Stuart H. Loory, program moderator: We are beginning to understand that there is a serious and growing problem in Mexico with what one American politician has called “narcoterrorism.” We’re also beginning to understand that the United States is deeply responsible for it. For one thing, it is those who crave drugs in this country who are the consumers serviced by the drug runners in Mexico. That is a business involving tens of billions of dollars each year. For another, it is in the U.S. where the drug runners buy their weapons, which have been used in a killing spree now spreading north from Mexico. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is in Mexico [March 26], Attorney General Eric Holder and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano will each visit Mexico in the next few weeks, then President Barack Obama will go there to visit with President Felipe Calderon. The object of this diplomacy is to repair relations between the two countries. Dealing with the drug problem is the largest part of that effort. A recent Pentagon report put Mexico in a class with Pakistan as a dysfunctional state. Is the situation really that bad with our neighbor?
Oscar Avila, Latin American correspondent, Chicago Tribune, Mexico City, Mexico: Mexico takes issue with that assessment. Other experts question whether Mexico is about to collapse on the national level as that report said. There are pockets of dysfunctionality; Ciudad Juarez, across the border from El Paso, Texas, has been referred to as a failed city. The Mexican government had to send thousands of military troops to restore a semblance of order.
Loory: Is it true that the mayor of Ciudad Juarez lives in El Paso and commutes to work every day?
Avila: There are many business people and other government officials who do just that. They are specific targets for crime.
Alfredo Corchado, Harvard Nieman Fellow, Mexico bureau chief, Dallas Morning News, New York: It has been common for generations, especially for the upper-middle class, to have homes on both sides of the border. The mayor’s family spends most of their time on the El Paso side, the children are enrolled in schools there and the mayor does commute. Since President Calderon took office in Dec. 2006, more than 10,000 people have died in the drug war. Part of the problem is that more than 90 percent of all the crimes in Mexico are never solved, very few are even investigated. So, to get accurate numbers of those killed, or even the cause of death, is difficult. Some newspapers have made an almost daily track of people killed.
Loory: The drug problem involves all of Latin America; the drugs are produced mostly in South America and then come north through Mexico. Is there anything being done to really control the problem at the source?
Monica Machicao, correspondent and senior producer, Reuters Television, La Paz, Bolivia: No. When Evo Morales, President of Bolivia, took office in 2006, Bolivian armed forces used to find one factory of drugs per day in the country. That number has escalated to up to 20 factories each day. The drugs going to Brazil — coming from Peru and also produced here — have increased one thousand percent in three years. This is a very poor country, and drug production is very profitable. We have seen an escalation in cocoa crops in the last years, it is of course more profitable and people are being allowed to do that much more than in the past. The Bolivian government has denied all the accusations, and they have always said that this is part of a plot trying to undermine the government of Morales. So, basically nothing has been done in this matter.
Loory: The Bush Administration said it wanted to stop cocoa production when Morales was elected. Is the Obama Administration continuing to try to stop cocoa production and other drugs in Latin America?
Corchado: It is too early to say. Latin Americans will be watching Obama’s trip to the Summit of the Americas to see what plans are announced. While Plan Colombia did help reduce the incidence of violence, production hasn’t fallen. In fact, the cartels have spun into even more cartels, focusing on supplying Africa and Europe with drugs. These are very poor countries that depend on cocoa production for survival. The Mexicans keep asking the U.S. to deal with demand on treatment programs, not simply on disrupting supply routes.
Loory: Is there a good treatment or prevention program that is really working?
Avila: There is no consensus on one approach to solve the issue of consumption. The first step is to admit that you have a problem. The U.S., as a country, as a matter of national policy, must admit there is a consumption problem and an effect on other countries in Latin America. Secretary Clinton has acknowledged a shared responsibility and a problem that consumption drives.
Loory: To what extent are the cartel wars spreading to the U.S., and how can they be controlled?
Corchado: There are four very powerful drug cartels in Mexico: the Sinaloa, Juarez, Gulf, and Tijuana cartels. The main fight right now is between the Sinaloa and Juarez cartel, which is right along the Mexico/Texas corridor. The fight is for drug distribution routes; whoever gets the drugs into the U.S. is really the one making the money. In the past 14 months, more than 2,000 people have been killed just in Ciudad Juarez alone. That violence is no longer stopping at the border. There were more than 350 kidnappings in Phoenix alone, murders have been traced to Dallas where Mexican cartels depend on their U.S. gangs to do the jobs. Mexican cartels have a presence in more than 231 cities in the U.S., which make them more powerful than the Colombians ever were or even the Italian mafia.
Loory: How did this grow to that point without any attention being paid in this country?
Avila: These are global operations, not just in Mexico. It is an issue for countries all along the supply routes. There wasn’t acknowledgment of the seriousness of the problem until it became more visible in the U.S., with things like kidnapping.
Corchado: It usually takes violence in the U.S. for the administrations to start to think this is not just a problem south of the border. Amid all the tragedy in Mexico, some people are glad the U.S. is finally waking up to the problems that Bolivians, Peruvians and Colombians have faced for many years.
Loory: Are we going to send troops to the border or do something about the wall along the border?
Avila: There are questions about how much a wall can do. I’m not sure how helpful troops would be either, perhaps short-term. Deeper structural changes in law enforcement, intelligence gathering and greater cooperation between the two countries are needed. The presence of the U.S. in Mexico has always been a sensitive topic. There is not going to be any U.S. military deployed into Mexico, not like in Colombia. It would never fly politically.
Loory: The drug problem is only part of the situation confronting the two countries in their relations. NAFTA, protectionism, and the use of Mexican trucks and truck drivers in the U.S. are also part of it. Is Obama going to do something to ease these concerns?
Corchado: Clinton is trying to focus more on trade, which continues to be a sensitive issue like immigration. Administration aides will say they’re trying to de-narcotize the relationship. They are trying to portray this as a more complex, more bilateral relationship than to just focus on one issue.
Avila: Despite early blips, the relationship is on good footing, especially compared to other administrations and other times. Mexico does realize that the U.S. has other fires to put out, but the last few weeks have reinforced Mexico as an important priority.
Loory: For years, we thought of drug use in this country as a social or crime problem, but now we see it as an international problem involving military expenditures and delicate diplomacy. The key to solving all of this lies here in the U.S.
Producers of Global Journalist are MU journalism graduate students Jared Gassen, Brian Jarvis, Sananda Sahoo, and Melissa Ulbricht. The transcriber is Pat Kelley.