TOPICS > Politics

Violence Escalates as Mexico Drug War Continues

February 24, 2009 at 6:30 PM EDT

JIM LEHRER: Next, Mexico’s violent drug war. We have a report from the Tijuana-San Diego border from Bill Neely of Independent Television News.

BILL NEELY: It’s the sound of a country in crisis, daylight gun battles and a national nightmare.

Mexico is reeling from drug violence more deadly than the war in Afghanistan. Six died in this shootout, but nearly 100 people are being murdered every week. In one gun battle this month, six killed from one drug gang, 14 from another in a fight over turf.

Mexico’s leaders are struggling to hold their country together.

Dozens of lives are being lost every week.

MAYOR JORGE RAMOS, Tijuana mayor: Absolutely, because it’s a real war. I mean, this is not — we’re not faking what we’re doing. It’s truly and it’s really happening. But we’re making a lot of progress.

BILL NEELY: This doesn’t look like progress: a dozen men mutilated, drug cartels beheading rivals, copying the terror tactics of Iraq, Mexico’s army on the streets, but often outfought by ruthless gangs with better weapons.

Tens of thousands of troops have been deployed in Mexico’s cities. These are actually special forces, and they’ve been on the streets for about two years, but this isn’t a war they’re winning.

When even the soldiers wear masks so they can’t be identified by the drug gangs, you know this is a country gripped by fear. And with good reason: This man was arrested in Tijuana last month for dissolving bodies in acid. He disposed of at least 300 people, murdered by the cartel he worked for.

I watched Mexico’s police parade other gang members. They arrest thousands, but the killing never stops.

And they’ve never been seen again?

CHRISTINA PALACIOS: Never been seen again.

Thousands of Mexicans missing

BILL NEELY: Up to a thousand Mexicans are missing. Christina Palacios campaigns to find them, among them, her son.

CHRISTINA PALACIOS: It's a war. It's a war.

BILL NEELY: Who's winning this war?

CHRISTINA PALACIOS: I hate to say it, but the government is not winning.

BILL NEELY: So thousands of Mexicans are trying to protect themselves, buying bullet-proof cars with all the trimmings.

GABRIEL MARTIN, business owner: We've got electrified door handles, so if somebody tries to open your door, they get a high voltage down their arm.

BILL NEELY: Mexicans are being murdered in the thousands, but the guns used to kill them, most of them, come from somewhere else. It's the same place that buys the cocaine the men trade, and it's over there in the United States.

Cartel violence along the border

BILL NEELY: Mexico's drug cartels are fighting for access to this border and to the U.S. drug market. It's a war over the world's most lucrative smuggling routes, and the border fence is no barrier to the violence.

LT. DAVID MYERS, San Diego County Sheriff's Department: Because when it starts coming up close is when you want to get out of the way, because you don't know where the bullets are going and you don't know which direction they're shooting in.

BILL NEELY: And that happens regularly?

LT. DAVID MYERS: I would say, yes, regularly.

BILL NEELY: Last month, the U.S. Army warned that Mexico could suddenly collapse.

BILL GORE, San Diego County Sheriff's Department: We can't afford to have a failed state on our, you know, 2,000-mile-long border to our south. It's just unacceptable.

BILL NEELY: Mexico is in crisis, its greatest in 100 years. The police, who we followed to more horrific murders, cannot cope. Many officers are corrupt; dozens are murdered. Mexico's peace has been shattered. It's now a country of menace and murder, fighting to survive.