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Insight Into The Latest Drug Violence In Mexico


Mexican authorities continue to find bodies in mass graves near the town of San Fernando by the U.S.-Mexico border. While violence along the San Diego-Tijuana region seems to be decreasing, we'll talk about why the story hits close to home.

San Fernando, Mexico

Mexican authorities continue to find bodies in mass graves near the town of San Fernando by the U.S.-Mexico border.

We here in San Diego live right on the border with Mexico; ours is the busiest border crossing in the world. Though we may be only peripherally aware of it, our economies are intertwined. There's another way we are connected, and that's through crime. Drugs flow north across the border to the U.S. market, and weapons flow south from the U.S. to arm the drug cartels.

The violence we heard so much about in Tijuana over the past couple of years does appear to have died down, but now horrendous stories are appearing of mass graves in San Fernando in the state of Tamaulipas, Mexico, about 90 miles from Brownsville, Texas.

We're going to try to understand more about what's going on in San Fernando and why we should pay attention.


John Ackerman is a professor at the Institute of Legal Research of the National Autonomous University of Mexico

Hernán Rozemberg is senior correspondent for Texas Public Radio and Fronteras: The Changing America Desk

Dr. David Shirk, assistant professor of political science and director of the Trans-Border Institute at USD.

Read Transcript

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.

ST. JOHN: You're listening to These Days on KPBS here on KPBS, I'm Alison St. John in for Maureen Cavanaugh. We here in San Diego live right on the border with Mexico. Ours is the busiest border crossing in the world, and though we may be only peripherally only aware of it, our economies are so intertwined, there's another way we're connected and that's through crime. Drugs flow north across the border to the U.S. market, and weapons flow south from the U.S. to arm the cartels of the violence we've heard so much in Tijuana over the past couple of years does appear to have died down, but now horrendous stories are appearing of mass grave in Tamaulipas state across the border from Texas. We're going to try to understand more about what's going on, and why we should pay attention. We have three guests, each with a unique perspective. We have Hernan Rosenberg who's a journalist who's just returned from Matamoros, where he's gone reporting on the mass graves and the funerals. He's with the Fronteras news network of information covering the southwest. Hernán, thanks for being with us.

ROZEMBERG: Good morning. Good to be here.

ST. JOHN: And we also have David Shirk who is director of the transboarder institute at USD.

SHIRK: Thanks having me.

ST. JOHN: We also would like to hear from you, our listeners. Do you have any personal insights or questions or comments about safety side of the border, or the drug war or how we should react, our number here is 1-888-895-5727. So Hernán, let's start with you. Put us in the picture about the latest news, you were in Matamoros on just over the weekend. What do we know about these mass graves discovered just 90 miles south of the -- south of Texas?

ROZEMBERG: Right. San Fernando is a pretty bucolic farming community. About 90 miles, like say, from Matamoros, which is right across the border from Brownsville Texas, which people might recognize. Last information that I learned, official count from the Mexican government was 145 bodies recovered. Now, they -- now all have been transferred from the Matamoros morgue where they were first brought up from San Fernando down to Mexico City for further examination. The U.S. State Department, through the consulate in Matamoros, has said that there could be as many as three U.S. citizens among the dead. But they could not confirm it. That was information they received from phone calls they were receiving from U.S. citizens saying they might think they may have relative ares there.

ST. JOHN: What do we know about how the people were murdered?

ROZEMBERG: Right. Well, that's a little bit hard to discern. The Mexican officials are not releasing, at least officially, much information about that. Off the record, I talked with various officials who confirmed that many of the people were actually not killed through a shot in the head or anything like that, but actually with a very strong hammer blow to the side of the head. He said at least the first 40 or so bodies that they received, that they received from the graves had died from that kind of a blow.

ST. JOHN: And this is --

ROZEMBERG: Go ahead.

ST. JOHN: This is simply from people who were traveling through the region, and we've heard they were pulled off buses; is that right?

ROZEMBERG: At least some of them, Alison. It's kind of hard to tell. You there's -- you know, that's part of the problem here, bodies have been fund in various stages of decomposition, anywhere from as many as two weeks to as many as four or five months. And spread out in at least 26 mass graves ranging in size and scope. So it's, you know, it gets to be a very grim, a really grim tale. Some graves have some body parts, not all bodies are together. So it's very hard to tell.

ST. JOHN: Okay. So Hernán, how close kid you get to the location.

ROZEMBERG: Yes, I got down over to Matamoros across from Brownsville. Several journalists, we were trying to see if we could get down to San Fernando. But we were told from officials, fellow journalist, local folks that know the area, that it would be essentially walking into a death trap of that that's how dangerous it would be. And I noticed from even from the first couple of days where you weren't seeing any U.S. state lights out there, not associated press, anybody. So I think the closest folks got to what Matamoros where the bodies were being brought. And where this make shift kind of welcome center for families coming to seek their loved ones was set up.

ST. JOHN: So testimony us about what you experienced while you were there.

ROZEMBERG: Yeah, it was kind of a little bit of -- mayhem. I think officials were prepared for families to be arriving, but not this many. At last count, more than 500 families had shown up from all over the -- all over Mexico, and even the United States. I interviewed a guy from drove 26 hours from Riverside California. And it's kind of instilled a new sense of hope for many of these families who have had a disappeared one for months weeks or even years, that maybe they could find their loved one and put closure to their grief.

ST. JOHN: But from what you're 28ing us, it sounds like the graves that are being discovered are relatively recent, no?

ROZEMBERG: Well, that's actually part of the issue mere. The news has come out recently, but it seems like some of these graves could date to be several months old, from, again, from telling the decompensation stage of several of the bodies. The Mexican government is just letting them know now. But it seems like some of them have been it around for quite a while.

ST. JOHN: So this could have been going on for a while. Who has been apprehended so far.

ROZEMBERG: Yes, from what I've been able to tell so far the government has made about 33 arrests, 17 suspects, and 16 San Fernando police officers that are supposed to be corrupt and be collaborating with the drug cartels. The most known of the suspects is a guy arrested on Saturday, Martino Mares Estrada Luna, also known as el Quilo, who's a fairly high ranking leader of los Zetas cartel, which the government is pointing to as responsible for these acts.

ST. JOHN: And how are the local people in the area dealing with this violence, her nan?

ROZEMBERG: I think there is a sense of a bit of shock, but more at the sense of the numbers, not so much that this is happening. I think a lot of folks are kind of growing, as the pink Floyd song goes, comfortably numb over this type of news of it's just one to the other, and sometimes is it shifts, like you were saying, from Tijuana to San Fernando. But folks are very used to it. Nobody's surprised that this type of thing is happening.

ST. JOHN: And you're mentioning that there were possibly some American citizens among the dead. How is the U.S. state department reacting to this?

ROZEMBERG: Yeah. They're also playing carefully because they cooperate to upset the southern neighborhood too much. But they do want Americans to know this it's very dangerous. So they did issue a couple of travel warnings saying that, you know, folks could get pulled off buses. They're playing it, like I'm saying, carefully. They want to let folks than it's a dangerous area, but they also have a diplomatic role to play with Mexico?

ST. JOHN: Just draw the lines more clearly for us so people know which area we're talking about here.

ROZEMBERG: I'm sorry?

ST. JOHN: Which area were you talking about specifically here?

ROZEMBERG: This, we're talking about the state of Tamaulipas, which is bordering with Texas, and that's where a lot of the violate has been playing right now, and boarder cities such as Matamoros, Reynoso, and more farming areas such as San Fernando.

ST. JOHN: David, tell us, this is obviously not directly south of the border in San Diego here, and we here in San Diego, it's interesting, they say about the number of miles an hours that we were hearing about coming out of Tijuana, is there any kind of a connection between the decrease of violence along our border here and the increase further east?

SHIRK: No, I don't think so. We saw a dramatic decline in violence in Baja California starting in 2009. We went from an estimated 600 drug related homicides in 2008 by one account in a former newspaper there were around 300 in 2009 and 2010. That dramatic decline in drug violence many attributed to effective law enforcement and effective cooperation between law enforcement and Mexican military forces. There are other possibilities, including a truce between the two major drug trafficking organizations that were fighting for control of the region, are the Sinaloa cartel, and the Tijuana cartel. But what we see in Tamaulipas is really the ongoing violence associated with the submit between the gulf cartel based in Tamaulipas, and one of Mexico co's oldest cartels, and the zeta organization, which formerly worked as mercenaries for the Zetas and later split in 2010 to branch off and pick up their own criminal activities 67 as they search for new avenue it is of elicit profits, one of the things they appear to have done is to tap into the exploitation of central American and other migrants coming up from southern Mexico towards the United States. Of.

ST. JOHN: So the thing it has in common, I guess, is that it's all part of the drug war. But are you saying that the drug cartels who are involved are very important ones from the ones responsible for the violence in Tijuana judge.

SHIRK: Absolutely, the zetas are part of what we might call second or third generation of cartels in Mexico. The Tijuana cartel, and the Sinaloa cartel that's been around since the early 90s and is a previously formed part of a massive cartel network that dominated Mexico during the 1980s. The gulf cartel is part of that earlier generation. But the zetas were a group of basically highly trained elite military personnel who were specifically formed by the Mexican military to fight drug trafficking. But unfortunately, they got recruited to work for the gulf cartel, and brought with them the military tactics and knowledge that they have begun to use on the dark side of the drug war. And the kinds of tactics that they have introduced include decapitations, have included sort of paramilitary style hits; very high powered weaponry and other sort of military, you know, characteristics that are -- they're basically a paramilitary criminal organization, and the discipline that they use, the skills that they bring to the drug war have really transformed the nature of violence in the last few years.

ST. JOHN: So that's interesting -- I'm drawing sort of parallels between what's happening right now in Tamaulipas and what we saw in Tijuana and what appears to be expanding south of the border. And this issue of how even although it appears that the violence has been stemmed here, it might simply be, as you mentioned, that one or other of the cartels has managed to gain the upper hand. And so there's relative peace, is that the case?

SHIRK: Yeah, I think there's no question about the fact that drug trafficking are continues to go on in Baja California. It's simply changed the nature of the deal has changed in Baja California. And the Tijuana cartel, which was really severely debilitated in the last several year it is by law enforcement but also by encroachment by the Sinaloa organization, and their local -- their local thugs, that debilitation of the Tijuana cartel made it possible for the Sinaloa cartel to make inroads in the state. And we've seep that just this last November and December, the discovery of tunnels in the Tijuana area that were controlled by Sinaloans really was to me a sign that there's now a new dynamic, a new arrangement, a new deal for drug traffickers in Tijuana, and that involves some collusion or at least some kind of a truce between the Sinaloa and the Tijuana cartels. Whether authorities had any knowledge of that or were involved in any way I think is not something we can speculate on, but we know that Sinaloa now has an expanded presence in Baja California, and in some ways, drug traffickers have simply got back to business as usual in California and in other places that they continue to fight.

ST. JOHN: We're speaking with Hernán Rozemberg who's senior correspondent for Texas public radio's Fronteras changing America desk, and doctor David shirk who's assistant professor of political science and director of the transporter institute at USD, and we're taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. And we're also joined at this point by John Ackerman, who is a researcher from the institute of legal research at the national antonymous university of Mexico and has written in international papers about this issue. So John, thank you so much for joining us.

ACKERMAN: Hello, Alison, a pleasure to be with you. And many greetings to David and Hernán to also be on the same show with you.

ST. JOHN: Okay. So just for a little bit of analysis hereof, John, you don't think that going off to the top drug lords is the right way to go. Why not?

ACKERMAN: I wouldn't say it like that. I think any criminal needs to be pursued. That's of course the case. What I've been arguing in a series of recent pieces is that the Mexican law enforcement establishment should dedicate scarce resources towards principally protecting the Mexican people. That the most important objective for the Mexican military, the police, investigators should be to focus their energies, squares energies on serious crimes like homicide, like kidnapping, trafficking of people, and the Mexican authorities should not be particularly worried about the transit of drug, particularly marijuana, towards the United States. That the you said, if they are particularly concerned about protecting their youth against the use of drugs should do that enforcement on their own. Basically what I'm saying is the Mexican authorities should follow the example of the United States instead of following the orders it is of the United States government. In the United States territory, is there basically free flow for marijuana, in particular, on national highways. Some consumption, some minor sales are pursued, but really the emphasis of the attorney general's office in the United States is not on the transport of marijuana, while in Mexico, this is the case. And so this has created the sort of militarized territorial struggle which has led to these almost 40000 deaths which might be a lot more because now we're finding all these clandestine graves. So I don't trust the numbers anymore. The numbers might a lot larger. Now, these hundred and 45 bodies, who were they? The suspicion is that most of them were migrants, actually more than the suspicion, from the testimony of the family members, these are migrants going towards the United States. And so there's another way in which the United States is involved to think about the participation in this war, because this is no longer necessarily directly about drugs of it's about the more aggressive immigration policy in the United States, more deportation, it's become more difficult for migrants across the border. And what does this mean? This makes organized crime elements more necessary and able to charge more for their services to get people across the border. And a paradoxical kind of contradictory way, increased boarder control has led to an increase in these [CHECK AUDIO] which leads to this kind of death.

ST. JOHN: Interesting. Okay, we have to take a break but we'll come right back to this topic and we also are taking calls at 1-888-895-5727. We'll take a cull right after this break.

ST. JOHN: And you're back listening to These Days with myself, Alison St. John in for Maureen Cavanaugh. My guests this morning are John Ackerman, with the institute of legal research at the national autonomous University of Mexico. Doctor David shirk of USD's transborder institute, and Hernán Rozemberg of Fronteras, changing America deck. We're talking about the violence that appears to be bubbling up, mass graves discovered in Tamaulipas state south of the border with Texas. And we're taking your calls about this issue. 1-888-895-5727 is the number. And Francis is on the line. Francis, go ahead.

NEW SPEAKER: I heard from a friend of mine who returned from Cancun where a restaurant owner had been killed in the nontouristic district that the choice for young men without jobs because so many don't have them, was to join one of five gangs. Then I also heard from individuals who have migrated from Mexico who have family there that there's -- in the south of Mexico, that there's also elements coming from other countries that are also, you know, unemployed and basically easy to be tools.

ST. JOHN: That's a really good point. John, do you want to comment on that that perhaps one of the reasons this is becoming so prevalent is there are not many opportunities for young men south of the border?

ACKERMAN: Yes, there definitely is a connect between poverty and economic opportunities and the incredible amount of money comes into the drug cartels and their ability to buy off human labor. And this is really the tragedy about this all. The Mexican government and the US government often say that 90 percent of the dead are supposedly somehow linked up or related to the drug cartels. Now as if this was a justification for the death, as if therapy just a battle against -- between the bad guys, and somehow in the end, the bad guys are gonna kill each other, and we're gonna have a better Mexico. But what's actually happening, is the people who are killing each other, assuming this is the truth, because we have a question there, 90 percent have some sort of link to the drug cartels, even if this were true this wouldn't be justification, because these are young kids be most of them are under 40, many of them are under 30, who are caught up in this drug struggle, and exactly, it has to do with the lack of opportunities and possibilities for personal development and growth of the youth. And the terrible thing about this though is that again, the Mexican youth are fighting amongst each other. Or becoming collateral, quote unquote, damage in the interest of supposedly protecting American youth who use the drugs of so it's really kind of a sick and worrisome contradiction here.

ST. JOHN: We have another caller here who's raising a questions about the US's role. Thanks for joining us. Chris, go ahead.

NEW SPEAKER: Yes, I'd just think that the US gets off way too easy. Having created the demand for the drugs, and which supplies the guns. We still look at it as a Mexican problem that spills over our border, when it's really an American problem destabilizing one of our neighbors. We should be ashamed and we should be doing more. Don't you agree?

ST. JOHN: John, let me throw that one to you.

ACKERMAN: Yeah, well, great. I agree with that. I think that's really part of the problem. We need to start a serious debate within U.S. public opinion and public policy about what can actually be done. Obama and Hillary Clinton have been clear. This has been a very positive step in terms of foreign policy. Every time that Hillary Clinton come to Mexico or talk about Mexico, they are quick to accept the responsibility of U.S. policy, and U.S. habits in what's happening in Mexico. The only problem is that they haven't actually done anything about changing things. So this is a very minor bureaucratic thing, which is actually very important, but it's minor in terms of the fact that in November, the agency for [CHECK AUDIO] requested the Obama administration, executive itself, to authorize very minimal reporting requirements on the 8000 gun shops in the southwest of the United States. This requirement would only require gunshots to inform the ATF of multiple purchases of assault weapons by the same person in the same store during the same week. And Obama has failed to act. Heap has not authorized this basic reporting requirement, which has not involved even gun control, it's just a basic law enforcement strategy. So really the United States needs to do a lot more. And I think this depends on civil society, actually speaking up, and it not only being the NRA or the border fence voices talking about this issue.

ST. JOHN: But John, I notice on your blog that you wrote that U.S. military intelligence drone, similar to those deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq have begun to operate in Mexico air space. How do you know that? That suggests somebody's doing something.

ACKERMAN: Well, yeah, that's in a recent scandal or case in which the U.S. government has started to send planes over Mexico. Of the problem with this is this has not been authorized by the Mexican Congress, which would have been very important in order to fulfill the basic requirements of the Mexican constitution. Of here this has to be -- that's sort of -- that's not what I'm asking for at least, or the Mexican people, are not asking for the United States to come into Mexico to take over the responsibility of the Mexican authorities but to deal with the sources of the problem on the other side of the boarder. There's also been proposals, you know, even going beyond that now, the secretary of the army said a couple months ago that we need to start putting boots on the ground in Mexico. Hillary Clinton compared Mexico to Columbia 60's months ago, in which there were U.S. military bases in Columbia. I don't think that's a solution to put US military personnel and planes over Mexican territory. The united state needs to do its part on its side of the border to resolve the sources of the problem, and exactly allow Mexican law enforcement to impose peace and deal with its own issues on Mexican soil so much that's just a way we need to rethink the things of it's easy to sort of think that that's what's happening, when you go down the border to the south, what you really need to do is work inside the united states to resolve the problems.

ST. JOHN: I noticed this week in the economist that some Central American countries south of Mexico are being increasingly overrun by drug violence. So I mean, would you say that the governments are actually being threatened by the power of some of these cartels?

ACKERMAN: Many of the cartels are in inside of the government. The problem is that the governments are corrupt, they're captured both in Mexico and central America, and obviously the violence is going towards central America because there's been some controls in Mexico, so you're pushing it down south, you're also pushing toward Tamaulipas, and there is it a relation between Tijuana and Tamaulipas. I don't think there's a political threat here. I think that's the defense between Mexico and Columbia. In Columbia we had a rebel group with an idealogical agenda which was trying to take over the country and take over the government. Here the narcos, it's not that they're indifferent to politics but they're indifferent to ideology. And we see that in Tamaulipas, for instance, in Tamaulipas, there was a big fear that the narcos would get direct he involved in the gubernatorial elections themselves. No, they do not do that, all they did was knock off the government candidate a few weeks earlier, right? So they're not worried about whether the pre or the pan or the -- won on election day, there was no crisis or violence, what they care about is whoever it is is in the government allows them to operate freely. So this is not necessarily less of a problem, but it's a different problem.

ST. JOHN: Go ahead. Is that Hernán?

ROZEMBERG: Yes, I'm sorry just one point to make on the challenges faced by the Mexican youth, which have been raised just a few minutes ago. From my reporting on this trip here and elsewhere as has been reported, the cartels are directly targeting Mexican youth. Now, Mexican youth, a lot of them are joining the cartels themselves because they see no other way out. It's a little bit similar to the whole gang thing, kind of the promise of a life, but the cartels are purposely making a point of forcefully recruiting a lot of youth. Supposedly, that's one of the motives being spoken as to why they boarded these buses. Nobody's sure, but that's one of the relationship reasons. [CHECK AUDIO] outside the morgue also said in San Fernando, and around that area that who they thought to be cartel members would show up in the middle of the night at their homes and take away their children. That's how a lot of these young kids are being disappeared, they just show up and take them away.

ST. JOHN: So they're not just looking for money, they're looking for recruits for more manpower.

ROZEMBERG: Absolutely.

ST. JOHN: Yeah. Let's take a call here. We have a call from Juan in mission valley who's got a question. Go ahead Juan.

NEW SPEAKER: I just have a question, when's it gonna remove the big covers in drug cartels on both sides of the border? A couple of states, and one politician in Tijuana. One of the biggest politicians in Tijuana is one of the biggest corrupted persons in the world which is in Tijuana. And everybody knows it again. The other one, the state of Aggerero, they have the business to pay, for friends to pay the tax, the drug dealers to pay money to have the businesses there. They don't [CHECK AUDIO] they don't have no business. At least do it the same way. And the United States knows Mexico knows, and it's been done for years, and they're dealing and they're dealing and they're dealing, and it's part of the infrastructure, and I'm pretty sure the money goes into the government what. Do they -- the government do with the money they get from the drug dealers when they crack them down? That's the thing. The thing to me is they tonight to take their face [CHECK AUDIO] and I don't think nobody's doing much better. But between Mexico and the United States , Mexico puts a stop to the United States not to stick their nose in it, and Mexico likes it because this money goes into their pockets and I know that.

ST. JOHN: Okay, Juan, so David, David shirk from USD, do you have a reaction to that? Do you feel like there's powerful interests at play here that are actually preventing a solution?

SHIRK: Well, I think that there's a reason why we see -- first of all the caller makes two points. One is there are big drug trafficking interests in Mexico, but also in the United States , and that we should do more to attack those big interests in the United States. I think there's a different structure to organized crime on either side of the border. The purpose of highly sophisticated, very powerful cartels move drugs across the border south of Mexico is that you have to get across the line. And in order to do that you need to corrupt officials, you need to protect your transit. But once you get it on the other side of the border, you have very efficient but diffuse mechanisms for selling drugs 678 you have university students, you have biker gangs, you have basically a decentralized network. And you don't need to have the sort of hierarchical system or structure that you see in Mexican drug cartels. That said, there are certainly U.S. officials both at the border and beyond that are in many ways involved drug trafficking. It tends to be at a lower level. We also see U.S. private sector individuals, people who work for organizations like bank of America and Wachovia that are part of this system because they are the financiers or the money launderers for the cartel. So I think it's a valid point to say what's being done on the U.S. side to address those aspects of the problem. I think the most important question that people have drawn attention to in our conversation so far is U.S. drug demand.

ST. JOHN: Yes.

SHIRK: We have not made any serious to try to address U.S. drug demand in any serious way. California recently considered the prospect of legalization, but most U.S. national figures won't even touch that issue. Even though there appears to be no other effective solution when it comes to treatment and prevention.

ST. JOHN: Right. I would like to get one more call it, but we don't have time. So I'm just gonna say it for Mauricio, who's calling from Oceanside, and has a question that I imagine is on everyone's mind. He was actually born in Mexico, and he would like to go back but he's worried about the safety. I guess each -- of the three of you might have a different response to that. But David, can I just start with you? What would you respond to Mauricio?

SHIRK: I'm sorry, his question is what?

ST. JOHN: How safe is it to be going back south of the border? I guess it depends on the location, right?

SHIRK: I think it depends on where you go. I think Tamaulipas is a fairly different place, but traveling to Tijuana, traveling to Mexico City, traveling to most major resort cities is overwhelmingly safe. The number of US tourist who've been killed in Mexico I think still stands at zero. So U.S. citizens, there's are dozen, but the circumstances of those vary quite a bit of it's not just people who are out vacationing. So I think if you're cautious and you choose wisely in term was where you go, both in terms of the area of the country, and the area, the parts of town that you go to, your odds of being killed by a drug trafficker are exceedingly slim.

ST. JOHN: Okay, well, that's a good note to end on, although we've really only just begun to sort of unwrap this subject. And we'd like to thank those of you who called in, and sorry we couldn't get you on the air, but I'd like to thank John Ackerman man from the national ark to know mouse university of Mexico, thanks for joining us, John.

ACKERMAN: Thank you Alison.

ST. JOHN: And Hernán Rozemberg from Fronteras, that was great that you put us in the picture.

ROZEMBERG: Thank you for having me.

ST. JOHN: And Dr. David Shirk from USD, thank you.

SHIRK: Thank you so much.

ST. JOHN: Okay. Stay with us here on these days. Coming up in the next segment, we'll be talking about a Chinese artist who disappeared and hasn't been seen since.

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