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Author Says Peña Nieto Drug War Strategy Is More Of The Same

August 1, 2013 1:22 p.m.


Ricardo Ainslie, Author, The Fight to Save Juárez: Life in the Heart of Mexico's Drug War

Related Story: Author Says Peña Nieto Drug War Strategy Is More Of The Same


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: An arrest last week near the U.S. border may give an indication of the future drug war policy of Mexican president Enrique PeÒa Nieto. The leader of the Mexican cartel was arrested, and the cooperation between Mexico and the U.S. and that arrest seems very familiar. Does that mean the president's statements about a new approach to Mexican drug cartels has fallen flat? The direction of Mexico's drug wars is a focus of a talk today on the UC San Diego campus by Ricardo Ainslie, professor, the author of the fight to save Juarez. Welcome to the show.

AINSLIE: Thank you, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: Now, you're a psychologist by training.

AINSLIE: That's right.

CAVANAUGH: Does this make your perspective on the drug war slightly different than we usually hear?

AINSLIE: Well, I'm used to thinking about communities as psychological entities. So the work I've done in Mexico has really been trying to understand the impact of the violence on cities and communities.

CAVANAUGH: Why Juarez?

AINSLIE: Juarez was the epicenter of the Mexican drug war for several years. 11,000 people have been killed there in a 6-year span. The Mexican government spent about a quarter of the troops that they deployed there. So it was ground zero for the drug war. And the sheer brutality, the number of victims made it compelling place to try to understand what was going on there.

CAVANAUGH: In your book, you introduce us to certain characters, certain people who have lived through this. And we see the drug war, the cartels through different eyes. Why did you want to approach it that way?

AINSLIE: We're all familiar with the concept of cartels fighting one another for territory, etc. That's sort of the level of understanding that most of us have. I wanted to try to get inside the city, try to understand in the city at one point, of three million people, what is really going on here? So over the course of two years, I developed relationships with four key people. One was the mayor of Juarez at the time, JosÈ Rios feliz, who stepped into the mayorship having no idea what was coming. His counterpart is another attorney by training. Gustavo de la Rosa who is a human rights activist. So people who come from an educated, perhaps even prejudiced background, but who occupied very different places in this. And then thirdly, a Juarez journalist, Raymundo Ruiz.

CAVANAUGH: One of the most dangerous jobs in the world.

AINSLIE: Absolutely. Mexico has had many journalists killed. But in addition to that, these Juarez journalists are trying to figure out where is the line, what can I cover, and what's going to get me killed? And lastly, the fourth primary character in the book is a woman whose pseudonym is Elena. She was the mistress of a mid--level Juarez cartel operative, who moved about 50-70 kilos of cocaine across on a regular basis. And he was assassinated in 2009.

CAVANAUGH: I want to ask you about the arrest of TreviÒo Morales. How is this news being received in Mexico?

AINSLIE: I think the news is really obviously welcome. That is the Zetas of all the Mexican drug cartels are the most feared, are the most violent. They have a diversified business plan. They're in a lot of different kinds of crimes. On the one hand, I think there's a sense of relief. However at the same time in Mexico, this sort of king pin strategy of taking down the leaders of cartels is the strategy that the current president Nieto, his predecessor used. And it did not solve the problem. And oftentimes, when you take down the leader, there are vying cells within those cartels, and you end up with internal warfare. So people have already been braced for greater violence.

CAVANAUGH: There was some speculation that the new president, PeÒa Nieto, might negotiate some sort of peace agreement with the cartels, allow them more free reign in exchange for ending this upsurge in violence. Was that just an idea someone else came up with and never was in PeÒa Nieto's mind at all?

AINSLIE: Well, he never said he was going to negotiate with the cartels. But what he said consistently throughout his campaign and in the early months of his presidency is he wants to reduce the violence. His interest is on reducing the violence and bringing peace to communities in Mexico. There's a problem which is that cartels are involved in a lot of different kinds of crime. And I think perhaps the rhetoric of sort of shifting the strategy was not -- or at least to date has not been formulated in a way that we know what is the alternate strategy. The arrest of Morales would suggest that certainly the kingpin strategy hasn't been relinquished all together. Because here is the leader of the most important cartel arrested in a manner that really echoed a lot of the operations during the CalderÛn years of the Mexican marines, which are sort of one of the elite unites taking down this guy. But also having at least intelligence input from the United States.

CAVANAUGH: And what is the feeling in Mexico about that, that collaboration between Mexican federal forces and the United States, including drones, I believe, to sort of track the King pins when they can to accomplish these arrests? Is that a popular idea?

AINSLIE: I think at the beginning of the CalderÛn administration when he declared war on the cartels, nationally there was a great deal of support. People in Mexico are tired of the violence. They're aware of the power of these cartels. As that strategy began to not yield the promised results, and as it became clearer and clearer that that strategy involved close cooperation with the United States, military, DEA, FBI, probably CIA, etc., I think this enchantment started to settle in in relationship to that cooperation as well, feeling that the United States was pushing an overmilitarized strategy. So it's a complex situation when PeÒa Nieto first took office, he said we're going to have a hiatus in terms of this cooperation. American intelligence operatives are not going to be allowed to be in the Mexican fusion centers until we figure out what we're going to do here. The signal was we're pulling back. But I think, again, when U.S. intelligence tells you where the head of this cartel is, and he is a very feared man, he's a household name in Mexico, there was no way that PeÒa Nieto could not act on that.

CAVANAUGH: Let me bring you from Juarez to here in San Diego and across the border in Tijuana. U.S. authorities have broken up the kingpins, the Arellano Felix drug cartel, they say. But now from Tijuana is facing is that the Sinaloa cartel has moved in using small independent cells. Apparently the homicide rate is higher this year in Tijuana than it was last year. Do you see, and I have to ask you to be brief about this, is this the way the drug war seems to be involved in a lot of Mexican cities?

AINSLIE: Absolutely. We started this war in 2006, December 2006 with maybe five or six main cartels. Now we probably have 30 identifiable or maybe more organized criminal groups. So absolutely. This is the atomization of these organized crime groups, and they're not only involved in drugs. Will they're doing extortions, kidnappings, human trafficking. There's a lot of criminal activity that's part of what they do.

CAVANAUGH: I want to let everyone know that my guest going to be speaking tonight. His book is called the fight to save Juarez, life in the heart of Mexico's drug war. And the professor is speaking tonight at the institute of the Americas at UC San Diego, that's at 6:30. And he will be speaking about his book at the Barnes and noble bookstore in Encinitas this Saturday at 3:30. Thank you so much.

AINSLIE: Thank you, Maureen. It's been a real pleasure. Thank you.