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In Mexico, War Against Drug Cartels Inflicts High Cost

June 27, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
With elections around the corner, a top concern for Mexican voters is the war on drug cartels. Margaret Warner continues her reporting from Mexico with a look at the devastating impact of the widespread drug violence.
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TRANSCRIPT

GWEN IFILL: Next tonight: the devastating impact of ongoing drug violence in Mexico.

Margaret Warner filed this story 120 miles from the Texas border in the state of Nuevo Leon, and its capital, Monterrey.

MARGARET WARNER: Jamie Rodriguez is driving from Monterrey to his nearby suburban town in a jeep with special upgrades: bulletproof glass, heavy armor and two backup SUVs with his well-armed chavos, his guys. It’s no wonder. Drug cartel gunmen tried to assassinate him twice last year.

JAIME RODRIGUEZ, Mayor of Garcia, Nuevo Leon, Mexico (through translator): Here, they hid and fired, bang, bang, bang. One died here. I was there. I saw one of my bodyguards get shot. It was like a battlefield.

MARGARET WARNER: Rodriguez became mayor of the fast-growing town of Garcia three years ago, vowing to confront the Zeta drug cartel that had taken over his town.

JAIME RODRIGUEZ (through translator): The entire police force was in cahoots with the narcos and the cartels. City administrators collaborated, too. The entire city was under siege.

MARGARET WARNER: The gangs hit first three days after he took office, killing his personal security chief. Rodriguez struck back.

JAIME RODRIGUEZ (through translator): I decided to fire all the police, and we did it. We closed 250 stores where drugs were being sold. I went after the top leadership of the Zetas living here, like El Piojo.

MARGARET WARNER: That kind of toughness won him the nickname El Bronco, celebrated in song and games like “Bronco: The Exterminator.”

But myth-making can’t match the brutal statistics. Homicides in his state of Nuevo Leon, with Mexico’s wealthiest city, Monterrey, skyrocketed six-fold in three years, from under 300 in 2009 to nearly 1,800 last year. Kidnappings, robbery and extortions kept pace.

Monterrey has long considered itself a special place, protected by its mountains and its economic might, but no longer. Whether Monterrey can tame the plague of drug violence here will have profound consequences for this city and for Mexico itself.

JORGE DOMENE, Executive Secretary, Security Council, Nuevo Leon, Mexico: I say all the time that we were like in Disneyland here. Nothing happened.

MARGARET WARNER: We met Jorge Domene, Nuevo Leon’s security spokesman, at a new coordination center for federal, state, local and military anti-cartel operations.

JORGE DOMENE: We can watch in real time all the patrols with the GPS. We can be hearing the conversation at real time and everything is recorded.

MARGARET WARNER: He blames the explosion of violence on two gangs, the Zetas and the Gulf Cartel, battling over drug routes into the U.S. and a ballooning drug market within Mexico, the principal casualty, peace of mind.

Bar owner Sergio Trevino runs La Tumba in Monterrey’s once-buzzing bar district.

SERGIO TREVINO, Owner, La Tumba: (through translator): There used to be 90 places that offered all types of music, food, cafes. Now there are only about eight places left.

MARGARET WARNER: Sugar mill baron Alberto Santos says the social toll is huge.

 

ALBERTO SANTOS, Business Owner: It’s all just federal policemen and then state policemen and municipal policemen all armed patrolling the city.  That’s shocking. We are living in the middle of a war.

MARGARET WARNER: The army arrived in November 2010. But last August brought a grisly turning point, the first wholesale massacre inside the city limits.

A local casino was torched, killing 52 people trapped inside, ignited by the Zetas, police said, in an extortion dispute.

Patricia Saenz can’t get over her husband’s death.

PATRICIA SAENZ, Widow (through translator): They didn’t just end my husband’s life, but mine and my children’s as well. We are like zombies at home.

MARGARET WARNER: Francisco Tamayo, who lost his wife, said despite a few arrests, there’s been no justice.

FRANCISCO TAMAYO, Widower (through translator): Those who are responsible, the owners, the authorities, the government, have not been present.

MARGARET WARNER: Yet Samara Perez, whose son died, was afraid to say who she thought did it.

SAMARA PEREZ, Son Killed (through translator): If I tell you on an international network the name of the criminal organization, it’s going to cost me my life.

MARGARET WARNER: There’s one borough of greater Monterrey where the gangs don’t roam: a wealthy enclave called San Pedro. Insurance man Alejandro Alvarez and his wife, Nancy, were headed home with their young sons.

So San Pedro seems like a pretty peaceful place. Is it?

MAN: Yes, it is. It always has been, and the people that live here knows that San Pedro is very different.

MARGARET WARNER: Different in large part because of another tough- guy mayor, Mauricio Fernandez. With a town the size of El Bronco’s, he collects six times the tax revenues and has hired more police per capita than anyplace else in Mexico. He denies he cut a deal with the cartels to ensure peace.

MAURICIO FERNANDEZ, Mayor of San Pedro Garza Garcia, Nuevo Leon, Mexico: That’s absurd, because there are so many organizations in the organized crime that you want to deal with one, if you make that mistake, then another one will try to come and compete you for that position.

MARGARET WARNER: Instead, Fernandez relies on his own intelligence unit and makes gangsters an offer they can’t refuse.

MAURICIO FERNANDEZ: I have many ways to get rid of them. But when you confront a person and you tell them, I know you belong to the organized crime, and you better go, or we don’t know what is going to happen to you, they leave. So it’s intimidation. It works.

MARGARET WARNER: His ultimate enforcer, the army.

MAURICIO FERNANDEZ: IF you have the army on your side, you don’t need any bad guys like that to really do a dirty job.

MARGARET WARNER: Nuevo Leon state is trying to replace corrupt cops, too. With funds from city business interests, it’s recruiting a new Fuerza Civil of untainted cops with such high salaries and benefits that their families have a lot to lose if they go bad.

ARMANDO SANTACRUZ, Co-Founder, Mexico United Against Crime: We had made great leaps in human rights, and under the umbrella of the drug war, human rights are being thrown down the drain.

MARGARET WARNER: Mexico City businessman Armando Santacruz helped found Mexico United Against Crime 15 years ago, after a kidnapper murdered an acquaintance’s son.

ARMANDO SANTACRUZ: Some parts of society believe that, well, we’re dealing with criminals. We’re not dealing with artists here, so we cannot treat them with velvet glove. Sand that’s a totally mistaken idea.

MARGARET WARNER: But he’s shocked by what security forces are doing. Tens of thousands have disappeared during the 5.5-year war against the cartels, including many with no attachment to the drug trade, say human rights champions like Sister Consuelo Morales.

SISTER CONSUELO MORALES, Citizens in Support of Human Rights: There is a fight between among — between narco-traffic and state, but also what we, the citizens, suffer a lot is the violence generated by the state.

MARGARET WARNER: Sister Consuelo advocates for the disappeared in Monterrey. She thinks up to 40 percent of them were snatched by authorities, not gangs, for indefinite detention, torture or death.

SISTER CONSUELO MORALES: They are taking away people that have nothing to do with all this criminal situation.

MARGARET WARNER: People like Jehu (ph) Sepulveda, nabbed in San Pedro 18 months ago for driving without proper documents. His wife, mother and sister insist he wasn’t tied to crime or to the drug trade. All they know for sure is he was taken to a local jail.

JANNETH OLAZARAN, Mexico (through translator): A uniformed policeman told my husband’s boss he’d been taken away by the Marines, so then we went to the Marines and they treated us badly. They said, no, we have never seen your husband.

ALBA SEPULVEDA, Mexico (through translator): We just want some answers that my son is still alive.

MARGARET WARNER: Sister Consuelo’s push for answers for such families has led to the arrests of more than a dozen people, including police and government officials.

Have there been threats against you?

SISTER CONSUELO MORALES: Oh, yes. In Mexico, to work on human rights is a risk. But now, with the violence that we live here, violence from authorities, violence from the narco-traffic, it’s worse.

MARGARET WARNER: The gruesome violence on the narco side, mass shoot-ups and mutilated bodies, has shocked Mexico’s conscience. Debate over how to end it is venturing beyond the long-held goals of better courts and schools and less corruption.

Two formerly fringe ideas seem to e gaining traction. One is refocus the military assault on traffickers to really hammer the violent cartels, says Armando Santacruz.

ARMANDO SANTACRUZ: The priority should be to reduce the violence and keep the population safe. If getting a drug lord along the way is needed for that, good. If it’s not, well, too bad. And if some other countries get mad, well, I’m really sorry.

MARGARET WARNER: Alberto Santos and other civic leaders have taken out ads urging debate on an even more radical idea.

ALBERTO SANTOS: Legalization. The origin of the problem is the black market with drugs. That’s a huge business. Better police will not solve the problem of violence related to drugs. It’s a big medical problem, and it should be addressed as a medical problem.

MARGARET WARNER: For now, though, scared Mexicans have to count on local leaders to tough it out. Though El Bronco’s term ends later this year, he says he will continue the fight.

JAIME RODRIGUEZ (through translator): Death and I have become friends. God put me here. He has saved my life two times. I’m never going to leave Garcia, even if they kill me. I’m no longer afraid.

MARGARET WARNER: Sadly, most Mexicans cannot say the same.

GWEN IFILL: Earlier today, Margaret hosted a live Twitter chat about Mexico’s drug war. You can view a recap of that conversation on our Web site.

In her next story, she profiles a photographer who captures the gritty reality of day-to-day life in Juarez.