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A Look at Efforts to Contain Drug Violence in Mexico

Aired February 2, 2010 - 15:00:00   ET



CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN ANCHOR: Tonight, the most violent city in the world is not in Iraq, not in Afghanistan, but in Mexico, as drug cartels expand across the country.

Good evening, everyone. I'm Christiane Amanpour, and welcome to the program.

Sixteen students were killed in the Mexican border city of Juarez over the weekend. It was one of the worst massacres in Mexico's most violent city. President Felipe Calderon today laid the blame at the feet of the United States, saying that easy access to weapons is fueling the violence.

"The U.S. doesn't have the least objection, any scruples about selling all the arms it can to our country," he said.

Harsh words on top of the 45,000 troops he sent onto the streets of Mexico to combat the narcotraffickers. But killings continue to rise. The Mexican media say 7,600 people were killed last year, and that's a new record.

So does militarizing the drug war work? And is it undermining the foundations of Mexico's democracy? We have two fascinating guests to give us some answers.

But first, CNN's Rafael Romo reports.


RAFAEL ROMO, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): They were here, teenagers enjoying a soccer game and a party, when at least a dozen armed men closed off the neighborhood and busted in, killing at least 16 and wounding 12 more.

Relatives rushed to the scene, only to see their loved ones bleed to death, including this grandfather of one victim.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): I was holding my grandson in my arms when he died. The paramedics arrived and realized there was nothing they could do.

ROMO: Yet another unexplained slaughter in Juarez, across the border from Texas, now widely called the murder capital of the world. Drug violence last year claimed the lives of more than 2,600 in this city of 1.5 million people. Most were victims of drug trafficking in a war between competing cartels.

It's not yet clear if this weekend's victims were, too, but witnesses say the gunmen arrived in seven SUVs with tinted windows.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): A group of armed men arrived at the site of the party. They blocked the streets and exits and opened fire against the partygoers.

ROMO: The violence in Juarez is rising. Two hundred and thirty have already died this year, despite a military crackdown. President Felipe Calderon last year deployed 7,000 troops and 2,000 police officers to Juarez.

FELIPE CALDERON, PRESIDENT OF MEXICO (through translator): I know that in many parts of Mexico criminals continue to harass, threaten, and practice extortion against many Mexican families. For that reason, we will continue to combat all criminal groups in the country without distinction.

ROMO: Now Calderon's government claims significant victories against drug cartels. In December, powerful drug baron Arturo Beltran Leyva died in a shootout with the Mexican military in central Mexico. And last month, police captured Teodoro Garcia Simental, one of the most brutal drug lords and leader of the Tijuana cartel.

But many say the human toll of President Calderon's war on drugs is too high.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): I very much doubt that we can speak about success when we're having 7,000 deaths every year. At this pace, we're going to end up having more killings than they have in Iraq.

ROMO (on-screen): By some estimates, 450,000 Mexicans are involved in drug trafficking, which generates about $20 billion in sales every year. Those profits rival the auto, tourism and oil industries.

(voice-over): That means the drug business is deeply woven into Mexican society, raising the question, can Mexico rip it out without tearing itself apart?


AMANPOUR: Dramatic facts, dramatic statistics there. And that was CNN's Rafael Romo reporting.

And joining me now, Ruben Beltran, who is Mexico's consul general here in New York, and Jorge Castaneda, Mexico's former foreign minister.

Thank you both for joining me. Let me ask you first, since you represent the government here today, militarization, is it working? Look at this map we have. Maybe we can get an overhead shot of it. There seems to be a spreading of these cartels all over the country, whether it's up here, whether it's here, here, here, six large concentrations all over. So what's working about the strategy, Mr. Beltran?


RUBEN BELTRAN, CONSUL GENERAL OF MEXICO IN NEW YORK: I would say the following. On the one hand, we are facing a fragmented enemy, and they're becoming more and more violent since we are being successful to disrupt their activities and their actions. And what we're witnessing right now is maybe the peak of those -- of that violence.

And one thing is for sure. We are in crunch time. And let me just assure you that the Mexican government is not going to relinquish its duties to confront organized crime, and that's what's happening right now. And what is happening is, also, they're using their military, because you are at the same time reconstructing the police corps.

And by using the military, we are able to tackle and disrupt these activities. That's why they're becoming more and more violent.

AMANPOUR: So do you buy that, the sort of -- they are being tackled, therefore, they're becoming more violent?

JORGE CASTANEDA, FMR. MEXICAN FOREIGN MINISTER: I think the ambassador and the government's stance at the beginning of President Calderon's term made sense.

AMANPOUR: Which was?

CASTANEDA: It was -- early 2007.

AMANPOUR: But you mean the militarization.

CASTANEDA: The fact that the number of deaths is a symptom of success, almost three-and-a-half years on, 17,000 deaths later, 900 just in the month of January that concluded two days ago, the highest level ever, it's hard for me, quite honestly -- and I think for many Mexicans -- to accept that the more deaths we have, the more successful the strategy is, after three-and-a-half years now of the strategy.

AMANPOUR: So what's wrong with the strategy?

CASTANEDA: I think what's wrong with the strategy in the first place is to have taken on the cartels so quickly when they began. They should have thought it through more clearly. Who do they want to take on first? What are the assets the government has? Does it have a police force?

Ambassador Beltran says very rightly that this government, like the previous two, was trying to reconstruct the police force, which means we don't have one. So, well, you've got to figure that out.

Is the army really up to this? Does it know how to do this? Is it used -- is it trained for this? Does it have the weapons, the intelligence, the software? It doesn't. I think President Calderon rushed into this, and now we're paying the consequences.

BELTRAN: I will contend that the military is perfectly trained to do these kind of things. And on the other hand, which is the alternative? Are we going to raise the -- the white flag? Are we going to surrender? Are we going to surrender the ability of the government to look for the rule of law and secure the rule of law?

I don't think there's no other alternative. The monopoly of force -- use of force pertains to the state, and the state is the one who should use the force to secure the -- the -- the stability of the country.

AMANPOUR: Now, one of the officials in Juarez is basically saying that they've left Juarez totally alone, there's a total absence of authority, this despite the fact that the army is there, also saying that the people of Juarez are not necessarily predisposed to cooperating with the army. They describe a massacre. They describe the army and the police trying to figure out the details, asking eyewitnesses, a big -- a big nothing coming from people.

So are -- are -- is that strategy working?

BELTRAN: I do believe it is working, but now -- Mr. Castaneda also mentioned it in one of his publications -- in order to be successful, it requires a commitment of the society, the local governments, the state municipalities, the state governments, and the federal government.

And I -- I do believe strongly -- one thing is for the Mexican people to fear violence. Everybody would like -- we would all like the violence to diminish or disappear. But that's not realistic at this point.

And one thing is that -- but let me assure you, the Mexican people is backing a strategy. Which is the other alternative? We have to fight. We have to confront these thugs, because what they want, they want to secure positions in order to have access -- to have these corridors of drug coming into the United States. So that's the only alternative.

AMANPOUR: OK. You used to be consul general in some of these border -- border states, in Arizona, in California. The current U.S. secretary of homeland security was also governor of Arizona. Here's what she said in regards to the weapons flow, which today your president, Calderon, blamed for this violence.


JANET NAPOLITANO, SECRETARY OF HOMELAND SECURITY: It's a significant number of the guns used in this -- in this wave of violence in northern Mexico, absolutely come from the United States. That's why part of our plan is increasing the number of agents who are going to inspect southbound vehicles. That's why we're sending technology to the border that will allow us to scan or do noninvasive X-rays to see whether cars are carrying assault weapons, other kinds of weapons that are now flowing into Mexico to fuel these drug cartels.


AMANPOUR: I know you -- you, obviously, agree with what she's saying.

BELTRAN: Well, Secretary Napolitano is absolutely right. In order for Mexico to be successful in this war, we need the increased cooperation with the United States to stem the flow of cash, both cash, weapons and ammo from the United States to Mexico.

AMANPOUR: What's wrong with that...


CASTANEDA: I flew to San Diego from Mexico City last week and crossed from San Diego back into Tijuana where I had a speech to give. And someone drove me.


There was not the slightest inspection of any car crossing from north to south on the U.S. side or on the Mexican side, a year after Secretary Napolitano's statement, March 25, 2009.

AMANPOUR: So why not?

CASTANEDA: There were not -- because they can't do it, Christiane. It's too expensive. The local communities don't want it. It backs up queues all the way, hundreds of -- tens of miles north, the same way as in the south. They're not going to do it. This has been a full year now.

Is it desirable? We could argue about whether it's desirable. I'm not sure it is. But I am sure that they're not doing it. That's a fact.

AMANPOUR: All right. So if they're not going it, here's another thing that the president said, President Calderon. "We sit right next to the biggest drug consumer in the world."

CASTANEDA: Well, Christiane, why is it practically legal in Los Angeles, 100 miles north? There are 1,000 public legal dispensaries of medical marijuana in Los Angeles, more than public schools.

AMANPOUR: So what are you saying, that it should be legalized in Mexico?

CASTANEDA: Of course it should be legalized in both countries, but what's ridiculous is for us in Mexico to shoot ourselves to stop marijuana from entering the U.S. and, 100 miles north, it's sold legally in Los Angeles. What's the logic of that?

AMANPOUR: But the thing is that, to be fair, that's only one -- one sort of very limited area in the United States.

CASTANEDA: Well, California is not that limited. It's kind of big.

AMANPOUR: It's big. It's big. But as you know...

CASTANEDA: And it's all...

AMANPOUR: .. there's a big debate in this country about precisely...


CASTANEDA: I know, but I also know California's a big state and a leading indicator state.

AMANPOUR: True. But can you imagine legalizing cocaine in Mexico?


BELTRAN: ... different story, and that deserves a separate discussion. But let me tell you a couple of things that former Secretary Castaneda is leaving out.

He knows very well that there are very well identified corridors in several areas of the -- of the -- of the border that could be tackled and more efficiently surveilled.


BELTRAN: And that's decidedly -- because there...


BELTRAN: By the U.S. authorities and the Mexican authorities.


BELTRAN: I wish they -- they are doing it. If you look at...


BELTRAN: ... to look at the figures that DHS released recently, which is showing increasingly bulk of cash seized (ph) at the border, a lot of ammo and weapons seized at the border. That's one thing.

And the other thing is that Dr. Castaneda, former Secretary Castaneda, is leaving out another concept. He is discussing only the problem of marijuana in California, whereas when we're discussing -- when discussing...


BELTRAN: ... there are other -- other...

CASTANEDA: There are other drugs...

BELTRAN: ... substances that should be considered.

CASTANEDA: ... but marijuana is right there, 1,000 -- more than the number of public schools in Los Angeles.

BELTRAN: And what about the amount of marijuana being grown in the United States, in California?

CASTANEDA: Exactly. That's why they should legalize it.

AMANPOUR: So you basically think that the narcotrafficking would come to an end if it was all legal?

CASTANEDA: Well, you can't do everything overnight, but you can start with marijuana. The DEA says -- I don't know if the Mexican government agrees with those figures -- that 60 percent of the Mexican cartels' profits come from marijuana.

If we start with that, that's a big chunk. We can't do everything overnight. The government is right on that. And we can't do it in Mexico if the U.S. doesn't do it at the same time. President Calderon is right on that, too.

But what we're not doing, I don't think, is pushing the Americans to go in that direction, and we should.

AMANPOUR: All right, we're going to continue this after a break. We're going to talk about lessons learned from Colombia, also in Latin America, also fighting the drug war, when we return.




NANCY REAGAN, FORMER FIRST LADY OF THE UNITED STATES: Think how loud it would sound if everyone said no at the same time, and that's how loud you should say it when you're offered drugs. So, on the count of three, let's practice saying no. One, two, three...


REAGAN: Louder!


AMANPOUR: That was First Lady Nancy Reagan 25 years ago urging children to say no to drugs. Her husband, President Ronald Reagan, had first declared the war on drugs in 1982. It had some impact in America at first, but drug use started climbing again in the mid-1990s.

And joining me again to discuss the issue of Mexico is consul general here in New York Ruben Beltran and the former foreign minister, Jorge Castaneda.

Thanks again for joining me. So we were discussing the -- the drug cartels and where they are. I suppose the obvious ones are here near the border. There are some down here and some here. Is it all border-related? Or are there other reasons for it?

BELTRAN: In my view, there are -- for instance, take the -- the -- the ones here in the state of Michoacan, here.

AMANPOUR: Yep, right here.

BELTRAN: That will be the access to some substances coming from Asia to produce crystal meth or other kind of substances. This is one thing, also for some of the cartels located in other -- other parts of the country.

On the other hand, there are some cartels in the state of Sinaloa which are big producers of -- of marijuana over there. So that's also the reason.

So, in fact, you have these fragmented groups which some of them are tempted to control the access of some substances, the access of weapons, and also the corridors that will let all these drugs coming into the United States.

AMANPOUR: And yet Mexico has a robust economy. It has...


BELTRAN: ... economy in the world, yes.

AMANPOUR: It has a robust tourism infrastructure. How does all this exist together?

CASTANEDA: Well, so far, it exists -- it has existed quite well over the last 40 or 50 years. It's gotten a little more complicated the last couple of years, among other reasons, because networks like CNN and, quite rightly -- there's nothing that one can pick an argument with -- are showing a country that says itself it's at war.

And this is my main criticism of the Calderon administration. Why make such a big fuss about this?


CASTANEDA: Why not just do it if you have to?

AMANPOUR: But, I mean, when...

CASTANEDA: But to go on television every day, you say we're a country at war, these statements that you just read from the president about -- about Juarez, who wants to go on vacation...

AMANPOUR: So why do you think he's saying it, then? Why is he saying it?

CASTANEDA: ... to Mexico, Christiane?

BELTRAN: But, on the one hand, I would say it's just not a P.R. thing, the president make an announcement that he's at war or not. I think that -- that he's rallying the communities, he's rallying (inaudible) behind him. It's a clear pattern (ph).

And we are, on the other hand, a very robust democracy. You said we had midterm elections last year. Almost 40 million Mexicans voted. This year, we have 12 governorships at stake. The Mexicans are going to vote, since it's a very robust democracy, as well.

AMANPOUR: Let me ask you about this, because we've seen in other countries how the rising narcotraffic, in fact, starts to affect the political system, the corruption, the bribery, the whole issue of politics and justice. Do you -- are you concerned, for instance, that that could happen in Mexico, that the very democracy could be -- could be weakened?

CASTANEDA: I think it could happen. And, as a matter of fact, this has already been present in Mexico for 30 or 40 years. It's not that the cartels are corrupting public officials, police officials, the army. President Zedillo's anti-drug czar turned out to be a drug czar, and he was arrested in 1988. He was a general. He was thrown in jail on a D.A. tip- off. This is not that new.

The Colombian example is an interesting one, Christiane. And I know we're going to move on to that...

AMANPOUR: Now, Colombia, further down, obviously, down there...

CASTANEDA: ... because I think it's very interesting.

AMANPOUR: President Uribe has been fighting his own drug war.

CASTANEDA: He has. And he has been very successful in reducing violence, kidnappings, extortion, bombing attempts, the guerillas, the paramilitaries. The acreage of cocaine under cultivation and cocaine in Colombia today is the same as 10 years ago. It hasn't changed.

AMANPOUR: Which means?

CASTANEDA: He didn't go after the cartels. He didn't go after the production. He went after the collateral damage generated by the drug trade.

AMANPOUR: And that's -- and that's what you think...

CASTANEDA: That's been very successful, I think, which we should do in Mexico, yes.

AMANPOUR: Why not?

BELTRAN: Again, I think -- I think former Secretary Castaneda is again leaving out some things. The war -- the Colombian war against all these drugs started two decades ago, on the one hand.

Second, the circumstances are completely different. Here you have a guerilla embedded with drug trafficking. It's a completely different situation.

And, thirdly, there's a large chunk, a portion of the territory of Colombia under the control of the guerillas and the narcotraffickers. That is not the case in Mexico. Mexico has secured all its territory and never lost a territory to the control of the drug lords. A very different situation.

And President Uribe has had some successes, of course. Nobody can deny it. But the -- the -- the war -- the Colombian war against drugs started two decades ago. And the real...


CASTANEDA: We should learn from it, Ruben, I think.


BELTRAN: .. the posture -- Jorge, the posture of the Mexican government right now is much more aggressive. This is the -- frankly, quite a difference.

CASTANEDA: Which is why we're paying such a high price, an enormously high price, because it's so aggressive.

BELTRAN: I think there's no other alternative...


BELTRAN: ... I strongly disagree with you.

CASTANEDA: You know we -- we disagree, and I think this is the way it should be. There should be a debate, and I'm glad there is one in Mexico...


AMANPOUR: So, Mr. Castaneda, how would you transform or, rather, transpose the Colombian experiment onto Mexico, given that there isn't the left-wing insurgency, there aren't the great swaths of territory that have been lost?


CASTANEDA: ... that the Mexican state, like Ruben says, is very strong. It has never been at risk of losing control of the territory. What that means is what you want to do is control the collateral damage of the drug trade.

AMANPOUR: So contain them?

CASTANEDA: Contain them, administer it, regulate it tacitly or legally. Contain it. What does that mean? It's not different from what 100,000 American troops are doing in Afghanistan, which you know far better than I do, Christiane, with heroin, the number-one heroin producer in the world. Not one of those troops is combating the heroin traffic from Afghanistan. They're containing it, because they have other priorities.

AMANPOUR: And yet it's a big problem there still.

CASTANEDA: It's a mess. But -- I know. I've seen your work about this, and it's wonderful work. But you know that the 100,000 are not there combating drug trafficking. They're containing it. That's what we should do.

AMANPOUR: So let me ask you, Consul General, you know, there are some who are saying the assassins are winning about Juarez. They've said that the assassins have won. How -- how did Juarez become such a disaster?

BELTRAN: Well, I would say -- I would say there are several factors in Juarez. Jorge Castaneda knows very well that the situation in Juarez doesn't started overnight. This is a process that started in Juarez for quite some time.

CASTANEDA: Oh, it's a long, long period, absolutely.

BELTRAN: Long, long period of time. So what we're witnessing right now in Juarez is a structural problem. That's why President Calderon said only yesterday that he is strengthening his strategy versus Juarez. So this is something that's going to happen.

But, again, which is the alternative? I think the alternative is to take on the drug dealers. That's -- that's the only alternative. The other one -- kind of an implicit truce...


CASTANEDA: ... use the word truce, but accommodation...


BELTRAN: That kind of accommodation, I think, it is -- it is naive. And I think that in some how the means of state is relinquishing its duties and is relinquishing its duties in terms of the rule of law. And I certainly -- I would not make a proposition in that regard.

AMANPOUR: Where are the people on this issue, on President Calderon's plan?

CASTANEDA: In general, the country -- people support the president's war on drugs and support the military's participation in it. But, for example, in Juarez, they don't. They are fed up with it. All of the polls show that they don't feel more secure, they don't feel safer, and they're not happy with it.

Why the difference, Christiane? Because for me in Mexico City, where there is no -- there are no troops and there's very little crime, it's very simple to say, "I'm very much in favor of the army in Juarez." But the army in Juarez doesn't protect people. They don't feel safe. And so they want them -- they want them to leave.

BELTRAN: I think there's...

AMANPOUR: How long does your president -- how long does the president have to -- to try this strategy?

BELTRAN: Well, I would say, just on what Jorge was saying, I think there's -- there's a confusion of sentiments, if I may. Of course, the people (inaudible) Juarez would like the violence to cease, but that's not -- makes that feeling, whether the (inaudible) relinquishes his duties. I think that very rightly so the people of Juarez would like the violence to cease, to come to an end.

Now, President Calderon, to your question -- President Calderon announced at the very beginning of his administration, as former Secretary Castaneda was mentioning, that this process would take years. And maybe it would not take only his administration. It will be a multi-administration effort. And he said that, most unfortunately, it's going to take lives, it's going to take a toll of lives, and I think that the country is ready for that.

And as Jorge Castaneda was mentioning, there's a strong support of the Mexican population before the army intervention and the support of the -- of the (inaudible)

AMANPOUR: Ruben Beltran, Jorge Castaneda, thank you so much, indeed, for joining us.

And we'll have a webcast with Ruben Beltran right after the program, so join us at, where you can submit your questions.

And next, our "Post-Script." The latest on an opposition leader who says he's fighting for justice in another country, Iran. We'll be right back.



AMANPOUR: And now our "Post-Script." And we want to bring you up to date on political developments in Iran.

Opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi today used unusually harsh language to criticize the government of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as the country prepares to celebrate the 31st anniversary of the Islamic revolution right now, this February.

Mousavi, in a posting on his Web site, said that remnants of the shah's, quote, "tyranny and dictatorship" persist to this very day. His comments came as the government continues its crackdown on pro-democracy supporters and people it calls "anti-revolutionaries."

The semi-official Fars News Agency said that Iran will soon execute nine more people. Two others were hanged last week. A senior judiciary official said that they were trying to, quote, "sow dissent and uproot the regime."

Mousavi, who is a former prime minister, said that while protestors should be able to vent their opinions, they should also follow the law and not overstep legal boundaries.

And that's it for now. Thank you for watching. We'll be back tomorrow. For all of us here, goodbye from New York.