Assault on Drugs in Mexico
[Sorry, the video for this story has expired, but you can still read the transcript below. ]
JIM LEHRER: Mexico’s war on drugs: A new round of drug- related killings erupted in the Mexican cities of Tijuana and Mexicali last week. Eleven people were killed, including the regional director of Mexico’s intelligence agency.
We have a report on the successes and setbacks in the Mexican government’s fight against drugs. The reporter is Jeffrey Kaye of KCET, Los Angeles.
JEFFREY KAYE: The state of Guerrero in southwest Mexico is best known for Acapulco, the jewel of Mexico’s Riviera. But inland and up in the rugged and inhospitable Sierra Madre Mountains, there’s a whole different world. This is the heartland of Mexico’s drug country. Scattered in the valleys below, miles from paved roads, are tens of thousands of acres of opium poppies and marijuana crops.
In the past 18 months, the Mexican government has intensified its assault on the drug trade and official corruption. These days, more than 20,000 troops patrol Mexico’s mountains and countrysides on counter-drug search-and-destroy missions. Near the small Indian village of Ixlayotla, soldiers destroyed a bumper crop of marijuana concealed in a corn field.
COL. GILBERTO BELLO, Mexican Army: Right here you can see that they have one plant of marijuana right here.
JEFFREY KAYE: Reporter: Right.
COL. GILBERTO BELLO: One corn, one marijuana, one corn-right — and so on.
JEFFREY KAYE: The Mexican military claims that in the last year and a half, it has destroyed more than 190 square miles of illegal drug crops. That’s an area the size of the city of Tucson. The government is eager to show off its drug war victories. In a rare interview, Mexico Secretary of Defense, Army General Gerardo Vega, explained the increased role of the military in law enforcement.
GEN. GERARDO VEGA, Secretary of Defense, Mexico: The concept of national security in our country is not just a military concept or a law enforcement concept. For us, national security involves everything, including political, economic, social, and military aspects. Narco-trafficking is not just part of organized crime, but rather we see it as a social problem that affects all of our countrymen who are involved in it.
JEFFREY KAYE: Mexican authorities have scored dramatic successes. The police and army have captured some of the nation’s most notorious organized crime figures. The biggest prizes were the arrest this March of Benjamin Arellano-Felix, and the killing by police a month earlier of his brother Ramon. The siblings ran Mexico’s most powerful drug gang, responsible for a wave of violence in northern Mexico. Increasingly, the army is playing an active role in going after drug kingpins.
GEN. GERARDO VEGA: We combat organized crime, developing and collecting intelligence to capture crime bosses. We do this to support the attorney general. What we do is develop intelligence and information. And with the means we have we then act.
JEFFREY KAYE: On the walls of the defense ministry, trophies, personal items seized from Mexico’s most wanted narco-traffickers, underscore the involvement of the armed forces in the drug war. That involvement grew in recent years because of the military’s reputation as less corrupt than other Mexican institutions. Corruption ruined countless criminal cases over the years, according to officials with the U.S. Drug enforcement administration. Errol Chavez, DEA Special Agent in charge of the San Diego Division, has had long experience with Mexican authorities.
ERROL CHAVEZ, U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration: Everything we had seemed to be given to the narcotics trafficker almost immediately. We provided them with books, photographs, license plate numbers, telephone numbers. We provided them with some specific details on pending trafficking operations that the Arellano Felix Organization was going to participate in.
And as a result, we would find… we would get information back from our informants that the Arellano Felix Organization had everything that we provided to the Mexican officials.
JEFFREY KAYE: In Mexico City, U.S. Ambassador Jeffrey Davidow says things are now different.
JEFFREY DAVIDOW, U.S. Ambassador to Mexico: The confidence level on both sides has gone up dramatically. As the Mexican government has been able to demonstrate that intelligence information that comes to it will not be leaked and compromise an investigation, perhaps an investigation in the United States.
JEFFREY KAYE: One change is an effort to professionalize Mexican law enforcement. There are tougher standards for training and recruitment of anti-drug warriors. A centerpiece of that effort is the training academy of Mexico’s version of the FBI, known by its acronym, AFI, or AFI, the Agency for Federal Investigation. The school’s curriculum is heavy on commando training.
But along with police training has come an emphasis on integrity. Not only must federal police recruits meet physical requirements, they must also pass a new polygraph test and a background check. The new tests eliminate 50 percent of the applicants. Mottos on a cafeteria wall invoke the dignity of public service and respect for the law.
GENARO GARCIA, Director, Mexican Agency for Federal Investigation: Our operations are compartmentalized and secure.
JEFFREY KAYE: Genaro Garcia, the director of the AFI, says sensitive information is now limited to a small number of federal law enforcement officials.
GENARO GARCIA: I think that part of our success in combating organized crimes has been the creation of effective anticrime units in our structures. And we have also compartmentalized our work staffed by professional people of conviction who are vetted and who have new technology.
JEFFREY KAYE: Reforms in the ranks of Mexican police agencies are helping span the chasm of distrust that long existed between Mexican and U.S. law enforcement.
One example of increased binational cooperation could be seen at a restricted section of Acapulco’s airport. Mexican pilots who fly anti-drug patrols receive night vision training and equipment funded by the U.S. Government. This year, the U.S. provided Mexico with $12 million in counter narcotics assistance, triple the amount it provided three years ago.
But there are limits to full cooperation since U.S. law enforcement officials trust only a select few of their Mexican counterparts. U.S. authorities say that in Mexico City, there’s an island of trustworthy government officials in a sea of corruption.
JEFFREY DAVIDOW: Oh, I think that that island gets bigger every month as the comfort level of our law enforcement with their law enforcement, the exchange of information. One reason that increases… one reason that the comfort level goes up is that as we have more experience with people, and we know that the information that was passed last month wasn’t leaked, then that… that pool or that island increases.
JEFFREY KAYE: While federal officials are proud of their reforms and the arrests of top drug kingpins, by all accounts, changes are slow in coming at the state and local levels. In Mexico’s towns and villages, police corruption is still widespread.
In the southern Mexican village of Vereda, one of the biggest events of the year is the rodeo. Hundreds of people come to watch young cowboys test their mettle as bull riders. But to hear the locals tell it, fighting corruption here may be as difficult as riding a bucking bull. Beer distributor Francisco Benitez says the local police are always on the take.
FRANCISCO BENITEZ: They want money, you know?
JEFFREY KAYE: They want money?
FRANCISCO BENITEZ: Sure, if you don’t give money, you don’t have any help. If you don’t have money, they never help us. They only looking for the money, always.
JEFFREY KAYE: Has this happened to you?
FRANCISCO BENITEZ: Sure.
JEFFREY KAYE: Mexican cops are notoriously underpaid. In Vereda, the five-man police force is unpaid. Not only that, Commandante Alberto Avalino says his militia must buy their own weapons and uniforms.
COMMANDANTE ALBERTO AVALINO , Vereda, Mexico: Here we don’t have anything. We are volunteers supporting our community. When someone tells us about an assault or robbery we go, we put on our uniforms and check it out.
JEFFREY KAYE: Avalino says he and his men are no match for the drug traffickers.
COMMANDANTE ALBERTO AVALINO: They have the force, the power. That’s because they’ve got the cash — and us, nothing.
JEFFREY KAYE: One city rocked by the power and wealth of the drug cartels is Tijuana, right across the border from San Diego. As the home base of the Arellano Felix Organization, Tijuana became a notorious hub of corruption and drug violence over the last ten years. Despite the death of one Arellano Felix brother and the arrest of another, U.S. authorities say their organization is still active.
The U.S. Treasury Department has named nine Tijuana businesses as money laundering fronts for the cartel. They include a prominent drug store chain, and the Oasis Beach Resort, a hotel 20 miles south of Tijuana. The active businesses show the continuing power of the drug cartel, according to Tijuana human rights activist Victor Clark.
VICTOR CLARK, Binational Human Rights Center: If you don’t touch those big networks that is the infrastructure of all these people, you only are arresting the visible delinquency, those whose names are known by the public, those whose names are on the media. Those are the street operators, but what about the others, the white collar crimes? They are not… they have not been arrested, not even touched, not even mentioned, and I doubt if they are going to be arrested soon.
JEFFREY KAYE: Mexican drug warriors say they are investigating the cartels’ financial infrastructure. But perhaps their more formidable challenge is the nation’s most pressing social ill, poverty. The state of Guerrero is not only one of the country’s most productive areas for illegal crops, it’s also one the poorest in Mexico. Here, peasant farmers sow and plow cornfields just as their ancestors did hundreds of years ago.
In the village of Tlatlauquitepec, residents say farmers cultivate illegal drugs in the mountains to escape poverty, malnutrition, and economic neglect.
JUAN SILVA: They do it out of necessity. I’m against drugs, but I think most people do it out of necessity, not because they want to. Corn just doesn’t make it. You lose a lot. You spend a lot of money, but a crop like that gives you little in return.
JEFFREY KAYE: That’s a huge contrast with the nation’s most lucrative illegal crop, opium poppies. Opium gum, the raw material for heroin, is worth thousands of times more than any other cash crop grown in the same area. Defense Minister Vega acknowledges that the battle against illegal drugs requires as much an economic as a military solution.
GEN. GERARDO VEGA: The problem is, how much does a hectare of tomatoes and how much does a hectare of marijuana cost? And that difference hasn’t been resolved in the United States, Mexico, Colombia, or anywhere. That’s why I say this has to be resolved in some global way; it’s a worldwide issue. That’s my personal opinion.
JEFFREY KAYE: As Mexican soldiers fight the drug war one plant at a time, ready markets for the illegal crops await in both the U.S. and Mexico. So there is little sign of the smoke from Mexico’s drug war clearing up anytime soon.