when the merchandise is shipped to the U.S., make sure that it's not contaminated. There are some programs by customs, CBP. They are very, very strong and they're very positive. And this is the one that we recommend for companies; it's called CTPat(ph). And we also have corporate security experts that can really advise companies as to self-protection. For example, we tell them not to drive by themselves across the border, to have two or three people with them and, you know, watch out, to go directly to the plant, partake of their food inside the plant, and when they finish, go early over to - back to the States.

CONAN: How much would you estimate that the - there's almost a drug-war tax put on companies in Mexico today, because they have to use those measures like that to protect themselves, and well, it's going to charge more on their products, isn't it?

Mr. CONTRERAS: No, no. It hasn't changed at all. The competition does not allow for plants to really raise their prices. Competition is very aggressive in Mexico as well as in the States. One of the problems that I have seen, it was at the police department in Mexico, including all three federal agencies, and the state and local were not prepared for this type of problem. But one of the things that we never notice and we never talk about and I've asked a few people, important people, politicians in the States, what are we doing about drug consumption in our country, which is causing problems all over the world? What are we doing about it? And nobody seems to want to answer that.

We have 45 million people, or 41 million people, consuming drugs in the States, according to AP, and you know, my kids, my grandkids, tell me that in school, in high school, here in the States, they can get any drug that they want as long as they've got the money. And obviously, we keep telling them that they're not going to do it, and they don't do it so far, you know, I - knock on wood. But this is a problem that we are not looking at. If we don't stop drug consumption, somehow or other, or educate our kids in high school and middle school and grade school, it's going to get worse.

CONAN: Let me just ask you, I know you've got to get back to work, but do you feel safe in El Paso on the American side of the border?

Mr. CONTRERAS: I feel safe in El Paso and I feel safe in Juarez. I go there every day, across the border, every day. And I do - I just went over and bought some calling cards, and I went over to get my cartridges for my copier filled. And then I went over and picked up my clothing at the laundry. And I had no problems, and I do it every day.

CONAN: Well, Jose. Thanks very much for joining us and continued good luck to you.

Mr. CONTRERAS: On the contrary, it's my pleasure. You take care, sir.

CONAN: OK. Jose Contreras, a businessman in El Paso, who closed his office in Juarez after receiving threats. He joined us today, well, on the road to a job in Mexico. If you have been directly affected by the drug violence in Mexico on either side of the border, tell us your story, 800-989-8255; email us, talk@npr.org. You could also join the conversation on our Web site. That's at npr.org; just click on the Talk of the Nation. And joining us now by phone from Tijuana is Amy Isackson. She is a border reporter for our member station KPBS in San Diego. She covers the drug violence in Mexico. Amy, thanks very much for being with us today.

Ms. AMY ISACKSON (Border Reporter, KPBS, San Diego, California): Sure. Thank you for inviting me.

CONAN: And fill us in a little bit on the background to this conflict. How long has it been going on? Essentially, who is it among? Is it among the drug cartels and the government? Who's on what side?

Ms. ISACKSON: Well, I think we have to look back to the 1980s to say when this all began. In Mexico, there used to be one drug cartel, and then, in the late '80s, the leader of that cartel was arrested, and he divided up his territory along the border within Mexico into, I believe it was, five different drug cartels. And those cartels used to be friends; now they are enemies. And within their territories over the years, they've been growing and growing their power, and now, they are very territorial and looking to take over new territory. And so, they're fighting within themselves, and the fighting has been going on for many years, and it's cyclical. And I think what we are seeing now is a really bad turn in the cycle, where the drug cartels are - the violence every day is more and more gruesome; as you mentioned, people dissolved in acid, decapitated bodies left around Tijuana and Ciudad Juarez, other cities as well.

And I think that there are a couple of things that are provoking this at the moment in more current history than the '80s and that is when President Felipe Calderon took power in Mexico two years ago, he said - he made it his mission, one of the cornerstones of his administration, that he was going to fight drug cartels, and he's put the pressure on and deployed the supposedly tens of thousands of troops to hot spots around the country. And those troops and that fight is putting pressure on the drug cartels. Also, I think what we're seeing is just a historic reorganization of a drug cartels themselves and the - new evolution. Chapo Guzman, who's with the Sinaloa Cartel, is one of the -probably the most wanted drug-trafficker in all of Mexico, and he seems hell bent on taking over the country. There's billions of dollars at stake here, and it's just too lucrative for the cartels to let go. I think also one interesting...

CONAN: Let me just stop you just second - "taking over the country"?

Ms. ISACKSON: He - not taking over the country in a political sense, but taking over the country - taking over drug-trafficking in the country...

CONAN: OK.

Ms. ISACKSON: I'm glad you stopped me there. That's a very important distinction to make, taking over drug-trafficking. I think one - you know, critics will also say that the governments - part of the reason we're seeing in a violence now is that previous governments had pacted(ph) with the drug cartel in Mexico, and critics will say that now Calderon is in office and he's changing the pact, and so, they will say that that's why we're seeing this violence now.

CONAN: And let's not overlook the point that Jose Contreras was making before: All of this is over access to the lucrative markets in the United States.

Ms. ISACKSON: It is. It's billions and billions of dollars every year that are at stake here, and here in Tijuana, that's why we're seeing - despite in large part - because this is a prime drug crossing spots - this California - San Isidro here is the main border crossing. It's the world's busiest border crossing, and to lose access to that is literally costly, dollar-wise, for these cartels.

CONAN: And how have the new security measures along the border change things? Have they reduced the flow of drugs? We've seen that the flow of immigrants has - illegal immigrants has slowed down some. What about the flow of drugs?

Ms. ISACKSON: I think the flow of drugs continues. There's not huge shortages of cocaine or marijuana on the streets in the U.S. and seizures at the borders here in San Diego, in California, drug seizures, which is one measure of how much - how many drugs are coming across, have stayed pretty much steady. So, it's not necessarily having a direct the effect on the amount that's being crossed.

CONAN: And these aren't necessarily cars with trunk loads of marijuana. These are enormous shipments, some of them sent by submersible, by submarine?

Ms. ISACKSON: That's happening further down in Mexico. We haven't been seeing submarines showing up on our coast here, although there has been bit of a new trend in terms of using the ocean with boats that are - small boats that are launching from, I believe, tourist towns like Rosarito and further north that are actually taking drugs up the coast into San Diego.

CONAN: And as this conflict continues and, as you say, the new government in Mexico, the current government there for the last of couple years, has been heavily engaged in this, is there any end in sight?

Ms. ISACKSON: It's difficult, it's very difficult to tell. I think critics say and analysts say that this is a long fight, it's going to be billions and billions of dollars, and it's going to take years to eliminate the cartels and to be able to fortify Mexico, not just with the weapons to outgun cartels, but also with the justice system to be able to prosecute people, to be able to root out corruption from the police and from governments, and to develop the U.S.-Mexico relationship to the point that it's joint work.

CONAN: Well, as...

Ms. ISACKSON: But I don't think that we're going to see any end anytime soon. People here cynically say that, well, maybe the government will just pact with someone and someone will take control and it'll become organized crime again, instead of disorganized crime, and in that sense, there'll be, at least, a calm and not the numbers of dead that we're seeing.

CONAN: Amy, stays with us, if you will. We're going to continue this conversation in just a moment. Of course, the violence of the Mexico drug wars does not stop at the border. What's your experience? 800-989-8255. It's Talk of the Nation from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Mexican President Felipe Calderon estimated over 6,000 drug-related killings last year alone, and that's just south of the Rio Grande. Here in United States, authorities report threats and attacks in Phoenix and in Atlanta. Our focus this hour is on the cross-border drug war. Have you been directly affected by the drug violence in Mexico? Give us a call, 800-989-8255; email talk@npr.org. There's also a conversation underway on our Web site. That's at npr.org; just click on Talk of the Nation. Amy Isackson is with us. She reports on border issues for KBPS, our member station in San Diego, today with us on the phone from Tijuana in Mexico. Let's get Ernie on the line. Ernie's calling from San Antonio, Texas.

ERNIE (Caller): Yes.

CONAN: Hi, Ernie. Go ahead, please.

ERNIE: OK, my story is this. I am presently a judge running a drug treatment court in San Antonio, Texas, but before that I was a criminal defense lawyer. And the number of years ago, I was representing some people involving drug-trafficking that were from Mexico, and over an argument I had with a gentleman I presumed to be the boss, I suppose, a telephone conversation, the man threatened to send his assassin and have me killed. So, I did what I could terminate that case, got out of it, never represented anybody that was referred, so many of the people that I knew associated with them ever again.

CONAN: Well, I can understand that.

ERNIE: As a result, my wife and I used to go to the Laredo quite often, and we'd spend several days and go across the border and have dinner and shop and things. But with all the news reports and talking to people across the border that we would see, we just don't go anymore because we're afraid to go, and having been threatened one before, I know these people are dangerous and serious.

CONAN: Well, Ernie, I'm glad you got out of it.

ERNIE: Yes, sir. But anyway, that's my story. So, now I don't represent those people. I try to get people off drugs, and that kind of in response of to one of the other callers...

CONAN: Yes.

ERNIE: Just to look and know we are trying to do something about it.

CONAN: Thanks very much, Ernie, and good luck on that.

ERNIE: Thank you very much.

CONAN: Ernie, thank you very much.

CONAN: Joining us now from her office in Alicia Caldwell. She's the El Paso correspondent for the Associated Press. She's also been covering the violence spilling over into the U.S. Alicia, thanks very much for being with us today.

Ms. ALICIA CALDWELL (El Paso Correspondent, Associated Press): Thank you for having me.

CONAN: And how is it spilling across the border into the United States? Are the drug cartels fighting for a control of distribution networks in this country?

Ms. CALDWELL: Largely what we're hearing is that the cartels are actually fighting with one another in the sense of internal discipline, somebody who either has not delivered on a promise of good in terms of narcotics or hasn't shown back up with the money that should have been returned from sold narcotics. We're seeing, you know, in Phoenix and Atlanta a rise in kidnapping, home invasion; there's been instances of individuals kidnapped for ransom based on the drug debt they owed. In one case, there was a Dominican man who has held in, I think it was, a Lilburn, Georgia, home. He was shackled to the wall, beaten and, to some degree, tortured for a $300,000 debt that DEA says was owed to the Gulf Cartel. We're seeing those sorts of things that are perhaps a little bit more out of the public view than, say, what we are seeing in Mexico with shootings and kidnapping and other sort of events.

CONAN: Because the cartels, as I understand it, don't just cross the border and hand the drugs off to another organization. They want to make the big profits by being the middlemen and, indeed, the retailers themselves.

Ms. CALDWELL: Right. There are sort of less into retail, if you will. The goal is to get large amounts of narcotics to, say, Atlanta and then distribute them across the Eastern seaboard into the Midwest or Phoenix and go up to the Northwest and so on. They traditionally don't get into street-level dealing. Most of that crime in that dealing is sort of street-level gangs that may buy their product from, say, the Gulf Cartel or the Juarez Cartel. But those folks don't get into the sort of nitty-gritty of daily business. Their goal is to simply get the largest volume of products for the greatest volume of money and get that money back to Mexico.

CONAN: And get that money back to Mexico, an operation in and of itself.

Ms. CALDWELL: Right. Apparently, you know, law enforcement are seeing a considerable uptick in bulk cash smuggling, you know, tractor trailers with tens of thousands of dollars, if not more, hidden in various compartment, the same in the regular vehicle, instead of what we saw in the 1980s with - using bank transfers and so on. That avenue sort of got shut down as U.S. authorities, sort of, tackled the cocaine trade with the Colombian cartels. So, now the shipment is by hand, almost, going back into Mexico, and then the money is filled into various banking organizations or money-transfer stations in Mexico.

CONAN: Let's get another caller on the line. This is Jeffrey. Jeffrey's calling us from San Antonio.

JEFFREY (Caller): Hi, Neal.

CONAN: Hi, Jeffrey.

JEFFREY: I just wanted to share my experience, how I've been directly impacted. I have a family who owns a business in Monterrey, Mexico, and as of late last year, my family has moved some family members, most specifically, the wife and the children, to San Antonio to avoid getting involved in crossfire, perhaps, and most importantly, they were afraid of potential kidnappings and extortion. The business they own is very prominent there in Monterrey, so they moved the family here. And how it impacted me was we used to vacation and go on holiday there on a regular basis, but we, too, are afraid of getting caught in any type of crossfire. So, it's had a very profound impact on me, and little did I know that here in San Antonio we have a quite large a community here; it's actually called Little Monterrey, a lot of folks who feel the same way, coming from Monterrey.

CONAN: Jeffrey, good luck to you. Thank you.

JEFFREY: Sure.

CONAN: Amy Isackson, let me ask you, the kidnappings that Jeffrey was referring to, this is a fairly large and lucrative business in Mexico.

Ms. ISACKSON: It is. Here in Tijuana, kidnappings are - they - Mexican authorities say that since it's become more difficult for cartels to make money passing drugs across the border that some of the - some cartel members are looking to kidnappings to make money. And there has been, you know, upwards of 150, 200, kidnappings. It's hard to tell because a lot of them go unreported because people are actually afraid to tell the authorities that a relative has been kidnapped; so, that's a ballpark number, but over the years, hundreds of kidnappings here in Tijuana. It's worth mentioning that there has been a lot of controversy about who these kidnappers - who is being kidnapped. And I'd like to point out that U.S. citizens just coming to Tijuana for the day or to have dinner or something like that are not the people who are being kidnapped. But that the kidnappers are very targeted. They know who they're going after; they research people; they follow their paths and then will try to nab people in an opportune moment.

CONAN: And these are, as I've understood, it not necessarily just businessmen who can maybe afford thousands or even tens of thousands dollars, hundreds of thousands of dollars, in ransom, but ordinary people who may have relatives in the United States who'd be able to day several hundred dollars.

Ms. ISACKSON: Yes. And actually, I was speaking with an immigration attorney here in San Diego recently, and she was telling me exactly that, that she'd had a client who was in - who was going to be deported to Michoacan. He hadn't been there in years. His family was telling him, do not come back; just by virtue of the fact that you're coming from the U.S. people will think that you have money. If you don't have money, they'll know that your ties to people in the U.S., friends, family, who might be able to foot the bail for ransom, that those ties are fresh, and that kidnappers there, their sense was, are exploiting that. And we've seen more reporting like that.

CONAN: Alicia Caldwell, we've also talked about drugs coming one way and money going the other way. There's one other element involved here, and that is guns, guns available in the United States more freely, I think, than they are in Mexico.

Ms. CALDWELL: Right. It's very complicated to technically buy a gun in Mexico. Realistically, you know, obviously, that's not that case since gun violence is still rampant. But guns coming from the U.S. are a significant problem in the cartel war. In fact, I think best estimate we've heard is 90 to 95 percent of guns seized by Mexican authorities have been tracked back to the U.S. U.S. authorities, including ATF, have launched the incredible efforts, wide-ranging efforts, to track those guns working, with the Mexican authorities into - in fact, stop, obviously, the proliferation of weapons going south. I think the most recent example was a bus involving a gun-shop dealer in Phoenix, which is pretty unusual, to actually go to the source of where the guns are coming from instead of these so-called straw buyers, who are purchasing, you know, a few weapons at a time and driving them south. So, there's definitely an effort to curb that. The extent to which it is being curbed, obviously, is a bit up in the air in terms of knowing what's going south is largely a guess, because, again, we only know what we see, is what law enforcement says. So, it's a little bit difficult to track.

CONAN: Let's get Martha on the line. Martha's calling us from Haleiwa in Hawaii.

MARTHA (Caller): Yes, hi. Thank you for taking my call. I just have, you know, a comment and also I - your - if your person can just answer the question I had as far as what the United States and the Mexican government is doing to stop this trafficking. My mother - I was born and raised in Tijuana, and my mother now lives there. And I worry every day because, you know, sometimes when I talk to her, there's always something, you know - she told me about the decapitated that happened a few days ago, which wasn't far from where I grew up. And I worry every day, and I say, why don't you just sell everything you have, because we have two homes, and come and live with me?

But she won't - she migrated there from southern part of Mexico in the early '60s and her thing is - and everybody else has migrated around that time because we've got here first. We're not going anywhere. They've got to leave. And I'm saying, this is not going to happen, Mama; it's going to take a long time for this, like - just - somebody else made a comment, it's going to take a few years for all this to happen. So, I worry, you know, I worry every day. How is this happening? How did consumption like this, you know, drugs in the United States? It's, you know, affecting millions of people down at the border. They have regular jobs. They work every day and decent people, but...

CONAN: Yeah, and it's easy for us to exaggerate the violence. All we see is these reports. Nevertheless, for people, I think, like your mother, well, you know, there's some degree of living in fear, isn't there?

MARTHA: Yes, there is, I mean, exactly. But you know, she's been there for, like I say, years and years and years. And you know, I love my country, and I would love to go back, but right now, it's just scary. I wouldn't take my children there for sure.

CONAN: Martha, thanks very much for the call. We wish your mom the best of luck.

MARTHA: Thank you, thank you. Bye-bye.

CONAN: Bye-bye. And that's another aspect of this, Amy Isackson, as we look at the situation across the border, well, there are people who cross that border all the time to visit family, to work, to go have a good time.

Ms. ISACKSON: There are, there are. There are less now, unfortunately, going to have a good time from the U.S. to Tijuana. This - when you go down the main tourist street here in Tijuana, Avenida Revolucion - which may be familiar to some listeners - it's pretty barren and it's pretty depressing. It's - the people had been staying away before because of the long border lines. Also, now, it's a double whammy in terms of the violence and the reports of the violence as well as the economy, and people just don't have as much money to come down here. Again, I think that it's worth mentioning that tourists aren't the targets and that the violence is pretty well-contained amongst the drug cartel people, but there is a chance of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, which has happened to bystanders here.

One interesting thing, going back to the caller that we just had whose mom lives here in Tijuana, is that last year, there was a very different feel in the city. It was - it's a terrible analogy, but I'm going to use it - it was almost like Super Bowl fever in that there was so much violence; it was so brutal; it was every day; it was just relentless, and that's all that people talked about, all they focused on. People were very scared. Some people would still go out. Some people would just go home at dark and lock themselves inside. Since the beginning of the year, there - in January, there were more than 70 people killed, which is no small quantity. However, it seems - the discussion of it and the fear of it seems to have abated just a little bit, and it's not quite clear to me why; I don't know if people are more focused on their economic issues at this point. But it's not the same - it's not with the same intensity that I'm feeling it here as I was at the beginning or at the end of last year.

CONAN: Amy Isackson, border reporter for member station KPBS in San Diego; also with us, Alicia Caldwell, the El Paso correspondent for the Associated Press. You're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News. And Sasha's on the line, Sasha calling us from Fort Lauderdale in Florida.

SASHA (Caller): Hi, Mr. Conan. Nice to speak to you.

CONAN: Thanks for calling.

SASHA: I was a security consultant with Siemens. We were contracted by the Mexican government to evaluate how to minimize crime in Mexico in 1996. I flew several times over cannabis fields. I drove through several neighborhoods in which I was shot at several times. One of my drivers was actually badly wounded, and I was actually also wounded. But the - our actual evaluation for the Mexican government was after our six weeks of going through, basically, hell, that the drug-trafficking into the United States is a major problem.

We were then interfaced with the American government and the Drug Enforcement authorities in the United States, and we clearly communicated between Mexico, the German government and the American government that the cannabis trade, marijuana trade, is the biggest problem. So, I am not a drug user; I don't even drink; I don't smoke. But our evaluation as the German government and as security consultants was clearly to, maybe, considering legalizing in a certain range the cannabis trade here in the United States or the consume of the cannabis, which, in our evaluation, would have brought down the violence in Mexico by at least two-thirds.

CONAN: Sasha, a recommendation others have made in the past; politicians, though, have to get around to that, and thus far, they have not been willing to do that, tackle that subject. It has very little political support in Washington, D.C., a lot around the country, necessarily, but not amongst those who would actually have to vote on it. But thanks very much for your call, and we're glad you managed to escape.

SASHA: Thank you so much. Have a wonderful day.

CONAN: Bye-bye. OK. You, too. Alicia Caldwell, before we go; we just have a minute or so left. We have read reports that because of the increased difficulties of crossing the border, some of the cartels are now getting involved in growing large amounts of cannabis, marijuana, in this country.

Ms. CALDWELL: Right. Public lands in California most prevalently - at least what's known - have been used. And that's probably because they're not easily accessible, and it's easy, basically, to hide in those areas, according to law enforcement. Northern California has been one of those spots where the weather is right, the circumstances are right, in the sense that, again, nobody's going to necessarily drive by your fields, is the prevailing theory, so you can sort of hide. When law enforcement do find those, of course, they are massive in scope and intricate to some detail, and they're growing at different times of the year now. So, law enforcement is sort of adjusting to that as well from what I'm being told. But it's certainly an increasing problem that they're finding these massive grow operations, you know, in this country, but run by cartel officials.

CONAN: Amy - Alicia Caldwell, thanks very much for your time today. Appreciate it.

Ms. CALDWELL: Thank you.

CONAN: Alicia Caldwell, the El Paso correspondent for the Associated Press. Our thanks also to Amy Isackson of KPBS in San Diego. She joined us today by phone from Tijuana. Thank you, Amy.

Ms. ISACKSON: Thank you very much.

CONAN: And when we come back, we're going to be talking with NPR's Steve Inskeep, the co-host of Morning Edition, just back from a reporting trip to Iran on the occasion of that country's Islamic Revolution 30 years later. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan, Talk of the Nation, NPR News.

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