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For ‘Soldiers’ in Mexico’s Drug War, ‘More Murders Than They Can Count’

December 1, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
The death toll continues to mount in Mexico's drug war. Hari Sreenivasan and Ioan Grillo of GlobalPost discuss his new book "El Narco: Inside Mexico's Criminal Insurgency," an account of his more than 10 years investigating the country's criminal cartels.

JEFFREY BROWN: And finally tonight, the war next door.

Hari Sreenivasan has our update.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The death toll keeps mounting in Mexico’s drug war, now more than 45,000 dead since President Felipe Calderon committed the army and federal police to combating the drug gangs five years ago.

Ioan Grillo has been covering the drug war for our partners at the international news website GlobalPost. And now he has written a book, “El Narco: Inside Mexico’s Criminal Insurgency,” an account of his more than 10 years investigating Mexico’s criminal cartels.

Welcome, Ioan. Thanks for being us.

IOAN GRILLO, GlobalPost: Thank you.

HARI SREENIVASAN: First, put it in perspective. This is an actual war that is happening on the border with the United States. We talked about those incredible statistics of the people killed. But why should America be as — more concerned?

IOAN GRILLO: Well, when you see the situation on the ground, you see it’s gone way beyond just criminal violence. And the numbers don’t really do justice to this.

When you have seen incidents where there is mass graves with more than 200 bodies and single massacres of more than 72 people, that’s more than many war zones. But what really brings it home is when I have had the chance to interview some of the players in this, some of the assassins.

And you talk to these people who have committed many, many more murders than they can count to try and understand where they are coming from. And they see themselves as being combatants in a war zone. The only way they can explain this violence is because they feel like soldiers fighting in a war, doing things that have gone beyond the pale.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And how has it gotten this bad? I mean, Mexico’s murder rate has tripled since Calderon took office, since he basically declared war.

IOAN GRILLO: Basically, in Mexico, where you had 71 years with one party in control of the country, controlling all the police forces and the military, now we have had this great democracy, and there was celebration 10 years ago, the same way we see celebration in Egypt and Tunisia and Libya now.

But, unfortunately, with a multi-party democracy, different political parties control different police forces. And often the police forces are actively fighting each other. We have seen some extraordinary things happening, like when, in one state, prisoners were being let out of a jail to commit murders in a separate state, carry out massacres, and returning to their cells in the evening — so, absolutely incredible things happening there.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Is there anything that the government is doing that is working?

IOAN GRILLO: Well, the government is effective in taking down the big cartel leaders. We see big figures like Arturo Beltran Leyva, a major international drug trafficker — with information from the U.S., the Mexican marines gunned him down.

But what happens is, when these kingpins are taken down, you get different rivals fighting over their empires. And because the drug trade is worth about $30 billion every year selling heroin, crystal meth, marijuana and cocaine to American users, the rivals are keeping fighting over this bounty.

HARI SREENIVASAN: How complicated is this relationship between the United States and Mexico about the drug war?

IOAN GRILLO: It is very complicated.

And we see this opening up a real can of worms when there’s violence happening. We have, for example, the issue of American guns coming to Mexico and operations trying to trace American guns to Mexico, which have created real bi-national tensions.

We also have American agents now — in book, I also profile one undercover DEA agent who infiltrated a Colombian cartel and a Mexican cartel on the ground doing kind of espionage work. Now, this kind of opens up all kinds of issues with the two countries. We saw obviously two American agents who were shot dead earlier this year on American soil.

HARI SREENIVASAN: In the middle of all this, they have got a presidential campaign coming up. How does that happen, and what is likely to happen?

IOAN GRILLO: Well, it is going to be very interesting to see next year what happens in the election.

In my opinion, whoever takes power will change the strategy, will change the focus, because no president wants to be right now with 50,000 deaths, with accusations of human rights abuses by the military and so forth. So they want to change focus.

One real risk is, in the election, we see the criminal violence combining with the political tensions, so you see drug cartel hit men being used by politicians to attack their rivals. And that could create a situation where it really does push this over the edge.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Kind of a personal question. Considering that some of your sources that you have spoken to have already been killed, are you concerned for your own safety, because there have been several Mexican journalists that have been working in this — on this story or different parts of this story that have been killed as well?

I mean, the more your book succeeds on Amazon, the more — the bigger the target gets on your back.

IOAN GRILLO: Well, it’s definitely a very violent and intimidating environment for any journalist covering this in Mexico.

When you talk to people who describe committing murders, I mean, obviously, you wonder about if they are going to like the coverage or not. Every time you come down and write or you edit a video, it is obviously the first thing on your mind.

And for many of the Mexican colleagues, like you say, who are really exposed in the front-line states, you know, it can be very hard to sleep and very stressful for many of these people.

We have to all exercise a certain amount of self-censorship. We have to not include names, addresses of people or things that can really affect their business. The idea of this book is to tell the human stories of people on all sides of this conflict and to try and raise the bigger policy issues, which won’t affect or anger the cartels, but will help people make better decisions about how to handle this situation.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, Ioan Grillo.

The book is called “El Narco: Inside Mexico’s Criminal Insurgency.”

Thanks so much for being with us.

IOAN GRILLO: Thank you.