Ioan Grillo: On The Front Lines Of Mexico's Drug War Since 2006, 40,000 people have been murdered in Mexico as drug cartels battle each other and the Mexican military. Journalist Ioan Grillo traces how Mexico came to control drug trafficking in El Narco.
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Reporting On The Front Lines Of Mexico's Drug War

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Reporting On The Front Lines Of Mexico's Drug War

Reporting On The Front Lines Of Mexico's Drug War

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DAVE DAVIES, host: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, filling in for Terry Gross. Our first guest, journalist Ioan Grillo, has spent a decade covering the escalating violence in Mexico, where drug cartels are battling each other and the Mexican army and police, often torturing and mutilating the bodies of their victims.

Among the more than 40,000 dead are journalists, government officials and countless innocent bystanders and kidnapping victims. Grillo calls the violence a criminal insurgency because the death toll now exceeds that of some civil wars, and the brutal and chaos threaten the viability of the Mexican state.

In his reporting, Grillo has interviewed criminals, government officials, American drug agents and victims of the drug wars. His new book examines the historical roots of the conflict and explores ways to end the carnage. Ioan Grillo has reported for Time magazine, CNN, the Associated Press and other news outlets. He grew up in England and now lives in Mexico City. His book is called "El Narco: Inside Mexico's Criminal Insurgency."

Well, Ioan Grillo, welcome to FRESH AIR. You write in the book that there's a long history of poppy growing in the Mexican hills and in trafficking in booze and drugs, illegal trafficking, but that at some point things really changed, and it got much, much bigger and more organized.

And I think, you know, we think of the Colombian cartels back in the '80s and Pablo Escobar as having been the real kingpins of international drug trafficking. How did the Mexicans occupy that spot? How did the shift come?

IOAN GRILLO: Well, basically the Colombian cartels had this fantastic product, cocaine, which they could make enormous amounts of money selling to Americans for these crazy inflated prices, the big tens of tens of billions of dollars. And they used to fly it straight from Colombia across to Miami.

And the American military and Drug Enforcement Administration worked out that it was very easy to create a choke point in the Caribbean and to basically make it very difficult to smuggle cocaine right from Colombia to Florida. So the answer was to smuggle it through Mexico.

And the Mexicans began as paid couriers and gradually began to take over the business from the Colombians, and then own the lion's share of the cocaine business, where the real huge money was.

DAVIES: Right, and this was aided by a very aggressive crackdown on the Colombian traders by American and other investigators, right?

GRILLO: That's correct. The Americans and the Colombians, just after the end of the Cold War, the American agencies all got together, the CIA, the Pentagon, the DEA, and went after Pablo Escobar. They saw him as a huge threat. He was putting bombs on airliners and paying guerrillas to attack politicians and so forth.

So they took him down. He was shot dead, a big victory, it was seen, in the war on drugs. But after he went down, the Mexicans took more and more of that pie, and even worse problems created up in Mexico.

DAVIES: So through the '90s, you have some very large, powerful and wealthy drug traffickers operating in Mexico. But people who know the history of Mexico, know that for decades, since the revolution early in the 20th century, every presidential election was won by one party, the PRI, the Institutional Revolutionary Party.

And you write in the book, that the expansion of violence in Mexico is inextricably linked to the end of the rule, that one-party rule, and really a birth of real democratic institutions in Mexico. Explain the connection for us.

GRILLO: Yeah, I think this is a very crucial point that is the center of the whole conflict in Mexico today. Throughout 71 years, you had this one party in power, and they had a very good system of controlling all aspects of national life: all the local police forces and also controlling organized crime.

And it was through a very well-constructed system of power, where the power flows down like water, and the money rises up like gas. So the corruption rises up like gas. And the system of corruption was broken down. So what we started to see were the police forces controlled by different political parties and actively fighting each other.

So we've seen cases, like in the state of Michoacán, where a group of hit men attacked the federal police, had a punctured tire escaping, and phoned the state police, who came and picked them up and drove them away to safety. So we've seen a real fragmentation of the state, and that is one of the core reasons why the conflict has got so bloody and so out of control.

DAVIES: So before, when this PRI, the institutional party, was in control, there was plenty of drug trafficking, there was plenty of corruption, but there wasn't as much violence.

Now, there's a critical moment, you say, that came in the early 2000s at Nuevo Laredo, which is the border city across from Laredo, Texas. Explain what happened.

GRILLO: Well, in Nuevo Laredo is across from Texas, and it had really grown in importance for trafficking drugs, with the growth of the American cities of Houston and Dallas and that whole part of the United States. You had - you started to have more goods going through the Texas-Mexico border than the California border.

And so for drug traffickers, it became an extremely important place to control. You could move drugs into the United States and right up to the Northeast seaboard, as well.

Now, the Sinaloan Cartel, the traditional strongmen of the Mexican drug trafficking industry, tried to seize this area, and the local group to defend themselves, they hired a group of former special forces military personnel who became known as the Zetas. So for the first time in the Mexican drug conflict, rather than seeing gang-bangers with shaved heads and tattoos fight each other, you started to see military-style units fighting with military ranks and automatic weapons, RPGs and military-style tactics against their enemies.

And from there it started to escalate very sharply.

DAVIES: There are some amazing details from this period in the conflict, and this group, the Zetas, that's Z-E-T-A-S, a group that's - a cartel that's still around - they were actually advertising for new recruits?

GRILLO: That's correct. You know, one of the many surreal things about this conflict, the Zetas, as they defended their own turf, began to expand massively across the country and set up cells anywhere across Mexico. And one way they recruited was actually had blankets hanging from bridges, saying: Why be poor? Why take the bus to work? You can have a new car of your choice. If you've an ex-military or ex-policeman, you know, come to us, and we'll give you a good job.

And it was one of the many ways they recruited people to their ranks.

DAVIES: There was clearly a wide expansion in violence, but the other thing you saw was a change in the kind of violence. I mean, there's been organized crime in America for years, and the typical, you know, mafia hit was a brutal-but-businesslike bullet to the head. And at some point, the violence in Mexico became particularly savage, beginning with the beheadings of victims. Do we know where that came from, why it developed?

GRILLO: It's very interesting, we talk about beheading now, this is in Mexico, as if this has gone on for a long time, while actually it's pretty recent. The first beheadings were in 2006, when they chopped the head off two policemen.

Now, it's difficult to know exactly what the motivations were behind the people doing this, but there's various ideas. One is that at the time, the videos of the al-Qaida groups carrying out beheadings were being shown on TV throughout the world and were actually shown in full on some Mexican TV channels.

And they were seeing this and thinking, well, this is a good way to intimidate your enemy. Another idea is that there were some mercenaries hired from the ex-special forces of Guatemala. And during the civil war in Guatemala, they had carried out brutal beheadings to intimidate villagers from joining the left-wing guerrillas.

And they began to use these same tactics, basically, because they saw themselves as military personnel controlling territory. How do you control a territory? You sow terror against the population. And so they began to use these very brutal tactics.

DAVIES: And this was often accompanied by clear messages in one way or another, right?

GRILLO: Yeah, in the use of the narco-propaganda, they will often, carrying out beheadings, they will videotape the beheadings, and they will often leave notes aimed at rival cartels, aimed at members of the public or aimed at politicians. And this violence can say different things to different people.

Sometimes it can be speaking to the public, saying: Look, if you mess with us, this is what's going to happen to you. Do not affect our business. Do not touch our business. And that's obviously very effective. But also it can be talking to the street. It can be saying: We are the toughest guys in town. Look, we leave 12 beheaded corpses. We are the people who are controlling this city. Come and work for us. We are the winning team.

So it's a very complicated way they send message out to people with their violence.

DAVIES: Ioan Grillo's new book is called "El Narco." We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: If you're just joining us, our guest is Ioan Grillo. He has reported on the drug-trafficking wars in Mexico for more than 10 years. His new book is called "El Narco: Inside Mexico's Criminal Insurgency."

So in the mid-2000s, I mean, there was this dramatic expansion of violence and particularly savage violence in Mexico. And then President Felipe Calderon takes office in 2006 and makes this a priority and takes a different approach. Tell us about that.

GRILLO: Felipe Calderon arrived in power, and 10 days after he took office, he said we've got a war on drug cartels. And he started off with moving the military to his home state of Michoacán, there was bigger convoys of soldiers and burning fields and, you know, going through the cities, helicopters buzzing above the towns.

I went to see many of these operations. And he's also extraditing kingpins to the United States. And he started to come up with some huge busts, like 23.5 tons of cocaine, which he busted in one shipment, the biggest ever cocaine bust anywhere in the world.

So he began a hard campaign against drug cartels. Now, I actually think that he wasn't imagining that he would still be on this conflict five years later, discussing this incredible death toll. But unfortunately, it blew up in his face and became a more and more intense conflict.

DAVIES: Right, and how did the cartels react when Calderon sent the military after them?

GRILLO: Many of the cartels reacted by actually turning on the police and the military, and I think this was one thing that the government didn't really understand, that in Mexico today, the state really had lost power, substantially, since the end of the PRI. People no longer respected the military in the same way.

You know, 10, 15, 20 years ago, when the military rolled up, you know, the cartels would run. But now the cartels stood and fought, began to kidnap military personnel, decapitate military personnel, ambush them. And also we saw many cases where the police were fighting actively with the cartels and actively fighting each other.

So the real problem, the central problem of Calderon's attack on the cartels, is that his security apparatus is not effective. Too much of it is corrupt, and too much of it is - has allegiances with different cartels, is actively fighting each other.

DAVIES: And when military units come into an area to go after a cartel, do they make friends among the civilian population, or do they, you know, inflict, you know, damage on innocent people, too?

GRILLO: Well, again it's one of the central problems, just like when you have the military - the American military going into Iraq, often many of the local people turn against them. Or the British military going into Northern Ireland, many of the local people turn against them.

And it's the same in Mexico, and many of the military units come from the south of Mexico and go into places in the north. Now people see them as being an invading force, and often it gets more tense as the military are very scared about anyone who's looking at them, any suspicious-looking kids talking into their cell phones. They're worried they could be telling the cartels that they're on their way, and many times the kids are working for the cartels.

So then you get military units with very itchy fingers on the triggers. Sometimes they'll see a car driving too fast towards a checkpoint, and they'll fire and kill innocent people. Sometimes they'll see a suspicious-looking kid or gang member, take them and start to beat them and torture them. And so you get the military committing many human rights abuses.

And we've had - again, this is coming to a very large scale, a very widespread human rights abuses across the country from the military.

DAVIES: So there have been 40,000 people murdered in Mexico since 2006, is that right?

GRILLO: There's been much more - many more than 40,000 people. There's been 40,000 murders which they think are directly linked to this drug-related conflict. As well as that, there's been many other regular murders, you know, domestic violence and any other kind of drunken fights in bars and that kind of thing.

As well as that, there have been thousands of people who have disappeared, and we haven't accounted for them. In some cases, we've seen buses driving in the north of Mexico, like in Tamaulipas state, which is one of the hardest-hit states in Mexico, and whole buses have been stopped by gunmen who have taken people off these buses, and we haven't found them since.

So some extraordinary violence and some, you know, extraordinary things happening in the country that we have to try and make sense of.

DAVIES: I know that you did a lot of your work in Mexico working with Mexican journalists who were, in some cases, experienced crime reporters and who would get tips on when there were incidents and that you would sometimes show up at these scenes before the police even would.

This is a gruesome question, but there's a purpose behind it. Do you have any idea how many dead bodies you've seen in the last 10 years?

GRILLO: I've lost count of the number of dead bodies I've seen, particularly in the last three or four years. Before I'd come to Mexico and done this work as a journalist, I hadn't seen corpses, and I began to arrive at these scenes - murder scenes - in some cases there would be one, sometimes two, sometimes five, sometimes more bodies on the street. And it tragically is something you become very accustomed to through the work.

And the first few times you start staring at the sight of death, it's something very disturbing, and you become accustomed to seeing it. But one thing that really brings it home, this is real lives that have gone, is when you see family members arriving, and you see the faces of the family members, the tears in their eyes. And these are people who know and love the victims, whoever the victims are, where sometimes they're policemen, sometimes they're civilians, and sometimes they're drug traffickers.

But they all have family members who love them and are very hurt by their deaths.

DAVIES: Yeah, I ask because in part, I mean, one of the things you see is a lot of young people drawn into this life and becoming involved, in one way or another, with the cartels. And given the level of violence on the streets and the number of, kind of, videos and Internet pictures there are about all that's going on, I wonder if in some weird way become inured to it, particularly the young ones. It begins to see normal to them; they've grown up in it.

GRILLO: Yeah, I think that's very true, and it's very sad. Often at these crime scenes, you see young children on the streets. You see eight-year-old children, nine-year-old, 10-year-old children, 12-year-olds, 14-, 15-, 16-, sitting around. Often I've seen young teenagers looking at the crime scenes, discussing the type of bullets that are there, discussing if they're AK-47 bullets, AR-15 bullets.

You refer to this, what's happening in Mexico, as a criminal insurgency. Explain what you mean.

When I use the term criminal insurgency, it's to explain it's an extraordinary conflict that has gone way beyond the bounds of organized crime. When we think of Al Capone and organized crime, we think of a conflict where, in the largest massacre, where there were something like seven people killed, whereas in Mexico, in a single massacre, you've seen 72 people murdered.

You've seen mass graves with 200 bodies, groups of 50 men with RPGs and AK-47s attacking police bases, attacking military units. So we have to understand it's gone way beyond the regular bounds of a mafia war.

Now, the drug cartels don't have an ideology like al-Qaida or an ideology like communist insurgents or even a nationalist agenda. They're after controlling territory for their criminal business interests. We've seen, now, in the last four-and-a-half years, more than 3,000 police, soldiers and officials killed by these drug cartels.

Now, in some cases, you know, it's obviously a challenge to authority, a challenge to state and government. We've seen one case where the mayor of a small town was taken by some gangsters and stoned to death on a main street. Now, I don't understand how anyone can argue this is no longer a challenge, a threat to the authorities, with this kind of violence.

And drug cartels, in areas where they're powerful, they become like a shadow state, like a predatory government. When they take money from businesses through extortion, and sometimes they make even schoolteachers pay money to them, is allowing them to become - it is empowering them, by saying we are the people who can collect tax, in a way, from the people.

Now, in Ciudad Juarez, the business owners at one time said: Why should we pay tax to the central federal government if we're paying extortion payment to gangsters? And they had quite a compelling argument to why do they have to pay two sets of taxation.

DAVIES: Ioan Grillo's new book is called "El Narco: Inside Mexico's Criminal Insurgency." He'll be back in the second half of the show. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, filling in for Terry Gross, back with journalist Ioan Grillo. He spent a decade covering the narco wars in Mexico, where drug cartels are battling each other and the Mexican military and terrorizing civilians with gruesome murders and kidnappings. In his book, "El Narco: Inside Mexico's Criminal Insurgency," Grillo looks at the historical roots of the conflict and explores steps that might curb the violence.

You know, if you look at the history of organized crime in America, I mean, it's not just mythology that there were meetings at time in which rival crime families got together and decided to end a fratricidal war and divide up turf and cooperate within a sphere for the sake of business, and so there was less violence. I mean, if the cartels in Mexico are really fighting over turf, I mean, doesn't it stand to reason that there's at some point at which it would be in their interests to, you know, reach a detente and just do their trafficking without so much killing?

GRILLO: Well, that's a very central point, I think, which is going to be debated into the 2012 presidential election in Mexico. Many members of the public, if they're asked in surveys, should they try and make pacts between the cartels, many members will say yes. Now, politically, it's very difficult to say this, because to say we want to work with the cartels to make pacts is to say you're supporting their drug trafficking. But there are cases - I mean, often in the U.S., for example, the U.S. prison system, where there's prison gangs fighting, the prison authorities will sit down gang leaders and say, okay, look. We have to make some peace here. We have to stop this fighting. You're not necessarily giving them anything. You're just saying, you know, it's not benefiting anybody to have this fighting.

Now, often in communities like Ciudad, Juarez, especially in the kind of mid-level commanders that are from these areas don't necessarily want to see their own communities being burnt like this, being destroyed. And when you have gangs in Ciudad, Juarez like the Barrio Azteca and a group called the Artist Assassins, who are fighting - these are street gangs who are fighting on behalf of the drug cartels.

There could potentially be moves to say to these people, you know, we need to create some kind of peace. For the good of this community, we have to have cease-fires. You know, even in wars, you can start to make cease-fires and start to make, kind of, rules. And this had some of effect, as well, in Colombia, in Medellin - often not by the government, but by some other people, like for example, some religious figures from the churches, and plus some other deputies and old (unintelligible) leaders helped to negotiate peace deals between rival factions. And that did reduce violence in cities like Medellin.

DAVIES: So do you see anybody working on that in Mexico?

GRILLO: Well, it will be very interesting to see who takes power in 2012. The favorite is Enrique Pena Nieto of the PRI. Many people say that they wanted that back....

DAVIES: That's the old institutional party that ruled for 70 years, right?

GRILLO: That's correct. They want to go back to the same party which ruled Mexico for 71 years, which was criticized for being undemocratic, because they feel it was more peaceful back then, that they could get along better, that they weren't facing - they might have had to pay off members of the government who were often shaking down their businesses. They didn't have to worry so much about gangsters shaking them down. So many people want to go back to the PRI. Some people say, well, the PRI are only going to negotiate with gangsters. The PRI will not openly say they will talk to gangsters, but there is speculation that they may, in an underhand way, find some kind of way to broker peace deals.

DAVIES: There have also been reports that U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies have been operating more aggressively in Mexico. And it's sort of reminds me of the situation with Pakistan, where U.S. intelligence keeps forces on the ground. It uses drones for surveillance and targeted attacks, doesn't tell the Pakistani government generally what it's up to. Do we see a similar situation developing in Mexico?

GRILLO: We've certainly seen an escalation of U.S. forces in Mexico. We've seen extensive training by the Northern Command, or the Mexican Marines, who have become an elite force to attack the drug cartels. We've seen the aid to Mexico by the American military in terms of Black Hawk helicopters, and also some drones again, to survey the units of drug traffickers on the ground, of the kind of malicious of drug cartels on the ground. And we've started to see some - bases - some stories of CIA operatives being at base in Mexico, which we still have to confirm these stories.

Now, obviously, the specter is of American troops themselves going into Mexico, and this was raised by the presidential hopeful Rick Perry in his campaign. He said, well, this is getting so bad, maybe one day we'll have to send some American troops. Now, a couple of years ago, I would have just said this is something completely impossible. But things are starting to get so bad in some areas, and when you do have militias with 50 guys with RPG's, AK-47s and so forth close to the U.S. border, then the American military machine is going to react.

DAVIES: You write a good bit in the last chapter of your book about legalization, or the decriminalization of drug use as one way to undermine the strength of the cartels. Just give us your perspective there.

GRILLO: The debate about the Mexican drug war has to be linked to the debate on American drug policy, whatever the views are on that policy. We have to understand it's the same question, that these drug cartels are receiving some $30 billion every year from American drug users. And if you look at that over 10 years, you're talking about $300 billion. Now, do we want to see the situation where, in 10 more years, American drug users give 300 billion more dollars to these organizations who are carrying out terror, hurting families and destroying communities? Is American drug policy effective now? I mean, there are many people who say, well, it's not effective right now. The drug policy itself has got problems. So we're getting into the realm of drug policy reform, and it's a very complicated debate.

One question of the debate is if you legalize marijuana, for example, would it affect drug cartels? Whatever the goods and bads are about legalizing marijuana, I would say it certainly will affect the cartels. We know they make billions of dollars every year selling marijuana in the United States. We don't know the exact percentage of marijuana in their business, and it varies from cartel to cartel. But we know that billions of dollars go to Mexico from selling marijuana and end up paying assassins, paying hit men, corrupting politicians.

DAVIES: One of the interesting parts of this story are the cultural artifacts of the narco trade, these songs about gangsters, the narcocorridos. How are the writers and performers here connected to the real narco traffic? Explain what a narcocorrido is, maybe.

GRILLO: A narcocorrido is a ballad about drug trafficking and drug traffickers. And the people who write these ballads are often actually paid by the drug traffickers to write the songs about them. They'll pay somebody - might be as little as $1,000, maybe as much as $50,000, even, to write a ballad portraying these traffickers as brave heroes who have the valor to fight against the DEA and the Mexican army, and so forth. Also, the drug balladeers will play at the parties, often, of drug traffickers, and they'll make a large amount of their income playing at these parties, which can go on for days and nights. And you have stories of some of these musicians where they've been almost held at gunpoint in these parties for days on end - days and nights of debauched partying.

DAVIES: And are the songs popular beyond the traffickers?

GRILLO: Yeah, the songs are very, very popular beyond the traffickers. There's some songs by artists who also are on major record labels in the United States playing these songs. The music itself, you know, it has a very kind of popular driving baseline and brass section often. And people enjoy these lyrics and they do see these characters often as these people, they call them valientes in some communities, or brave ones. And they're often seen as people who do have the guts in a very difficult society, in a society where the minimum wage is $5 a day. They are seen as people who have the guts to beat the system, to rise up and to make good for themselves.

DAVIES: Well, Ioan Grillo, I want to thank you so much for speaking with us.

GRILLO: Thank you very for your time.

DAVIES: Ioan Grillo's new book is called "El Narco: Inside Mexico's Criminal Insurgency." You can read an excerpt on our website, Now here's one of those narcocorridos written about Mexican drug traffickers.


UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing in Spanish)

DAVIES: Coming up: a look at the informal cash economy that employs half the world's workers. This is FRESH AIR.

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