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What Role Does U.S. Play In Mexico’s Drug War?


Aired 5/20/11

Over the last four years, more than 35,000 people have been killed in Mexico's drug war. We talk about how the U.S. thirst for illegal drugs is affecting the violence in Mexico. And, we'll discuss the ideas that have been proposed to end the violence.

Mexican police escort a suspected drug trafficker off a helicopter in Hermosi...
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Above: Mexican police escort a suspected drug trafficker off a helicopter in Hermosillo, Mexico.

Over the last four years, more than 35,000 people have been killed in Mexico's drug war. We talk about how the U.S. thirst for illegal drugs is affecting the violence in Mexico. And, we'll discuss the ideas that have been proposed to end the violence.


Alisa Joyce Barba, assignment editor for the KPBS Fronteras Desk

John Warren, editor and publisher of San Diego Voice & Viewpoint.

Michael Smolens, government editor for the San Diego Union-Tribune

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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.

TOM FUDGE: Violence, corruption and the law enforcement, all these are the fruits of an illegal drug trade that has turned Mexico into a dangerous place and a state that seems on the brink of anarchy. The drug crisis has many causes but in the larger sense it is a consequence of America's appetite for illegal drugs. This past weekend during the coming week KPBS and its partners in public radio's Fronteras project has been examining many aspects of the drug trade and we are going to start out by talking about the US and it started out by talking about the US responsibility for the drug trade and its violence. Alisa Joyce Barba as I said as assignment editor for the KPBS Fronteras desk and we are happy to have your here today. Alisa, how would you like to address this question that was raised in the series about what the US has contributed to the drug war in Mexico?

ALISA JOYCE BARBA: The impetus for this series is the impression you have when he read the newspapers and you look at the drug war violence south of the border whether it be the mass graves discovered south of Texas or whether it be the kind of violence we see in Tijuana whore whereas, in the sense that there is this diplomatic line, border that separates our country from Mexico. There was the sense of violence comes only to the border and once it gets to the board of the drugs kind of silently dissipate into our country. And what happens. This is the key connection that is both fuels and funds a lot of the drug violence and also provides the weapons for a lot of the cartels. The key connection of course is the American appetite for drugs and the consumption that goes on here we are the biggest consumers of the world of marijuana cocaine heroin and methamphetamine most of which comes up through Mexico. I think it's really important I think we can say that as much as we want and we say it over and over again but I think that our audience needs to really look at those numbers and those figures and recognize that that is the key component there.

TOM FUDGE: And so far what has the US it proposed in terms of policy to try to reduce the problem of violence in Mexico?

ALISA JOYCE BARBA: The main thrust of the policy has been interdiction spending millions of dollars helping the Mexican government to fight the drug war south of the border. There's been a lot of criticism of that saying we really have to look at demand and drug eradication programs in this country trying to get people off of drugs but there is a general sense that that is not going to be very effective when we have so many people who seem to do it either as an addict, or for fun I doesn't seem that drug demand is going to go down anytime soon.

TOM FUDGE: John Warren?

JOHN WARREN: I think a lot of it is trying to the American people to understand what's going on beyond the sound bites. 26 billion dollars a year in terms of revenues from this country to the south in terms of the drug business when you look at it. We have a 1700-mile border fence between Mexico and the US. We have the walls and the fences. They moved to the tunnels, we are finding and closing tunnels, they move some instances see. We are moving people there, we brought troops in to help with the border. We start checking closer for things leaving the country in terms of weapons, and apparently they're using light planes. So the more you do, the more they find ways to do and we are arresting people and holding them as federal prisoners in terms of the court coming and so I think we are doing a lot but we are fearful right now because the activity of the cartels are reaching over here in terms of getting violence likely see some in San Diego, we see in Nuevo Texas and Nuevo Laredo, what's happening in those areas and those are the things that are concerning us the most.

TOM FUDGE: Why do we consume so many drugs?

ALISA JOYCE BARBA: You know one of the stories I think we had a person in a drug treatment center saying that is the $64 million question printed on paper isn't easy or pat answer to that. I think it is a habit. It started in the 60s. I think that part of it is for the most part it's easy. It's not difficult to get drugs in any American city. You know you talk to any high school in San Diego. It is an easy entertainment, it is an easy fix and that's kind of the connection that we wanted to make here. Yet it may not be easy and may be expensive but it does have consequences.

TOM FUDGE: Michael Smolens?

MICHAEL SMOLENS: You ask a really big question that goes through the history of mankind and there's always been some sort of drug or alcohol thing that makes at least at the outset it makes people feel good whether it is chewing coca leaves and you know, I don't know, but you get my gist. That has been going on and on and maybe we've just never been able to understand that but you know kind of getting to the here and now that's kind of almost a philosophical or historic discussion. There is this notion of okay, we are back again and we heard this in the 60s and 70s 80s 90s music supply or demand and there is so much focus on interdicting the supply. I guess, and maybe Alisa you can address this, is there going to be a push for a more draconian drug use laws to somehow figure that that is the way to stop demand, or what is the answer?

ALISA JOYCE BARBA: I think the discussion now is actually moving more toward legalization, at least certainly legalizing pot. And there is a lot of debate about whether that will even have an impact. I think one of the things that we did not really address in the whole drug war and US culpability equation is that the drug cartels in Mexico made the summer between 19 and $35 billion a year on the drug trade. So they have become fantastically wealthy. There is a lot of money to be made. But they've also branched out into all kinds of criminal enterprises. I mean her best parts of the border area in Mexico where they are running the whole place. Right? Criminal enterprises that smuggle illegal immigrants into this country. Or smuggle weapons into the country. There's a lot more going on that fund the drug cartels now than just drugs. So even if we were to I think stop the demand overnight, which will never happen, I don't think we would see the demise of the drug cartels.

TOM FUDGE: On the subject of legalization our talk show These Days interviewed former Pres. Vicente Fox and he's become a proponent of legalization. And he said during the interview that Portugal has legalized all drugs and drug use has gone down. I can't account for that. I don't know if that is true or not but does that make sense to anybody here, legalizing drugs?

JOHN WARREN: The reason we have a legalization argument is we are looking back to prohibition and what happened when we finally caved in and changed the laws and broke up the whole movement. This is not the same thing. We have states that want to pass a legalization laws. We have big issue about the legal marijuana use but at the same time the federal government says no and we are ignoring the fact that states cannot pass laws that are in conflict with federal statutes. I have to make a correction, I'm sorry when I said $26 billion goes to the smuggling and, not the drugs and you mentioned the drugs are 19 to 30. Smuggling people into the country.

ALISA JOYCE BARBA: That is a huge amount of money going from this country south.

TOM FUDGE: We have a couple callers wanting to chime in, so let's take a couple. Suzanne is in La Jolla. Suzanne, you are on the roundtable.

NEW SPEAKER: I'd like to make a point about the discussion earlier cutting social programs. I believe that one of the reasons drug users are out there is that in general people feel very disenfranchised. So that we use drugs to get high, to avoid what the issues are. I think as our social fabric becomes more and more un-wound we are going to see greater drug use and until we address that problem though much how matter how much introduction we have or how much rehab money we get is going to be a good argument until it really take a look at the core problem.

TOM FUDGE: Thank you very much for calling, Suzanne. Mike is calling from San Diego, Mike, go ahead.

NEW SPEAKER: Hi how are you guys doing? I think when we have Vicente Fox and others pointing out that the US has a big drug appetite and acknowledging that I do have a problem with the fact that I never hear anybody in Mexico acknowledging the fact that they are corrupted so deeply they cannot put a stop to this. This would never happen in the US. Letting these people take over the way that they do.

TOM FUDGE: Do we agree with this would never happen in the US?

JOHN WARREN: It hasn't happened. I can put it that way. The difference in terms of how our government is organized makes a major factor.

TOM FUDGE: I think if you look at the corruption in Chicago during prohibition is not so different with what we are seeing the drug cartels in Mexico. That's my point. Anyone else want to respond, we had two colors, any response question no, okay. Let's take another call. Let's go to Bruce, also, a lot of people calling from La Jolla. That's okay. Bruce go ahead.

NEW SPEAKER: Hi, I want to say that I believe that the intro to your story had a built-in bias incident that the fundamental problem is the demand for illegal drugs. The fundamental problem is the fact that what is demanded is illegal and that is by our own joystick the lessons of Prohibition are very clear. You can either have drug users, or you can ever hope about, take your pick. We have essentially decided that trying to make it somewhat harder for people to get drugs is worse. The large amount of corruption, death, murder and all that goes with it the fact that it is illegal.

TOM FUDGE: Advertisements on TV for buying cocaine of your choice, is that something that would be acceptable to you, Bruce and to us in this country? Just asking, I'm just curious.

NEW SPEAKER: I don't believe it has to be made a completely unregulated business and it does not have to be allowed to be a Fortune 500 business to distribute drugs to people. But if they could be bought in a manner that does not bypass the legal systems, you would not have the violence and corruption that is associated. It is the only way you bite is under the counter in a brown rabbit package but you can buy and the guy who sold and you doesn't go to jail, then you don't smuggle it in from Mexico.

ALISA JOYCE BARBA: Well there is a debate about that. I don't think I legalization, it isn't something experts generally believe that it's going to solve all the problems but I think that there still is going to be a lot of, you look at what's going on in California where essentially medicinal marijuana is legal. And there is still the vast majority of imports from Mexico are marijuana.

TOM FUDGE: So in other words legalization isn't going to put the cartels out of business.

ALISA JOYCE BARBA: I believe so.

JOHN WARREN: We don't have it on the West Coast, but on the east coast we still have black market cigarettes because we have the alcohol tobacco firearms entity. We still have Moonshine or illegal alcohol being made and sold, truckloads of cigarettes are still moving, headed toward Canada more than anything we see over here, so no it will not eliminate it by any means. It might alter the presentation.

ALISA JOYCE BARBA: It would be cheaper and you wouldn't have to have a prescription.

TOM FUDGE: Michael Smolens, you have the last word.

MICHAEL SMOLENS: I hope what John said is true but there's been a certain calm in the alcohol world since it was legal and cigarettes there's always a black market for everything. Certainly you don't see violence and the kind of stuff, maybe there is corruption assuming that's a legitimate argument that's out there whether legalization would just do away with the aspect of the illegal trade. Would it bring up other problems, I'm sure a lot of people think so.

TOM FUDGE: Final question actually for you, Alisa, would immigration reform have any effect on this drug trade, or are those two separate issues that need to be dealt with in separate ways?

ALISA JOYCE BARBA: They definitely need to be dealt with separately. They have a couple things in common; one they have a border that needs to be crossed and secondly the drug cartels are involved in human smuggling getting people up across the border. So immigration reform if it somehow miraculously solve the immigration problem it would take away some of the cartels business.

TOM FUDGE: Well that is that and thank you very much to the people who called in. Thank you to the editors. Want to mention wanting to our listeners. This is the last broadcast of the editors Roundtable. Next week KPBS will shift its schedule. These days will be at noon and be called the midday edition and the editors roundtable is going away but the editors will also move to noon on Friday and it will be renamed the roundtable and we hope that you all will continue to tune in and continue to call in as the editors Roundtable becomes the roundtable. With that, let me thank our editors at the roundtable, Alisa Joyce Barba is assignment editor for the KPBS Fronteras desk. Alisa, thank you very much


TOM FUDGE: And John Warren is the editor of San Diego Voice and Viewpoint, thank you.

JOHN WARREN: Thank you.

TOM FUDGE: And Michael Smolens is government editor for the San Diego Union Tribune, thank you Michael.

MICHAEL SMOLENS: Thanks, Tom. It was a good discussion today.

TOM FUDGE: I'm Tom Fudge and you are listening to the Editors Roundtable on KPBS.

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Avatar for user 'HarryStreet'

HarryStreet | May 20, 2011 at 10:02 a.m. ― 5 years, 10 months ago

You'd be surprised how close the demand for drugs in Mexico is in comparison to that of the U.S. Yes, we have a demand here, but they do all over the world, too. We simply don't talk about it.

Mexico's inability to defeat the drug cartel is an example they are a FAILED STATE. They have been for decades, it's simply taken this long for everyone to see it. This is partly why Mexicans don't even try to change things in their country. They are proud to be Mexican, but not enough to fight for change. You ask an Mexican about this and they'll reply, "This is the way it's always been in Mexico."

With this attitude we must maintain a strong relationship with our friends south of the border to control immigration. Illegal immigrants are not only seeking work, they are looking to live in peace.

We must also look at how we allow gunmakers to hide behind the 2nd Ammendment's Right to Bear Arms. They are supplying our enemies! What's wrong with us?

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Avatar for user 'Missionaccomplished'

Missionaccomplished | May 20, 2011 at 11:01 a.m. ― 5 years, 10 months ago

@DAVID. for a minute I thought I logged into KFMB 760!!! LOL, david.

More than anything you are projecting, David, projecting that part about pride. The US has bled Latin America dry. made war in Southeast Asia and displayed even more arrogance in the ME and South Central Asia! We support dictators around the world (well those who play our tune, the ones FDR called "our SOB's") and then we make "human rights ratings." Our war criminals will never see a courtroom like Noriega or Saddam because there is no one bigger to judge us. In the meantime, we talk one way and act another. We're the biggest hypocrites on the planet.

You don't know what a failed state is. Mexico is NOT a failed state, despite what some embittered and paid-off Mexican radio personalities like EDUARCO RUIZ HEALY might claim. About a year or so ago, KENNETH ROTH, executive director of Human Rights Watch was interviewed on NPR and said flatly, that Mexico is NOT a failed state. Maybe you need to do a little more traveling and even more so, a little more reading. Too much AM Hate Radio just poisons the mind.

Yeah, there's demand for drugs in Mexico too. No question ESPECIALLY since the Clint man's Operation Gatekeeper went into effect. But the big profits ARE in the United States. Coke norters pay more in Westwood than in the notorious working class Mexico City neighborhood of Tepito.

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Avatar for user 'Missionaccomplished'

Missionaccomplished | May 20, 2011 at 11:02 a.m. ― 5 years, 10 months ago

With this attitude we must maintain a strong relationship with our friends south of the border to control immigration. Illegal immigrants are not only seeking work, they are looking to live in peace."

Please stay on topic, David.

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Avatar for user 'HarryStreet'

HarryStreet | May 20, 2011 at 3 p.m. ― 5 years, 10 months ago

Know what you want to talk about, Missionaccomplished. It's all relevant. The drug cartel uses illegal immigrants to transport drugs. Gunmakers in the U.S. supply weapons to the cartel. Yes, Mexico is a Failed State. I've been there enough to see it in their eyes. Only two kinds live in Mexico (haves and have-nots).

Just because my views and experiences are different from yours does not mean I have hatred. I have family and friends in Mexico and other countries (Third World) I want to help and see them improve their lives. Sure our country has done others wrong. That's why I applaud President Obama for opening a new dialogue and setting a precedent by apologizing for our country's past actions. Like in the 1940s when we used Central Americans as lab-rats for experimenting on sexually-transmitted diseases.

You sound to me like you're too wrapped up in your own world. Seek help!

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Avatar for user 'Missionaccomplished'

Missionaccomplished | May 20, 2011 at 3:24 p.m. ― 5 years, 10 months ago

Well, having friends and family there doesn't exactly match up to someone who is the executive director of HRW, now does it? Your to use your expression, maybe only in YOUR narrow world.

And before you applaud the President, remember he's going through with Plan Merida . . . to a "failed state."

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Avatar for user 'Missionaccomplished'

Missionaccomplished | May 20, 2011 at 3:32 p.m. ― 5 years, 10 months ago

"Nowadays, as the number of intermittent marihuana users in the US has risen to some 31.9 million and the number who have tried the drug to 57 million (Miller & Associates 1983) marihuana use has lost much of its deviant character." -- Norman E. Zinberg, M.D., DRUG, SET, AND SETTING (Yale U Press, 1984), p 136

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Avatar for user 'HarryStreet'

HarryStreet | May 20, 2011 at 4:50 p.m. ― 5 years, 10 months ago

Get over yourself, Missionaccomplished! You sound like you still have to grow up.

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Avatar for user 'MarkW'

MarkW | May 20, 2011 at 11:38 p.m. ― 5 years, 10 months ago


America tends to exaggerate the benefits of its so called "freedoms" -- and tends to minimize and ridicule communal interests as "socialistic".

Rampant drug abuse in our society (and let's face, prescription drug abuse is *just* as prevalent) points to a society trying to medicate away its pain.

What pain, you ask? The pain of living disconnected, self-absorbed and possibly meaningless lives. The pain of exalting wealth over community and family. And the pain of not wanting to face who we really are.

Deal with the pain and you'll cure the addict.

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Avatar for user 'Missionaccomplished'

Missionaccomplished | May 22, 2011 at 5:20 p.m. ― 5 years, 10 months ago

Most of the marihuana we use is homegrown. -- Dr. Christopher Fichtner, CANNIBINOMICS: The Marihuana Policy Tipping Point, (Well Mind Books, 2011), interview with Jeff Isaacs, "Lawyer in Blue Jeans," KFMB 760, May 22.

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Avatar for user 'miguelb'

miguelb | May 25, 2011 at 1:52 p.m. ― 5 years, 10 months ago

Dear Neighbors, I am Mexican from TJ, I think I know a few things on the subject.I believe both of you are right about several things, but I have to disagree with David We are a "Failed State".Mexico Does lack of Political Values, what I don´t agree is about you generalizing that "Mexicans" don´t have the will to change: Quoting you" This is partly why Mexicans don't even try to change things in their country. They are proud to be Mexican, but not enough to fight for change. You ask a Mexican about this and they'll reply, "This is the way it's always been in Mexico."
May I ask you sir, what kind of fight have you started for your country? what change have you done?, I can describe you as a proud American, nothing wrong with that, but Americans, are the biggest Drug consumers in the world, we happen to be geographically located next to you, so, as long as demand exists, the offer will continue going and growing.
In this drug war, there is a political interest that cannot be ignored by Mexicans, it is clear that the cartel is protected, but still, Americans need there drugs and they still contribute to this fictitious drug war, not only Marihuana, but cocaine, heroin, and other synthetic drugs on the market, What is your position here, do you need your fix? It would be stupid for me to generalize. America happens to be number one consumer, that makes us number one providers, we both form part of the same hypocrisy David. This can´t be hidden from us, America loves to expose Mexico on the media and love to point fingers at Mexico, who supplies Mexico with weapons?, the American military sir..
Clearly our governments want´s us to be proud Americans or proud Mexicans, but that is impossible, I am not proud of what my country forms part of, you should not be also, the drug problem is one of Americas others political interventions.
I am proud of my family oriented culture, I am proud of my work, I am proud of my values and traditions, not of my leaders and their mistakes.
I don´t consider myself a sheep, and I won´t fight or try to be hero.
What i will do; give the best of example to my family, i will give example to other citizens, not with words or judgement, but with work, we both have great nations, and I refuse to focus all of my energy to a "greed war" that is hosted by Politicians (Mexican And American)
I Love the U.S, not all Americans are Drunken Spring Breakers or Believe everything the media says, same as Mexicans, not all of us are slackers. There is change, a change that needs to be implemented to the next generations, a battle that will only be won with education and good example, both things cannot be given by our governments, they are too busy creating a war along with the U.S. creating fear and doubt.
We cannot change things in our country, because the word democracy is only a word here, leave the fight to them.We got our own battles to fight, not one based on corruption (American & Mexican)
Change sir, is within.

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