GLOBAL JOURNALIST: At war with drug cartels

Friday, March 26, 2010 | 2:38 p.m. CDT; updated 10:08 a.m. CDT, Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Stuart Loory, Lee Hills Chair in Free-Press Studies, Missouri School of Journalism: We know that the U.S. is fighting two wars halfway around the world. What we don’t appreciate is that a third war between Mexican drug cartels is being fought right on our southwestern border. This week, a delegation led by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton met their Mexican counterparts in Mexico City to discuss how to bring the situation under control. The violence centers in Ciudad Juarez, the Mexican city of 1.7 million just across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Texas. In the past year there have been 3,400 murders in that city. Last week three people were killed after driving away from a birthday party at the American consulate. Most of the dead are ages 14 to 25, and they are thought to be in the drug trade. Why are these cartels killing each other, and why have they not been brought under control?

Susana Seijas, freelance journalist and producer; Mexico City: They’re fighting for these very lucrative smuggling routes into the U.S. They’re also struggling to get more market share in places like Ciudad Juarez, and more teenagers to try to use drugs or help them trade drugs.

Loory: But isn’t the market really in the U.S.?

Seijas: There’s a huge hunger for drugs in the U.S. The market could be estimated at $40 billion a year. It’s all about money. There are also more people in Mexico consuming – that’s the new trend.

Malcolm Beith, freelance journalist and author of “The Last Narco;” Mexico City: One important thing to remember when talking about Mexican drug cartels is that we’re talking about four or five major drug cartels. Academics don’t like to use the word "cartel" because they don’t actually control the prices, and a cartel controls prices. There are a lot of gangs who are working not only for the Juarez cartel, which is the famous organization from that area, but for whoever will supply the drugs to get across the border. That is part of the reason why there has been so much bloodshed in Juarez recently. It is no longer under one person or one organization’s control.

The Mexican government in the last 10 years has pushed the argument that drug use in Mexico is on the rise, and it is rising. There are people who dispute the numbers, but it definitely is on the increase. In the 70s and 80s, drugs were an American problem, and both the Mexican government and the drug dealers didn’t care. It was a business proposition, but now it is much closer to home. The U.S. demand is still the problem. That’s where the money is.

Loory: What are the effects of everything happening south of the border on the area north of the border?

John MacCormack, reporter, San Antonio Express-News; San Antonio: Actually very little effect. To my knowledge, 99 percent of the violence is south of the border. Everyone talks about spillover, but El Paso is a very safe city. Ciudad Juarez is the most dangerous city in the world. In Juarez there is a very profound secondary problem in the inability of the army and the Federales to keep control. This has given rise to a whole subculture of extortions, kidnappings and robberies. They estimate that 30,000 people from Juarez – principally those with money – are now in El Paso, and 100,000 or more have left to go back to inland Mexico.

Loory: Tell us about this latest move by the U.S. government get more involved in trying to bring order to the situation in Mexico.

Eric Olson, Senior Advisor, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars Mexico Institute; Washington, D.C.:  The latest efforts are a continuation of what began under the Bush administration. There was a three-year assistance package worth $1.4 billion. It was heavily focused on technology. Over the last several months, there’s been a refining of the strategy that the two countries want to pursue. I think there was a general conclusion in both the U.S. and Mexico that simply deploying more troops on the streets is insufficient. The cartels are too strong, too smart and too capable, and they’re not intimidated by large numbers of police or military. The governments are making it less about massive deployment and more about specific intelligence-based deployment and about the institutional problems that Mexico confronts. Law enforcement and judicial reform have been weak, ineffective and incapable of dealing with crime and violence in Mexico for decades, so there is a re-shifting of strategy in that direction. The other part of the strategy is to focus in the U.S. on the consumption side, on stopping the flow of weapons into Mexico and dealing with money laundering.

Loory: One of the things mentioned after this high level meeting this week was that the emphasis would be taken away from fence-building along the border. Is that really going to happen, and if so what does that really mean as far as the illegal entry is concerned?

MacCormack: As far as the illegal importation of drugs is concerned, I don’t think the fences have any effect because 95 percent of the drugs come over in semis that go sailing right over the bridges. Trade is so heavy because of NAFTA that I’m sure there are 10,000 trucks a day that cross the border. That is where the drugs come across. I don’t think the fence is a big issue. Illegal immigration is one issue and narco-violence is another. They’re connected somewhat, but I think the real crisis is the latter.

Loory: Is there any way of controlling these trucks carrying drugs across the border?

MacCormack: As long as this trade generates $20 billion to $40 billion a year in profits from the U.S., anything you want to do in Mexico is going to fail. Until the profit is radically reduced by changes on the U.S. side, the whole conversation about joint efforts, partnerships, helicopters and X-ray machines is wasted breath. As long as the money is coming over north to south, there is no way anyone is going to control the drug trade or defeat the cartels. They have infinitely more money than the Mexican government has to fight them. The cartels are smarter, better armed and more sophisticated, and they make a lot more money than the Mexican police and the Mexican army.

Beith: You cannot stop the trucks from coming into the U.S. Trade is going to be more important than blocking drugs. The drugs come alongside that trade. There has been talk in Juarez by local activists about blocking the trucking route to Juarez. The problem is that the traffickers just move to smaller towns and to trucking routes a little bit to the west and east. Let’s say Mexico stopped being the through route for Colombian cocaine, Mexican marijuana, methamphetamine and heroin coming into the U.S. If the demand is there, the traffickers are going to find another route. In the 1980s, the Colombians were shipping the cocaine straight to Miami. The Coast Guard and U.S. authorities cracked down on the Caribbean, and Mexicans became better at trafficking so they took over the business.

Loory: President Calderon is going to make a state visit to Washington in May. The drug issue will probably be discussed, but I don’t get the feeling that it is the primary issue. Matters of immigration and trade between the two countries are considered more important. Is that right?

Olson: I would say there are three or four major issues, but I would be hard-pressed to tell you which is the most important. I think U.S. assistance and cooperation on the battle against these drug-trafficking organizations is a priority, but so is immigration.

Loory: Can there be as much success in Mexico in combating the drug problem as there has been in Colombia and Afghanistan?

Olson: What is the measure of success in Colombia? We know for a fact that production of cocaine in Colombia remains exceedingly high, organized crime is still extremely active and one-third of the Colombian Congress is being investigated for connection to organized crime. I think people too quickly say there was success in Colombia. There were some successes there and violence has gone down, but reducing violence doesn’t mean the problem has gone away.

Loory: If there is so much fighting around the world over drugs. it is only because there is so much drug use around the world. The U.S., as in so many other things, is a leading consumer of drugs. Clearly something has to be done in our cities and towns to control the use of drugs. Cutbacks here will help control violence abroad.

Producers of Global Journalist are Missouri School of Journalism graduate students Youn-Joo Park, Angela Potrykus, Melissa Ulbricht, Tim Wall and Megan Wiegand. The transcriber is Pat Kelley.

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