TOPICS > Politics

Mexico’s Drug War Further Shaken by Brazen Killings

December 23, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Four family members of a Mexican Naval hero were gunned down this week in an apparent revenge attack by one of Mexico's top drug cartels, thrusting an already escalating drug war into a dangerous new territory.

RAY SUAREZ: The wave of drug killings spreading across Mexico in recent years invaded paradise Monday night. The family of a navy commando was murdered in the Gulf Coast town of Paraiso, Spanish for paradise, in an act of reprisal.

Gunmen broke into the home of Ensign Melquisedet Angulo Cordova and gunned down his mother, brother, sister, and an aunt. Just hours earlier, they had stood vigil as Angulo was buried. He died during the operation last week that killed Arturo Beltran Leyva, head of one of Mexico’s largest drug cartels.

Mexican President Felipe Calderon condemned the murders yesterday.

FELIPE CALDERON, president, Mexico (through translator): It is also my duty today to express my most sincere condolences to the family of Melquisedet Angulo, to the navy of Mexico, for a horrible attack perpetrated in the night.

RAY SUAREZ: The attorney general of the southern Mexican state of Tabasco said today a group allied to the Beltran Leyva cartel carried out the Monday murders. He said it was warning to the military: Your families are now targets.

At his death, Beltran Leyva was among the most powerful of Mexico’s drug lords, the self-proclaimed boss of bosses. He had consolidated his position through brutal warfare with other drug runners and with the Mexican government.

Mexico’s attorney general said Beltran Leyva’s death might now lead to a power struggle.

ARTURO CHAVEZ CHAVEZ, attorney general, Mexico (through translator): This will for sure force them to restructure. It’s not unlikely that there will be violence within the cartel until the new head is defined.

RAY SUAREZ: Which can only mean more misery for a country where drug-related violence has killed 15,000 people over the last three years. It was once largely confined to the region near the U.S. border — Tijuana, Juarez, Nuevo Laredo — but has now spread nationwide.

As the killing escalates, President Calderon has sent 45,000 troops into several Mexican states to restore order. And U.S. officials are working in concert with Mexican authorities to run down the traffickers both south and north of the border.

Attorney General Eric Holder spoke in October after raids in the U.S. netted 300 suspects.

ERIC HOLDER, U.S. Attorney General: I think we have to keep hitting them. To the extent that they do grow back, I think we have to work with our Mexican counterparts to really cut off the heads of these snakes and get at the heads of the cartels.

RAY SUAREZ: Still, the cartels have billions of dollars at their disposal. They stepped into a void after the top Colombian drug runners were taken down. They now dominate the distribution of marijuana, cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamines in the United States.

In turn, the Mexican groups bring back large caches of weapons bought illegally in the U.S. along what’s been dubbed the Iron River. Those weapons have so far allowed the cartels to outgun the Mexican forces sent to stop them.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And for more on the Mexico drug war, I’m joined by David Luhnow, The Wall Street Journal’s Latin America bureau chief in Mexico City.

David Luhnow, first of all, what more can you tell us about the gunning down of this navy commando’s family?

DAVID LUHNOW, The Wall Street Journal: Well, the operation seemed to be well-designed.

Just hours after the commando was buried with full military honors, a group of about a dozen hit men stormed the house, broke open a door. They were armed with AK-47s and AR-15 assault rifles, and just shot up the entire family.

They left as quickly as they arrived. And prosecutors, Mexican prosecutors, are now saying that they may have had help from local police in planning their getaway. So, it looks like a pretty efficient operation, which signals that this cartel that was run by Arturo Beltran Leyva is alive and kicking.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, how were they able to find this family? How well publicized was — was this — was the name of this navy commando?

DAVID LUHNOW: Well, that’s a very good question.

The name was publicized. And that’s unusual in Mexico, because, normally, the military soldiers, both navy and army that take part in these operations, their identities are kept secret. Most of these guys wear black balaclavas over their face to hide their identities.

But, when they are killed, the government has, up until now, released their names and honored them as fallen heroes. The problem this time was is that revenge was taken.

What it would suggest is that the drug cartel has informants within the Mexican navy that gave them the information as to this man’s family’s whereabouts. And that’s pretty worrisome.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How unusual is it for the cartel to go after family members like this?

DAVID LUHNOW: It’s very unusual. It sort of breaks one of the unwritten rules of the war on drugs down here in Mexico.

The drug cartels have been getting increasingly violent. They have been resorting to tactics very similar to the Islamic terrorists, in the sense of beheadings, and videotaped tortures, and tactics of that nature, really to try to terrorize not only their rivals, but the ordinary Mexican citizens and the government.

But, in this case, going after the family members of a soldier or a policeman is an unprecedented step and a worrisome one, which suggests that they may not stop anymore at the actual people who are fighting them, but may go after their families as well.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And how is the Mexican public reacting to this?

DAVID LUHNOW: Well, it’s sort of a mixed reaction.

Many Mexicans have become, unfortunately, very inured to the violence. Much like in Iraq, people became accustomed to the — sort of the daily death toll from the bombings and the carnage there. Mexicans are really becoming sort of accustomed to the bloodshed.

In the last year alone, there have been 7,000 to 8,000 people killed in drug-related violence. And the city of Ciudad Juarez, which is right across the border from El Paso, Texas, has the world’s highest murder rate right now, about three times more violent than Baghdad, Iraq.

So, there’s a daily toll of this kind of violence. But, at the same time, other Mexicans are really shocked by this. Mexican mothers, in particular, hold an exalted place in Mexico. Mother’s Day down here is taken very seriously. And the fact that these guys went after this man’s mother is really seen as beyond the pale.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, in the broader sense, how supportive has the public been of this drug crackdown which President Calderon initiated a few years ago?

DAVID LUHNOW: That’s a good question.

Unfortunately, many Mexicans don’t trust their government. This is mostly the result of 70 years of a single-party state, where the government was basically there to protect itself and its allies and enrich itself.

So, many Mexicans view anything that the government does, even if it’s correct, with a lot — with a healthy dose of skepticism and cynicism. So, polls show that the majority of people sort of support the drug war. They know these drug gangs are pretty bad. But they are not really fully behind the government, in maybe the way that the U.S. public would be fully behind U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan or in Iraq

JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally, David Luhnow, what difference do you think this killing of this Navy commando’s family could have on the drug war itself? Or do you expect it to have an effect?

DAVID LUHNOW: Well, I think it’s another one of these escalations that we’re seeing. Every month, it seems, there’s a new level that the drug gangs reach.

And, unfortunately, if this keeps going in this direction, we could see more and more civilians being targeted. We could see potentially some assassinations of Mexican officials. This could become much like what happened in Colombia in the ’80s, when — when the war on drug cartels there caused a lot of civilian casualties.

JUDY WOODRUFF: David Luhnow of The Wall Street Journal joining us from Mexico City — thank you, David.

DAVID LUHNOW: A pleasure.