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2011: Top Stories Along The U.S./Mexico Border

Mexican soldiers stand guard around the seizure of more than $15 million in T...

Credit: Photo courtesy of PGR, Mexico.

Above: Mexican soldiers stand guard around the seizure of more than $15 million in Tijuana, said to belong to the Sinaloa cartel.


Jill Replogle, Fronteras Desk Reporter

Jose Luis Jimenez, Social & Web Editor, Fronteras Desk


What were the top stories that affected you in 2011?

As we approach the end of 2011, KPBS is taking a look back on those stories that impacted San Diegans. Today, a look at the stories along the U.S./Mexico border and along the Southwest with Fronteras Desk reporter Jill Repologle and Fronteras Desk Social and Web Editor Jose Luis Jimenez.

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Transcript Disclaimer

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: This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. The KPBS fronteras desk has just completed its first full year. And what a year it was for news along the U.S. Mexico border, and across the southwest. As we look back, we will focus on some of the major stories from the region. Joining me are fronteras desk reporter, Jill Reprogle, welcome to the show.


CAVANAUGH: Jose Luis Jimenez is also here, the social media and web editor for the fronteras desk. Welcome.

JIMENEZ: Hi, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: I'm going to ask you first, both of you, to remind our listeners what the KPBS fronteras desk is all about: Jose, you start.

JIMENEZ: Yes, the fronteras desk is a collaboration between seven public radio stations across the southwest, mainly along the US/Mexico border. Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, California, and also up in Nevada.

CAVANAUGH: And how do you work together?

REPROGLE: Well, we coordinate our coverage daily. We've done quite a number of series that have sort of -- covered issues that affect all of our regions.

CAVANAUGH: And the first thing we're going to talk about is one of those series, Mexico's ongoing drug war. The fronteras desk did a two-week series called the drug war at home, focusing on this major issue. Jose, tell us about this project.

JIMENEZ: Yes. Obviously the drug war in Mexico is a big story. And it's gotten a lot of coverage in media. But we wanted to look at it from a different angle. We wanted to look at what the impacts were on this side of the border here in the United States. So the reporters -- all the reporters contributed to this project. It was, like you said, it was for two-week, and we did a range of stories from actual smuggling routes, how the money gets in, talking about how the money is laundered on this side of the border and returned to Mexico. Some of the unintended consequences of the drug war. For example, the big foreclosure issue in Phoenix has created these houses for these drug cartels to operate, and also for human smuggling. We looked at a wide range of issues.

CAVANAUGH: And what is the current state of the drug war as 2011 comes to an end?

JIMENEZ: As the comes to an end, as a matter of fact we just did a story today that basically despite all the efforts on the Mexican side of capturing these drug cartel leaders, of arresting numerous people, actually killing people in shootout, and plus the efforts on this side of the border of increasing border security, having more agent, and they've actually have had record seizures, it has had no impact on the flow of drugs. A memo we obtained basically says they do not see any change in terms of the amount of drugs that are still reaching the streets of the US despite the drug war which has been prosecuted now for about five-year, and despite all the security measures on this side of the border.

CAVANAUGH: And the totality of the reports that you did for this series found that the impact of the drug war in Mexico is really being felt in various unexpected ways throughout this region.

JIMENEZ: Right. Correct. Another story that we did was, for example, some of the news -- and this is one of the issues. As the federal agents on this side of the border implement new security measures, the cartels come up with other ways to get their drugs across. One of the stories we focused on was on ultralights. They pack them up with drugs, as much as they can take, and they fly them over the border very slowly, and put them at drop points and come back over. They're really small, hard to detect by radar. And it's almost like jumping over, dropping the drugs off, and going back. That's another example of the stories that we did.

CAVANAUGH: The whole idea of the drug war in Mexico has spawned a weird sort of aspect to it, Jill. You recently did a story about some Southern Californians who are profiting from the gory glamour of the drug war.

REPROGLE: Yeah. So called narco culture as they call it, it's not new, actually, one of the stories that was in the drug war series was also about sort of young people in Texas who have sort of gotten into glamorizing the drug war. But in California here, there's a producer of a pretty big new musical movement in corrido music, and those are sort of Mexican ballads that used to talk about love and hard times. And slowly they have a lot migrated to talking about the drug war. But this sort of new movement is just really hyper violent. You listen to it and it sounds -- it's kind of oompa-oompa, and it's got tuba, and it sounds happy, but you listen to the lyric, and they're really gruesome, graphic depictions of things happening. And the videos as well are full of gunshots and everyone's got AK 47s strapped to their backs, and it's pretty intense.

CAVANAUGH: So people sing these songs and they're about people dying?

REPROGLE: They're about cutting off heads, they're about ambushes, they're about who we're going to kill and how many people we're going to kill and when, and it's very sort of first-person, which when I talked to people who have studied these movements say that's the difference. It used to be sort of the story teller saying this happened in my town to -- you know, it's we're going to kill so many people and chopping off heads. And then interestingly, there's a young man in Chula Vista who has now three clothing stores, and he started this whole online clothing business catering toward these bands and their followers. And he does T-shirts with sort of outlines of Mexican drug traffickers, and skeletons toting AK47s, and they're wildly popular. And he sees it as just -- he had this poor childhood and was seen as this God-like figure to people in his up to. It's kind of the same thing. This guy says to me we see some of these traffickers as sort of rags to riches stories, and people to look up to. And people that help other people. Which to me, was just bizarre.

CAVANAUGH: And the violence ramps up along with the drug violence in Mexico. When those narco corridos first came out, they were still glorifying the drug trade, but they weren't quite as violent. And now as violence amps up in the drug war, they get pretty stark, huh?

REPROGLE: Yeah. And maybe it's just a reflection of reality. There's just a sort of gangster rap back in the '80s, there was a lot of discussion about whether that provoked violence or was just reflecting the violence that was happening. That discussion is going on. Quite a few Mexican states have outlawed this music. They won't allow it to be played on radio stations. So it's gone under ground of the a lot of it's on the Internet. In some ways it reflects that new culture moving -- you know, young people get most of their music and --


JIMENEZ: Yeah, and just going off of jill's point, besides the music, and the fashion, it has permeated all of society. There's television shows focused on the drug war, there's one telenovela who showed a woman who became the leader of a drug cartel in Mexico. And there's a saint down there called Marvela, the drug trafficking saint. There's a little chapel for him in Mexico, and people go there for good luck in their drug trafficking. So basically it is really permeated all of society down there in Mexico.

CAVANAUGH: Now, what do you see as the next chapter in the battle against the drug cartels and between the drug cartels in Mexico?

JIMENEZ: Well, CalderÛn is up for -- I'm sorry, Mexico presidents cannot only serve one term. They cannot run for reflection. So his term is up in 2012. Elections are set for July†1st. And basically, the tone in Mexico has changed. People down there are sick and tired of the violence, they want a change, they have gone out into the streets, asking for a difference. CalderÛn has held onto his position that he is not going to negotiate with these traffickers, he's going to keep on taking the fight to them with the army and will not basically heed. So the question is, what are the Mexican people going to decide come July†1st? And there's a big thought down there, and analysts and experts down there looking at what's going on, who basically think that the Mexican people are tired of this war, it's gotten into their neighborhoods, it's gotten into their places where they shop. Almost anybody you talk to down there has had some sort of impact from the drug war, either directly or indirectly. And the thinking is that they're going to make a change in terms of party and the thinking is that the Pri is going to be the next party. And they're basically going to go back to how things were before the Pan took over, which is basically carve out some sort of truce, and let them operate in some sort of fashion as long as they don't -- as long as they stop the violence.

CAVANAUGH: I'm speaking with Jose Luis Jimenez, and Jill Reprogle, and we're talking about the top stories at the KPBS fronteras desk over the year. Let's turn to the economy over the border. You reported a few months back on some of the efforts to train workers in Imperial Valley to work in the green energy sector. We've heard a lot about solar and geothermal energy industries coming to Imperial Valley. Has it arrived yet? Have the jobs arrived yet?

REPROGLE: Well, Maureen, not really. Employment is still really high in Imperial Valley. It's close to 30%. There are a number of projects that have made progress. Geothermal projects, and some solar projects. And if there is a future, that's what it's going to be in. And so a lot of the people that I talked to really emphasized the importance of getting people ready for that. Even now, you know -- people told me that they see companies coming in, be and they bring in their workers from elsewhere. And that may be for a variety of reasons because they have laborer contracts or whatever. But it also could be because they can't find the skilled work force they need there. And working on a geothermal plant and working in solar energy requires some skills that are new. And people need to be retrained to learn how to get that work when it is coming.

CAVANAUGH: Are there any efforts to train people in imperial county to take on these jobs?

REPROGLE: Yeah. There are. I sort of focused on this electrical workers' union training program which is specifically geared toward getting electrical workers trained for solar energy. And they have a very good relationship with industry, and those people get good internships, and they generally get jobs. I believe there's also -- well, community colleges are pretty involved, and they've got several programs going on, and have gotten some grant money to do sort of retraining. And I believe SDSU campus down there is starting a big project. Kyla Calvert reported on that a couple months ago. So yeah, there are actually quite a few -- to get people trained. The question is whether the jobs will actually come after that.

CAVANAUGH: Well, the big news in imperial county, one of the big stories this year I'm sure was the start of the sunrise power link project. That has been mired in controversy for years, and there are still some lawsuits trying to stop that. But that's where the jobs are supposed to come from, right? To be able to take that geothermal energy and this solar energy and actually transport it along the sunrise power link.

REPROGLE: Well, there's already a power link up in Imperial Valley. Projects don't necessarily need the sunrise power link to come on line. But that is sort of seen as one potential source of jobs. There's a little controversy with that because a lot of that energy that might come through the sunrise power rink might actually come from Mexico. There's an economist from Utah what did this big study showing that by having Sempra's wig wind project in Baja, those jobs are not going to be in California and not creating jobs for US workers. It's all sort of speculation because no one knows how it's going to work out. There's also a lawsuit right now against the Sempra energy project. But it's interesting to think about it that way. If California has a certain amount of renewable energy that it needs to get online to comply with state laws, is that energy going to come from the U.S?


REPROGLE: Are they US jobs or Mexican jobs?

CAVANAUGH: We'll have to wait and see. I was going to ask you, Jose, you've almost already answered this question, but I will pursue it anyway. To look ahead at what some of the big fronteras stories might be next year. You talked about the changing Mexican presidency. That's going to be a huge story. What cells on the horizon?

JIMENEZ: Next up for us in January, we're going to be doing a series looking at education, and Latinos. Basically K through 12. What are some of the impacts of the changes in education reform and how it's affecting Latinos. And continuing along that theme, we also have the election here in the US for a president in 2012. And a lot of other races. We'll also be looking at that too, and also looking at it from a different lens, in terms the role the southwest will play in presidential politics this coming year. And with the demographic changes we saw in the last census basically becoming younger and more ethnically diverse, what impact those changes on the presidential election. And Jill has an interesting story she's going to be working on soon.

REPROGLE: Tourism has obviously been very hard hit by the drug war and the economy, especially in Baja. So we're planning to take a trip, hopefully in January, and look at some of the effects of that sort of bust, you know, what some people call the Baja bust, and how has that played out in Baja for local tourism owner, but also landowners and the tourism industry in general.

CAVANAUGH: That's fascinating because we just had the secretary of tourism on midday talking about this big push that the region is making to get people to attract tourists back to Baja. We'll be waiting for that series. I just want you to let everyone know. Where can people find all these stories on the web?

JIMENEZ: They are on our website, There's a menu there with a navigation to go to our special projects, and you can follow us on Facebook., and also on twitter on fronteras desk if you want to get the stories directly to you.

The KPBS Fronteras Desk has just completed its first full year. And what a year it was for news along the U.S.-Mexico border and across the Southwest. As we look back over the last year, we will focus on some of the major stories from the region.


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