TOPICS > Politics

Deaths of Americans Raise New Concerns Over Mexico’s Drug War

March 15, 2010 at 12:00 AM EST
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U.S. and Mexican authorities are investigating the possible drug cartel violence that left two Americans and a Mexican with ties to the U.S. consulate in Juarez dead over the weekend. Gwen Ifill talks to a journalist about the escalating violence across the border.
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GWEN IFILL: Federal investigators in the U.S. and Mexico joined today to investigate the weekend murders of U.S. government employees in Juarez. It was a dramatic escalation in Mexico’s ongoing, brutal drug war that drew international condemnation.

The car carrying the American couple and their infant daughter was ambushed near a bridge crossing the border into El Paso, Texas.

Lesley Enriquez, an American staffer at the U.S. Consulate in Juarez, was shot and killed alongside her husband, Arthur Redelfs, on their way home from a children’s party. Redelfs worked at the county jail in El Paso. Their baby was unharmed, but Enriquez had been pregnant with a second child.

In what appeared to be a coordinated attack, the Mexican husband of another U.S. Consulate employee, Jorge Alberto Salcido Ceniceros, was gunned down minutes earlier leaving the same party. His two young children were wounded, but later released from the hospital.

Mexican authorities pointed to a gang, the Aztecas, allied with the Juarez drug cartel. But the FBI said there is no information the victims were targeted because of their U.S. connections.

President Obama, Secretary of State Clinton, and Mexican President Felipe Calderon all condemned the killings. The State Department authorized consulate workers to evacuate families to the U.S.

P.J. CROWLEY, assistant secretary of state for public affairs: This is a common challenge. There is violence along the border. At various times, it has spilled across on to the U.S. side of that border. But I think we are determined, as are Mexican authorities, to get to the bottom of this particular tragedy, but also do everything we can to restore the rule of law in Mexico.

GWEN IFILL: The focus is a series of cities along the 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexican border, where cartel-driven violence has exploded, from Tijuana on the Pacific Coast, to Juarez and Nuevo Laredo, all the way to Matamoros near the Gulf.

Mexico’s drug war has killed nearly 20,000 people since Calderon put the army in the streets in 2006. Juarez stands out, with more than 2,600 murders just last year. Hundreds more have died so far this year. But Juarez is not alone. At least 27 people died in the Pacific vacation spot of Acapulco last weekend.

Some of the victims were beheaded, all of which raised concerns for American college students on spring break heading for Mexico’s resorts, beaches, and parties.

WOMAN: We’re actually going to have bodyguards.

GWEN IFILL: Both state and federal officials in the U.S. have now warned Americans to avoid unnecessary travel to Mexico’s troubled border region.

For more on this latest outbreak of drug-related violence in Mexico, we turn to Angela Kocherga. She’s the border bureau chief for Belo Television and Newspapers and has spent the past two years covering the story in Juarez.

Welcome, Angela.

We have heard before of this kind of violence, but not of U.S. government employees being targeted. What’s different about what happened this weekend?

ANGELA KOCHERGA, Belo Television Group: Well, this really stunned people here along the border, because there’s a sense, maybe false sense, of security on the part of U.S. government employees. The thought is that the drug cartels wouldn’t go after such high-profile targets because it would draw a lot of attention and response from the U.S. government.

And that’s exactly what we have seen. And we have both the U.S. and Mexico condemning these attacks and working together to solve the murders.

GWEN IFILL: What do we know about the victims in this case? Do we know what they did at the embassy or whether there was any special targeting of them?

ANGELA KOCHERGA: Well, it’s really hard to say.

Right now, both governments are saying that they don’t know these people were specifically targeted. She — the woman — there was a U.S. couple. The wife worked at the U.S. Consulate. Her husband was a detention officer with the El Paso County Sheriff’s Department. Now, whether they were targeted or not specifically because of their jobs, they were chased to the International Bridge and gunned down in their vehicle.

And another separate attack coincided almost moments later in a different location. He was the husband of another consulate employee. And they were all coming from the same social function. So, it clearly looks like they were after these people, but nobody is sure if it was because of their U.S. government jobs.

GWEN IFILL: You have been covering this story for a while. Help our viewers understand the scope and the — the — of this violence over time.

ANGELA KOCHERGA: Well, it’s just been absolutely devastating.

Ciudad Juarez, which borders El Paso, has seen thousands of people killed, 2,600 — more than 2,600 — just last year. And the killing has continued unabated. We’re talking about shootings in broad daylight, beheadings, dismembered bodies left in front of school yards.

Really, most people feel like they’re prisoners in their own homes in Juarez, and you do have thousands of Americans who crisscross this border to visit relatives in Mexico, because they have business in Mexico. And, really, at this point, most people are only going if they have a compelling reason to cross the border into Juarez.

GWEN IFILL: When we say that cartels are suspected, what’s the difference between a cartel and a common street gang?

ANGELA KOCHERGA: Well, there really is some blurring. Obviously, the drug cartels are cross-border, international criminal organizations.

But they often employ gangs in both countries to do some of their — their hits. Some of these hitmen are gang members. For example, in this region, the Aztecas the Barrio Azteca gangs are — are two gangs on both sides of the border involved in killings.

And then there’s another group called La Linea, which is the enforcement arm for the Juarez cartel. And these cartels are battling another cartel in this region in a bloody turf war that really has claimed so many lives and turned this into a virtual war zone for the residents who live here.

GWEN IFILL: Now, we have heard about President Calderon putting troops on the streets beginning in 2006. Where does that stand now? What is the government of Mexico doing about this?

ANGELA KOCHERGA: Well, in Juarez alone, we have had nearly 10,000 soldiers, military people and federal police virtually taking over the duties of policing Juarez.

Part of the problem was, there was a deep-seated corruption in the local police force. And those — those forces are still here. But the killing has continued pretty much unabated. What you see is that, when there’s a troop surge, it goes down for a little while, and then it comes back up.

And right — right now, we’re seeing, again, as many as a dozen people killed in the streets, and, of course, these high-profile weekend killings of the U.S. Consulate employee and relatives.

GWEN IFILL: Because U.S. Consulate employees were involved in this one, can we anticipate a higher U.S. presence? And what has the U.S. presence been in before, up until now, in helping Mexico cope with these killings?

ANGELA KOCHERGA: Well, the U.S. government is heavily involved through the Merida Initiative in training and trying to help Mexico in the effort to restore rule of law. But, of course, it’s up to Mexico to police its own streets.

The U.S. is helping train some law enforcement, providing some equipment, and, of course, is deeply involved now in this investigation, and has said it will do more in terms of intelligence-sharing to help Mexican law enforcement target the cartels and — and stop some of the killings, and really restore some — some law and order in these pockets of lawlessness that — that tend to be along some very key border areas.

GWEN IFILL: How difficult is it for reporters, especially reporters in Mexico, to cover a story like this, when so many journalists have been targeted as well?

ANGELA KOCHERGA: It’s very, very dangerous for Mexican journalists who are based in these border cities.

We were in Reynosa, Mexico, a week ago. And that’s another area where you have seen a surge in violence lately. And what’s happened, that these newspapers and television stations in those cities have admitted they have to censor themselves in order to survive. Reporters have been kidnapped. They have been killed.

And we saw recently as many as eight reporters were abducted, some of them missing, presumed dead. One, we think, was beaten to death. And a television news crew from Mexico City, they were abducted for a few hours, pistol-whipped, and sent home packing with the warning, if you come back to the border to cover this story, we will kill anyone from your news organization — so, very, very dangerous.

GWEN IFILL: Angela Kocherga of Belo Television and Newspapers, thank you so much.

ANGELA KOCHERGA: Thank you, Gwen.