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What’s Next for Mexico’s War on Drugs?

May 9, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
Demonstrators take to the streets to fight against violence caused by drug cartels in Mexico. Belo TV's Mexico Bureau Chief Angela Kocherga, based in El Paso, Texas, reports from the border region and though Mexico with the latest from Mexico's war on drugs.

MARGARET WARNER: For more, we turn to Angela Kocherga, the Mexico bureau chief for Belo Television. Based in El Paso, Texas, she reports from the border region and throughout Mexico.

And Angela thanks for joining us.

These protesters yesterday in Mexico City, who were they demonstrating against? Was it — was it the gangs that are doing the violence, or was it the way the government is handling it?

ANGELA KOCHERGA, Belo Television: Really both, Margaret. They’re fed up with the bloodshed that has claimed so many lives. And so, it was dubbed a peace march, but justice for the victims was clearly part of their strategy and their effort.

And they’re not necessarily telling the government, don’t fight the drug gangs, don’t crack down on the cartels, because they know that they need to restore law and order in some of these — these regions terrorized by the cartels. But these people, the demonstrators and many in Mexico, want the government, Felipe Calderon’s administration, the president, to review the current strategy, a strategy they say has failed to make the streets any safer and has really turned parts of Mexico into a battleground.

MARGARET WARNER: But you’re saying they don’t have actually a specific alternative strategy to suggest.

ANGELA KOCHERGA: No, it’s not like they came up with a three-part plan.

One demand was they wanted the current secretary of public safety to resign. That’s unlikely to happen. But they really want the government to rethink how they’re fighting this war, sending, you know, troops to places like Ciudad Juarez, which is the border city just across here from El Paso, which has borne the brunt of the drug war violence, which, really, it’s not made anything any safer. We have actually seen the body count rise.

So, people want to see the government do something more to make the streets safer. It doesn’t mean back down or stop fighting the cartels. And President Calderon said he cannot back down because it would embolden these criminals. He says he welcomes civil society.

The significance of this march is that, rather than suffering on the sidelines silently, people are taking to the streets. And it’s really, as you noted, people not just, you know, people who are part of a drug gang. In the early days of this drug war, the government said most of the victims were criminals. Clearly, that’s not the case anymore.

MARGARET WARNER: So, what was the catalyst for this huge demonstration now? How much of a factor were those mass graves that were discovered?

ANGELA KOCHERGA: That really was a turning point, Margaret but it’s one more horror story on top of many others in Mexico.

I mean, those people, the vast majority, we understand, were migrant workers. And we went to the central Mexican state where many had boarded those buses heading to the U.S. to both work and visit relatives. And people are now terrified. And they were very angry that no one had warned them about this. Apparently, the bus companies and possibly police knew about these drug checkpoints and — and that people were being pulled off the buses, and there was mass murder.

And only later did some of these bus routes reroute the buses to more safer areas. So yes, that shocked Mexico. But you have to recall, just last August, there was another discovery, another mass murder and piles of bodies in that same region. And it took eight months for the government to finally catch a suspect.

MARGARET WARNER: Has anyone been able to figure out why people or ordinary migrant workers would be pulled off buses and killed, in some cases, men and women, in very brutal ways?

ANGELA KOCHERGA: Yes, very brutal ways. It’s — there’s a lot of speculation about what happened. We don’t have a clear idea.

We do know, for a fact, both from investigators and from the migrants themselves we talked to, that the criminal gangs that control that area, they’re drug cartel smuggling routes now. It’s no longer, you know, migrants making their way up to the border with paid guides, the so-called coyotes.

All of those routes are controlled 100 percent by drug cartels, in that case the very brutal Zetas. And often if the migrants are not being smuggled by them, and they’re brought by rival groups, they will kill those migrants. They’re viewed as human cargo.

Or they could have been trying to keep people from becoming — working for a rival cartel. At this point, we really are not clear what happened there.

MARGARET WARNER: So, when you say migrants, do you mean people who plan to then try to sneak into the U.S.?

ANGELA KOCHERGA: Not all are sneaking in. Many are — we — we went there and found many people who have documents to work in the U.S. They’re simply taking a bus up to the border. That’s the preferred route of transportation for a lot of people who don’t have money to get on a plane.

So, not everybody is sneaking up. Many possibly are. And that’s where the drug cartels move in and try and take advantage of these migrants, and extort and kidnap them, and, in this case, murder them.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, next year is a presidential election. President Calderon himself can’t run again. But how is this issue, which the public seems so exercised about, playing out? What do public opinion polls tell you?

ANGELA KOCHERGA: Well, there’s a brand-new poll released just today by the leading newspaper in Mexico, El Universal, that shows that public safety, public security is the top issue, even ahead of the economy, which tends to be the number-one issue for Mexicans around this time of presidential elections.

So clearly, any candidate who hopes to win that office is going to have to make it a priority. And the people polled said they want the government to make this the number-one priority, securing the streets and making their highways safer and helping people get about their normal daily lives without living in fear and being terrorized by drug traffickers.

MARGARET WARNER: And does the public say why they think, after investing all these resources in the military offensive, that it hasn’t been successful? I mean, what makes them so, well, skeptical? Obviously, the evidence makes them skeptical.

But, I mean, is it corruption? What do they think is at the nub of this?

ANGELA KOCHERGA: It’s a variety of issues. You have everything from corruption within the forces. Some people say this is a war within Mexico’s government that is — you know, at the local level, certainly state level, and possibly in some federal forces, you do have corruption.

And you also have a different type of war. Sending troops through the streets, when you’re dealing with groups that can — you know — it’s urban warfare — can clearly disappear quickly, and know these regions well, into communities and into neighborhoods, it’s very, very difficult.

And it’s not that the people who marched have any strategy. They just really think the government policy-makers need to come up with a better plan.

MARGARET WARNER: And very briefly, in just a sentence or two. President Obama is coming to El Paso tomorrow. Is he expected to address this?

ANGELA KOCHERGA: He’s coming to the border, to this stretch of border, to jump-start the stalled immigration reform efforts. He’s expected to talk about that, the need to once again revisit that issue.

But he’s clearly going to point out that now is the time, because the U.S. government has poured all these resources into securing the border and doubling the Border Patrol. So, he says now is the time. The border is secure. And the president is going to ask Congress to once again begin immigration reform talks.

MARGARET WARNER: Angela Kocherga, thank you so much.

ANGELA KOCHERGA: Thank you, Margaret.