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Violence Up As Mexico Battles Drug Cartels


Mexico's government is waging an all-out war with organized drug cartels. Those cartels bring billions of dollars worth of cocaine, marijuana, and other drugs into the U.S. each year. While the Mexican government fights the cartels, the cartels fight for turf. The conflict has killed thousands of people this year alone. NPR's Mexico City correspondent, Jason Beaubien, has been covering the fighting, and he joins me on the line. Good morning, Jason.

JASON BEAUBIEN: Good morning, Ari.


SHAPIRO: It sounds like this conflict has taken a pretty horrific turn lately. How bad has it gotten?

BEAUBIEN: Well, it's gotten really bad. And the problem is really on two fronts. First, you've got infighting amongst the drug cartels, which is incredibly vicious and it's going on every day. And it's been turning particularly some of the border towns into killing fields. But among just ordinary Mexicans, this is sort of viewed as a narco problem. It's viewed as the narcos killing other narcos, or the army killing the narcos, or the narcos killing the police.

And, basically, ordinary Mexicans, on a regular basis, seem to view this as somebody else's problem. But you're getting decapitated bodies showing up in Tijuana, Juarez, Nogales, sort of all along the border. Just last week, on Tuesday there were 58 killings that were attributed to the drug cartels, just in one day, 58.

Then on the other hand, with this violence you're also getting kidnappings where the kidnapping victims are also ending up dead. And this is causing widespread, sort of, fear and calls for politicians to do something. At the moment there is a lot of outrage over a kidnapping of a five-year-old boy that happened just at the end of October, Javier Morena. This kid was the son of fruit sellers in a Mexico City market, a very poor family. And when the family went to the police, the kidnappers injected this five-year-old in the heart with battery acid and killed him. This has become a very high-profile case.

There have been other high-profile kidnapping murders this year, but this one has really hit a nerve. The ones in the past were mainly wealthy children. Some of those children were also killed after families had paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in ransoms. But the thing about this five-year-old is that it sort of made people feel like enough is enough. Ya basta, as they say here. There's this sense that the criminal gangs, including the drug cartels, are just out of control.


SHAPIRO: So, what's the government doing about it?

BEAUBIEN: Well, the government is trying to do a lot, particularly on the drug cartel front. President Calderon has launched what he calls a frontal assault on the cartels. He's sent tens of thousands of additional federal police and soldiers to confront them, particularly up at the border, but wherever they're popping up. And they've been quite successful in some respects. They've been capturing tons of marijuana in submarines, in planes. They rolled out huge piles of marijuana that have been seized.

The federal police have captured some of the top cartel leaders. Just on Friday, they snatched the head of the Zetas in Reynosa, which is just across from McAllen, Texas. And the Zetas were this group of former soldiers who - they now work as hit men for the Gulf Cartel. And Jaime Gonzalez, who's also known as The Hummer, was captured on Friday. And along with them, the federales seized almost 300 assault rifles, 100 pistols, 14 submachine guns, a couple of grenade launchers, and half a million rounds of ammunition.

So this illustrated, if anyone at this point had any doubt, that the cartels are incredibly well-armed and also incredibly well-financed. The Mexican government is trying to rein them in, but as soon as they sort of grab one cartel leader, somebody else is popping in to fill the void.

SHAPIRO: Well, what about the kidnappings? Is there an approach to address that?

BEAUBIEN: Well, the rich here are going out and fortifying. They're buying bulletproofing for their GMC Yukons. But that's only working for some people. The government has had a much harder time addressing the kidnapping problem, in part because most of these kidnapping ransoms go unreported.

In addition, you've got a police system that's highly corrupt. You've got a high level of impunity. Most murders or kidnappings never get solved. One kidnapping case this year, it turned out the police were actually involved in the abduction and murder. So you've got a systematic problem of people who are supposed to be fighting crime actually out there committing it. And far too often that also turns out to be true when they're trying to fight the drug cartels.

SHAPIRO: Jason Beaubien is NPR's Mexico City correspondent. Thanks, Jason.

BEAUBIEN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.