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Mexican Drug Cartel Violence Migrates North

Violence caused by Mexican drug cartels is spilling over the border into the United States. New York Times journalist Randal C. Archibold reports that home invasions and shootings related to the Mexican drug trade are spreading as far north as Canada.

27:06

Other segments from the episode on March 24, 2009

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, March 24, 2009: Interview with Alejandro Junco de La Vega; Interview with Randal Archibold.

Transcript

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Mexican Media Baron On Drug-Violence Epidemic

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross.

Kidnappings, home invasions and shootouts are some examples of how the violence
surrounding the Mexican drug cartels has spilled over into the U.S.,
particularly in border states.

Mexican drug-trafficking organizations pose a national security threat to the
U.S., according to Attorney General Eric Holder. Today, Homeland Security
Secretary Janet Napolitano outlined plans to bolster security on the border.
She announced this in advance of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit to
Mexico tomorrow.

One of the people directly threatened by drug-cartel violence is my guest,
Alejandro Junco de la Vega. He’s the publisher of perhaps the most influential
newspaper chain in Mexico, Grupo Reforma. And because his reporters cover the
cartels and the drug violence, their lives and his life have been threatened.

Junco sent his family across the border to Texas for their safety. It’s not the
first time he’s been in a tough spot. He’s run the newspaper chain since 1973.
Alejandro Junco, welcome to FRESH AIR. What are some of the risks in covering
the cartels and the drugs wars in your newspaper? What has happened to some of
your reporters?

Mr. ALEJANDRO JUNCO (Publisher, Grupo Reforma): Well, we have basically become
under siege by the drug lords and the cartels of the country, and the more that
we expose their activities, the harder they push back.

For example, recently two reporters from our Monterrey paper, a few months ago,
pursued a story. They had heard that a man running a tire-retread shop in a
nearby town was being shaken down for protection money because this is how the
drug rings have been, quote, “diversifying.”

And our reporter and photographer paid a visit to the town. Not 10 minutes
after they had arrived, armored vehicles pulled up outside, blocking their
exit. They were thrown to the ground, their laptops, their camera equipment,
their phones, their ID with their addresses, were all taken, and they were
beaten. With broken eardrums, shoulders, ribs - they both were hospitalized,
and they both quit their jobs.

And this is not the first time that such a thing has happened, and the
criminals have made it plain: unless we leave them alone, it will not be the
last.

GROSS: Well, how do you get people to cover the drug wars, given that their
lives are in danger if they do?

Mr. JUNCO: Well, it’s getting more and more difficult, and so we have to
adjust. We have to make changes, and our lives are the worse for it. We can no
longer run our reporters’ bylines. We have to change their beats. We move them
from homes to safer apartments. We vary routes to evade kidnappers and our
families cannot be habitual in their daily lives.

And last year, for the second time in four decades, I had to move my entire
family to a safe haven in the U.S.

GROSS: The drug cartels in Mexico are famous, among other things, for buying
people off: cops, military, government people. What about journalists? Do you
have to worry that your reporters might be bribed by the cartels?

Mr. JUNCO: Yes. This is a concern, and we have, for many years, run an
education program that attempts to illustrate just our commitment to society.
We cannot be in any kind of cooperation with the cartels in any way, and also
we have to do our jobs. We have to be very clear about what conflicts of
interest might arise, and you know, some people have quit their jobs because
they feel it’s dangerous.

But those that have stayed behind, the great, great majority, you know, are
honest and diligent, and they believe that we have an important job to do. And
if we don’t do it, the truth is not going to be out.

We have every reason in the world to drop the stories, and we have every reason
to look the other way, but we have resolved to continue to report all we know
about the problem and continue to ask questions. And we hold to the faith that
if we ask enough of them, we might - may finally come upon a solution.

And what we know so far is like a conundrum. In Mexico, crime pays.

GROSS: Would you give us a sense of the scope of the drug cartels in Mexico,
how big they are, to what extent they’re infiltrated mainstream institutions?

Mr. JUNCO: Well, this is a very worrisome statistic that we just heard recently
from a creditable U.S. source. There are about 450,000 people directly or
indirectly linked to the drug trade in Mexico.

One of the problems that we face is that the risk of being a criminal is very
low in our country. Only about five percent of crimes are reported. Of that
five percent, only one out of six victims press charges, and only one very
unlucky criminal out of 100 will eventually go to jail.

GROSS: Give us a sense of to what extent the cartels have infiltrated
mainstream society, either through bribing people in powerful positions or
having their own plants in powerful positions.

Mr. JUNCO: Yes. We have very serious infiltration of this young democracy - at
the municipal, at the state and the federal level - and not only that, but we
also have it in our judicial and legislative branches.

And for example, the mayoral elections that are coming up in the next weeks,
we’ve heard of numerous cases where a well-dressed man shows up at the campaign
office for the mayor. And you know, he is well-dressed and a well-educated
person. He is carrying with him a suitcase full of money.

And he is bringing good wishes for a successful political career. And at that
time, the candidate has no choice, you know. He – we say plata o plomo: silver
or lead. As mayor, he must collaborate, and at that moment, the fix is in.

And so this is a situation that has caused a lot of potentially good people to
refrain from participating in mayoral elections. We have cases in Ixtapan de la
Sal, for example, where the mayor was shot and killed, and his stand-in
replacement refused to accept the position because of the danger that is
associated with such a position.

GROSS: One of the great paradoxes of the drug wars in Mexico that have spilled
over into the United States is guns are very hard to get in Mexico because of
pretty strict gun laws, and they’re much easier to purchase in the United
States. So a lot of the guns that are arming the cartels are actually coming
across the border from the United States into Mexico.

Talk about what impact you think the more-liberal gun laws of the United States
is having on violence in Mexico now.

Mr. JUNCO: Well, guns in Mexico are very, very difficult to acquire, legally.

GROSS: It sounds like it’s one of the few institutions that’s really working in
Mexico now is the strict gun laws.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JUNCO: Yes, and it cannot be done unless it is done through the army
itself. However, the armament that is in the possession of the drug cartels, I
would say 90 percent has come from the U.S. And it’s understandable that you
have liberal laws on this side of the border, but the fact is that a great
majority of those that are in Mexico are probably illegally in the country as a
result of contraband, smuggling, whatever, and you can see a very large
percentage of the gun dealers cater to the border towns in Mexico, and it’s a
disproportionate amount.

So I would propose that perhaps it’s worth looking into how the laws of the
U.S. cannot be used against its own interests, which is to have a peaceful
neighbor.

GROSS: Are the cartels better armed than the police?

Mr. JUNCO: Frequently they are. The police is not particularly well-armed in
our country. The military are better-armed, and now the military has jumped
into the battle as a result of President Calderon’s insistence that they go out
and help with this tremendous problem.

And I would say that very frequently they are, not necessarily always. But when
the army comes in to fight its side of the battle, they face the same problem
that the U.S. army faced in Iraq.

Where do I point? Who do I shoot?

GROSS: You know, in addition to the cartels using AK-47s and grenade launchers,
they’re also using more primitive tactics to scare people, gruesome things like
beheadings, dissolving bodies in acid baths. Is that terrorizing the
population?

Mr. JUNCO: It is, and it is having an impact on the levels of investment, and
it is having an impact on the levels of job creations. It used to be that
emigration from Mexico was only happening at the lower echelons of society -
those without a job, those that wanted to find, you know, a way for a better
life.

And now we are beginning to see that happen in the top echelons of society,
people that are fleeing the country not because they don’t have a job or they
don’t have a means to support themselves but because they fear for their
safety.

GROSS: My guest is Alejandro Junco, publisher of a Mexican newspaper chain
called Grupo Reforma. We’ll talk about the Mexican drug cartels more after a
break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you’re just joining us, my guest is Alejandro Junco, and he publishes
an influential chain of newspapers in Mexico, and we’re talking about the
impact of the drug cartels in Mexico.

Have addiction levels in Mexico been increasing as the drug cartels have become
more powerful and as they’ve increased the supply of drugs in Mexico?

Mr. JUNCO: Yes. That is a truism. More and more, we are seeing the public-
health element become a bigger element and one that is approaching the levels
that probably exist in the U.S.

And so this has created an internal market for drugs that, at some point back
in history, you know, Mexico was more like a pathway to the drugs that were
being sold in the U.S. with no local consumption, but that has changed.

GROSS: Last fall, President Calderon proposed decriminalizing possession of
small quantities of cocaine and other drugs for addicts who agree to undergo
treatment. Why did he do that? What was the explanation for that proposal?

Mr. JUNCO: Well, I think that more and more people in Mexico are urging him to
pull the ripcord. And what I mean by pulling the ripcord is, you know, the laws
of our country, and we’re running out of good ideas, and I’m certain that this
might not be a good idea, but where are the others?

And so even though it might be imperfect, I think that the thought behind this
is to let some of the hot air out of the balloon so that we diminish the amount
of illegal money that is being fed into this trade.

And it’s probably an imperfect solution and one that I don’t think is going to
be popular, but we’re running out of good ideas.

GROSS: Well, the idea certainly didn’t go over well in the United States. It
was opposed in the United States. What impact did that have on Mexico? Was
there pressure from the Bush administration or from Congress?

Mr. JUNCO: Well, no pressure needed. It’s just inaction. You know, if the U.S.
does not, you know, legalize its consumption of drugs, Mexico probably could
not do it on its own. So it’s going to require some soul-searching to see if we
can come up with some coordinated effort.

But to make matters worse, I sometimes fear that even if consumption were to
stop overnight in the U.S., that still would not accomplish what is needed in
Mexico. The Merida Initiative, which is a plan to help Mexico combat the drug
cartels…

GROSS: This is a plan passed by Congress in the United States to give Mexico
about $1.4 billion in equipment and training over the course of three years to
help stem the drug wars.

Mr. JUNCO: Well you know, I have heard arguments based on reason, that even if
that initiative were to be very successful, and we were able to stop them cold,
there are still other illegal activities that are very, very worrisome.

We have the problem of kidnappings. We have the problem of piracy. We have the
problem of extortions, of sale of protection. And these are problems that might
even become more acute if the drug business were to dry up.

So I think that it is not fair to say, well, the U.S. is to blame because it
has a huge market. Well, even if it stopped tomorrow, it’s not unthinkable that
we would still have the violence, and we’d still have the lawlessness. And so I
think we need to think hard about just what it is we’re asking.

GROSS: Some analysts think that Mexico is in danger of becoming a failed state.
Do you think that that’s extreme?

Mr. JUNCO: I hope it is, but we’re seeing manifestations that are worrisome.
For example, a feudalization where different parts of the country are
essentially run by different drug cartels. We are seeing the infiltration of
this young elected democracies.

We are seeing these rule-of-law problems, and I just don’t know what it takes
to declare it a, quote, “failed state,” but certainly there are aspects of the
operation of government in Mexico that are simply dysfunctional.

GROSS: Hillary Clinton, who is the U.S. secretary of state, will be in Mexico
Wednesday and Thursday of this week. What do you expect that she’ll be
discussing in Mexico?

Mr. JUNCO: Well, it’s very encouraging that she is there and that she has
apparently made it a higher priority in the agenda than was true of the last
administration. So I must say that that is encouraging.

She probably will be taken to a lot of nice facilities and shown around in a
proud manner. But she’s an intelligent woman, and I think that it would be very
interesting that she dig deep into some of the realities and some of the
dilemmas that we are facing.

And our problems might soon be your problems, and they are problems that I
would not wish on anyone.

GROSS: U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder called Mexico’s drug-trafficking
organizations a national security threat to the U.S. Would you agree with that?

Mr. JUNCO: I would agree with that. I think that the problems are contagious
and that we need to work on them jointly. There’s some – a lot of ironies in
this, even a certain dark humor to be found. I know that a few weeks ago, for
example, an expert from the U.S. was invited to Saltillo, a city in
northeastern Mexico, to give a talk and to offer advice on how to keep
ourselves safe from kidnappers.

His lectures went well, but within hours of the last one, he was kidnapped, and
there’s founded fear we’ll never see him again. So this is just one small
example of things that are going on and that, you know, could be multiplied if
we don’t stop this in time.

GROSS: You’ve been publishing your chain of newspapers since 1973, and you took
it over from your family. It was already run by your family. What were the big
issues then? What were the stories that were most risky to cover back in 1973?

Mr. JUNCO: Well at that time, we had to purchase our raw material, our
newsprint, from the government. The manufacture and sale of newsprint was a
monopolistic activity of the federal government. So you can imagine if at the
height of the Watergate scandal, Mrs. Katherine Graham of the Washington Post
had to buy her raw material from Richard Nixon, what might have happened.

GROSS: There might have been paper shortages, huh?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JUNCO: As there were in our case.

GROSS: Yeah. We’ve got nothing to sell, no paper left. Did you face that? Did
they tell you there was no paper?

Mr. JUNCO: Absolutely. We faced this back in September, 1974. We were entering
the eighth month of the year, and they had given us 17 percent of our allowed
quota. In that same month, a new newspaper was born in our city, you know, with
unlimited supply.

So it didn’t take bayonets and soldiers in the newsroom to get the government’s
point across. And so over the years, we’ve faced many problems and controls but
nothing like the violence and the criminality that is – has us under siege
today.

GROSS: Alejandro Junco, thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. JUNCO: It’s been a pleasure. Thank you for your interest.

GROSS: Alejandro Junco is the publisher of the Mexican newspaper chain, Grupo
Reforma. He’ll give the commencement address at Columbia University this
spring. We’ll talk about how Mexican drug violence has spilled over into the
U.S. in the second half of the show. I’m Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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Mexican Drug Cartel Violence Migrates North

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross. My guest, Randall Archibold, wrote
yesterday’s front page New York Times story about how Mexican drug cartels have
extended their reach across the U.S. Archibald is a national correspondent for
the New York Times. He covers the Southwest and the Mexican-American border. A
little later we’ll discuss the new border security initiative announced today
by Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.

Randall Archibald, welcome to FRESH AIR. In February, Attorney General Eric
Holder called Mexico’s drug trafficking organizations a national security
threat to the United States. In what ways has it become a security threat to
our country?

Mr. RANDALL ARCHIBOLD (New York Times): Well, I think what he was referring to
was the spread of the Mexican drug cartels and their operatives and various
affiliates to various places in the United States. In December, the Justice
Department put out a report that identified 230 U.S. cities that had the
presence of a Mexican drug trafficking organization, whether that was a cell,
as they call it, of a cartel or a homegrown drug trafficking organization
distributing their cocaine and marijuana and other illicit drugs.

In addition to that, there are several cities that are becoming alarmed at what
they see as a spike in drug crime, in drug-related crime, including Tucson,
where I was recently, that’s had a wave of home invasions that the police
suspect and in some cases have proven are drug-related. And they believe it’s
sort of a shockwave from the chaos that’s going on in Mexico now with the
crackdown on the four major cartels and all the bloodshed on that side.

GROSS: You say about 60 percent of the drugs coming from Mexico to the United
States go through Arizona, so is the whole state being affected by this?

Mr. ARCHIBOLD: When you say the whole state, you have to remember that at the
border drug seizures are a regular occurrence for the Border Patrol and for
Immigration and Custom’s Enforcement. In addition, Tucson and Phoenix serve as
sort of hubs for the transfer of the drugs once they’re in Arizona to various
parts of United States. The freeways are very conducive. There’s a lot of
north, south, east, west routes.

It’s a little bit away from the border so there may not be, particularly in the
case of Phoenix, there may not be such a heavy Border Patrol presence. So
geographically it’s sort of well-suited in a way for the transfer and
transportation of drugs to other parts of the country.

GROSS: Since Arizona is a border state, I understand why Arizona has become a
hub for drug trafficking from Mexico, but you write in your story this week
that Atlanta has become a new staging ground for Mexican drug traffickers. Why
Atlanta?

Mr. ARCHIBOLD: Well, if you’ve ever been through the Atlanta airport, then you
know that it’s a very large airport with a lot of connections to the rest of
the United States. In a similar vein, the drug traffickers have discovered that
Atlanta geographically and the infrastructure - the freeway system likewise -
is very conducive to moving drugs either coming up through Florida, the sort of
older traditional way, and also through the Southwest.

Again, through Atlanta you can get almost anywhere. You can go right up the
Eastern Seaboard to the thriving drug markets up north. You can go to other
pockets of the South. You can get to the Midwest. You know, Atlanta - a lot of
businesses are located there for that very same reason. And likewise, the DEA,
you know, over and over will tell you these cartels are really organized like a
well-organized, you know, FedEx or Wal-Mart distribution system.

GROSS: In what sense do they compare?

Mr. ARCHIBOLD: Well, in that they have, you know, a very sort of organized
command structure in Mexico. In the case of marijuana, it’s grown there. It’s
bundled there. It’s shipped north. In the case of cocaine, most of the cocaine
still comes from South America. And they have allegiances with the South
American cartels to move the cocaine through Mexico. And the reason for that is
in large part because the United States has had some success in cutting off the
Caribbean and South Florida. You’ll remember the “Miami Vice” days.

GROSS: Yes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ARCHIBOLD: Of yesteryear. Well, you know, as a result, you know, there was
really a lot of heat applied to South Florida and the Caribbean using the Coast
Guard and military resources to spot and track ships and the various planes
coming in. It’s not completely cut off there, but it certainly had a
significant impact. And what it did was it forced the Columbian cartels to make
alliances with the Mexicans to move the cocaine through Mexico where there are
established smuggling routes for marijuana and other products. Likewise,
methamphetamine used to be - in the United States, meth labs were proliferating
everywhere, especially in rural areas. Now as a result, you know, a lot of
legislation went through prohibiting the sale of prescription medication that
facilitated the production of methamphetamine.

Those methamphetamine labs, while they haven’t disappeared, they certainly have
really dropped significantly in Unites States and have shifted to Mexico and
what they call, quote-unquote, “super-labs” in Mexico, and now produce it, and
then the cartels ship it likewise through their routes up north.

GROSS: Most of the guns that the Mexican cartels used are smuggled in from the
United States. Mexico has really strict gun laws. What have you learned about
how guns are bought in the United States and smuggled into Mexico?

Mr. ARCHIBOLD: Well, you’re correct. The gun restrictions are very severe in
Mexico, and outside the black market it’s extremely difficult to get a gun in
Mexico. On the U.S. side, we have laws that recognize the possession of a
firearm is valid in some cases. So as a result, what happens is people go to
gun shows or go to gun shops and buy them legitimately; they submit their
application and whatever is legally necessary. And what the cartels have done
is line up what they call straw purchasers, which are basically people who have
legitimate rights to buy a gun. They buy it legally and then turn it over to
the smugglers and bring it into Mexico. So it’s proven to be a very difficult
phenomenon for the U.S. to really deal with.

GROSS: Well, that’s kind of paradoxical that the Mexican violence that’s
spilling over into the United States is being armed with American guns.

Mr. ARCHIBOLD: The American guns going south, like I said, some – the Alcohol,
Tobacco and Firearms agency estimates 90 percent of the guns used in Mexico’s
violence, which has now killed some 7,000 people since January, 2008, the vast
majority of them associated with the drug trade; but still, that’s a very high
number. The ATF estimates 90 percent of those guns originated in the United
States. So as the Arizona attorney general put it, you know, we get the drugs,
they get the guns and the cash. It’s sort of a cyclical business in that sense.

GROSS: My guest is Randall Archibold. He covers the Southwest for the New York
Times. We’ll talk more about the reach of the Mexican drug cartels into the
U.S. after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you’re just joining us, my guest is Randall Archibold. He is a
national correspondent for the New York Times. He covers the Southwest for the
Times and has written extensively about the border.

And we’re talking about the Mexican drug wars spilling over into the United
States. There was a Congressional report recently that said there was evidence
that the Mexican cartels are increasing their relationship with prison and
street gangs in the United States. What have you heard about that?

Mr. ARCHIBOLD: That’s something that the federal authorities are somewhat
concerned about. You have to understand a little bit about how the drugs are
distributed in United States. The cartels, as I said before - the bosses, the
so-called kingpins, tend to stay in Mexico. The sort of upper command tends to
stay in Mexico directing the growing of the marijuana, the acquiring of the
cocaine, the shipment through the country, all that entails. Once it crosses
into U.S., as the Drug Enforcement Administration explains it, it’s usually
transferred to what they call cells. And these are groups, criminal
organizations, that operate either in local cities, on a regional basis, that
basically serve as sort of sub-distributors, and you know, they kind of take it
from the border, they take it from hubs like Phoenix and Atlanta and disperse
it, you know, further on down the change till you get to middle and lower level
dealers and distributors.

That’s where the street gangs tend to come in. I don’t think there is complete
agreement in the DEA on this. I spoke to a DEA agent who said he is a little
skeptical about whether the cartels would really want to kind of get in bed
with the street gangs because the street gangs are a pretty volatile group.
They could eventually become sort of rivals; so whereas other DEA officials
believe that the cartels view the street gangs as a sort of logical place to go
to help them spread their product further. The street gangs are already there.
They’re already mixed up in bad stuff. So I don’t think there is complete
agreement on that issue, but certainly they’ve picked up enough anecdotal and
other intelligence to suggest that there are some connections being made.

GROSS: Some experts are concerned that Mexico could become a failed state and
it will be very dangerous for the United States to have a failed state on its
border. Have you heard many people expressing that concern?

Mr. ARCHIBOLD: There are certainly high profile people expressing that concern.
Barry McCaffrey, the former so-called drug czar under the Clinton
administration who directed the White House anti-drug policy group, recently
visited Mexico and spoke to a lot of officials there and kind of collected his
own intelligence and then put out a report recently where he warned of that
very possibility, and there have been others who have followed suit or had
similar claims. The Mexicans, of course, are livid over this.

They do not believe - while they clearly see the drug cartel problem is
extremely serious, I don’t think anyone there really goes and takes that extra
step that, you know, the country is on the verge of collapse or on the verge of
becoming a sort of Pakistan where leadership is very sort of unstable and
there’s all sort of questions. If you go to Mexico today - I was in Tijuana
maybe a month or so ago - you could walk around Tijuana and actually be
surprised.

I mean Tijuana is a very violent place for the drug business. There has
certainly been a lot of grisly shootings and murders, attacks on police. But to
walk around there, it doesn’t really look like a place that is, you know, under
siege, as you might say. People still go to the stores. They still go to the
mall. They still go to restaurants. We went out to a restaurant at night and
there was – I wouldn’t say it was packed, but there was a fair number of people
there. It didn’t have that sort of palpable feel of terror that people might
expect from reading the headlines in the U.S.

That said, like I said, it’s a very serious place in terms of the drug
business. I mean you can end up, you know, potentially dead if you work in that
business in Tijuana. But I say that as sort of an indicator that while, yes,
this is an extremely serious problem in Mexico, there isn’t really, sort of, on
the surface, many signs that the country is headed, you know, so far downhill.

GROSS: Do you think that the drug violence that has spilled over from Mexico
across the border into the United States is related at all to the fact that in
Mexico the government of President Felipe Calderon has been trying to crack
down on the cartels and their leaders?

Mr. ARCHIBOLD: Well I think as a top level drug enforcement administration
official told Congress the other day, spillover is sort of a - is, in his
words, a tricky thing to define. Clearly, the Mexican government crackdown
coupled with the feuding among the cartels themselves has produced this wave of
bloodshed there. But whether that sort of high level of violence has spilled
over into the US, I think most officials would say, no - particularly along the
border, you know, the border towns right on the border. That’s what they’re
concerned about when you say spillover. They want to make sure that, you know,
a running gun battle does not come breaking through a port of entry or through
a gap in the fence or something like that.

But the violence in Mexico, this sort of chaotic period going on among the
cartels, I think a lot of US law enforcement officials believe that there is
sort of a shockwave emanating from that. And it’s producing pressure on US drug
dealers on the US side - drug trafficking organizations on the US side - to not
lose their drug loads, to not be very tolerant when a dealer says he came up
short on the cash or his load was confiscated, you know, I think it’s partly
that.

I think if you ask the Tucson and Phoenix police and DEA officials there, what
they’ll you is a lot of these local operators who have – in some cases loose
affiliations or rather, sort of, affiliations to the cartels - are branching
out their activities. They’ve discovered that, you know, it’s much easier to
rip off somebody’s load and to be responsible for a load yourself. So, there’s
this, sort of, branching out of activity going on among local players. There’s
a lot of trafficker-on-trafficker violence, as they call it. But even the DEA
will say it’s very difficult to establish a direct line between what’s going on
in Tucson and Phoenix, you know, straight back to the cartels.

GROSS: Columbia used to be the country that seemed to be the big country for
supply and for violence, particularly with cocaine. So, how did Mexico take
over a lot of the market?

Mr. ARCHIBOLD: Well, Columbia as you said was sort of the hot zone for this,
you know, in terms of cocaine. Cocaine is - the coca plant is grown there and
other places in the South America. The cartels in Medellin and Cali and other
places were very powerful in shipping that to the US. But eventually, Columbia
and the United States together worked out a plan to really crackdown and sort
of – really try to stomp them out. There was several million dollars spent. The
US sent a lot of resources and it had an effect. And as a result, at least a
shipment through South Florida and through the Caribbean was somewhat tamped
down.

Columbia went through a very, to some degree, still going through a very bloody
period where the cartels reacted with, you know, similarly, a wave of
kidnappings - prominent politicians, judges assassinated. Not to mention, some
of their leading cartel members were killed. So, a lot of people say Mexico’s,
in an odd way - all the bloodshed that there can be seen as a sort of success,
that Mexico needs to go through this sort of period of real chaos and turmoil
in relation to the drug trade before it can emerge on the other side as a more
stable place, as a place where the cartels don’t act with impunity. It should
be noted that part of the plan with Columbia was to quote unquote
“professionalize” the police and military, basically really rooting out
corruption and finding people who will take the job not because they know other
that they’re going to get side payments from the cartels.

Mexico still has a very serious problem with corruption seeping into the
highest levels. So, like I said, whereas some US officials see this as a sort
of odd success – I know people don’t like to attach the word success to so much
carnage - but they see it as sort of a necessary evil before Mexico emerges on
the other side of them as a more stable place with a more professional police
force and military.

GROSS: My guest is Randall Archibold. He covers the southwest for the New York
Times. We’ll take about the new border security initiative announced this
morning by Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano after a break. This is
FRESH AIR.

My guest Randall Archibold wrote yesterday’s front page story in the New York
Times about how Mexican drug cartels have extended their reach into the US. The
interview with him we’ve been listening to was recorded yesterday. This
morning, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano announced a new border
security initiative. So we called Archibold for an update. Randall, would you
sum up for us the main points of the plan outlined today by Secretary
Napolitano?

Mr. ARCHIBOLD: Yes. The administration has decided to send a sizeable increase
in the number of federal agents to the border to assist local and state
authorities there and supplement the already sizeable presence of federal
agents that patrol the border and make sure that violence doesn’t spread from
south to north. They also announced, and this is I think very important for
Mexico, the increased use of technology, X-ray technology, to inspect vehicles
going south to help detect weapons going into Mexico. Something like nine out
of ten of the weapons that have been used in the killings there originated in
the United States and Mexico’s long sought some sort of way for the US to
control that flow of guns.

GROSS: Do you think that the Mexican government will be satisfied by this move
as being sufficient to dramatically cut down on the number of guns being
smuggled into Mexico from the United States?

Mr. ARCHIBOLD: I think they’ll certainly welcome this. There isn’t a lot of
inspection of traffic going into Mexico. US certainly inspects, very
aggressively, people coming out of Mexico and entering the US at the ports of
entry, but there isn’t a lot of inspection going south, either in the United
States or for that matter in Mexico. I think the Mexicans would further like
the US to do something about the sale of these guns including assault weapons.
But I think for now, they would welcome any effort on the US side that might
impede or slow down that flow of weaponry.

GROSS: So, is it a situation where the Mexican government wants the United
States to do more to cut down on gun sales and to prevent guns from being
smuggled into Mexico, but the United States says that Mexico should do more on
the border to inspect cars coming across the border into Mexico?

Mr. ARCHIBOLD: I think - yeah, I think both sides would like to see that.
Mexico traditionally has not done a lot of inspection. You have to remember
people coming into Mexico spend money and, you know, that’s sort of an economic
issue. They don’t want to really do much to interfere with that. At the same
time, Mexico has also done a fair amount, not in terms of inspection, but
certainly sending their military to the border cities to help contain that
violence. So both sides really are taking steps that they had not previously
taken to the deal with the drug war. But I think both sides would also ask the
other to doing more on a range of issues.

GROSS: What are some of the things that are not addressed in the plan outlined
by Secretary Napolitano?

Mr. ARCHIBOLD: Well, I think that the, sort of, elephant in the room is the use
of the US military at the border, mostly likely through National Guard. The
secretary, Secretary Janet Napolitano didn’t really address that so much. She
said that she would meet with Governor Rick Perry of Texas who requested
something like 1,000 or 2,000 National Guard troops at the border. This is
something that the US has previously done - but that was a couple of years ago,
to help the Border Patrol while the Border Patrol was building up a number of
agents. And the National Guard troops didn’t play really a direct role in
apprehending people so much as doing supplementary work. So they left open the
question of using the National Guard at this point, but President Obama and the
secretary have both said that that they would consider it and Secretary
Napolitano is going to meet with the governor of Texas this week to discuss it
further.

GROSS: So, does this strike you as a strong plan? That is, does it sound like
it will really help cut down on the drug related violence?

Mr. ARCHIBOLD: I think it’s a step forward, whether it’s a strong plan or not,
I think, you know, the devil is in the details. And really, we’d have to see -
and exactly how the agents are deployed and how the technology’s used and
really what the success rate is of it. I mean, how many guns or cars did they
stop, intercept and arrest and so forth. But it’s clearly something that isn’t
really being done so much now, so in that regard, it’s a step forward.

GROSS: One thing I’m unclear of is how much of the plan is about increasing
security at the border for people crossing the border and how much of it is
about more law enforcement in border towns?

Mr. ARCHIBOLD: Well, I think that the two are sort of interrelated. I think
that the main issue here at the border is that they don’t want the, you know,
really grisly killings and brutality to spill over directly into those border
towns, I mean, that’s the big concern - in El Paso and Nogales and San Diego
and the - right on the border. So, anything that they can do to contain it, I
think, is kind of the goal that they’re shooting for. At the same time, I don’t
think they want cartel operators to get any further into the US than they
already have.

GROSS: Any final thoughts you want to leave us with about the issue of how
Mexican drug violence has crossed over into the United States?

Mr. ARCHIBOLD: No. I mean, I think this is, sort of, almost a turning point of
sorts. I mean, there’s a lot of unprecedented things happening, both with this
plan that they announced today, in terms of stepping up, you know, southbound
searches - you know, Mexico’s use of its military and resolve to really make a
strong effort to stamp out the cartels is something that they haven’t seen this
aggressively in the past. So, we’re, sort of, in a moment that could be a
turning point in the drug war.

GROSS: Randall Archibold thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. ARCHIBOLD: Thank you.

GROSS: Randall Archibold covers the Southwest for the New York Times. You can
download podcasts of our show on our Web site freshair.npr.org.
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Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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