Mexico at War: On the Front Lines

William Booth, Steve Fainaru and Travis Fox
Washington Post Foreign Correspondents and Washington Post Videojournalist
Thursday, April 2, 2009; 11:30 AM

Mexican President Felipe Calderone has deployed nearly 50,000 troops along the U.S.-Mexico border and throughout the country to fight drug traffickers, dramatically expanding the military's role. One quarter of Mexico's army is now committed to the drug war, while more than 10,100 people have been killed in the strife since December 2006.


Washington Post foreign correspondent Steve Fainaru Post foreign correspondent and Mexico City bureau chief William Booth, and Post videojournalist Travis Fox were online Thursday, April 2, at 11:30 a.m. ET to discuss the series, Mexico at War: On the Front Lines.


William Booth: Welcome, all I see that Steve and Travis and I are all interconnected and ready to go. We've launched a reporting project on Mexico's war against the drug smugglers and our first venture appears today, so lets do some questions.


Ashburn, Va.: Why has the State Department not yet determined this a hazardous place for dependants of State Department employees? My ex-wife is an employee there with my 10-year-old daughter and won't send her back. With all we are hearing why haven't the dependents been evacuated?

William Booth: I don't think the Embassy or anyone here in Mexico would consider Mexico City too dangerous for American government workers or their dependents. Most of the violence is restricted to four or five states, and even there, most of the violence is directed at police, soldiers or members of the cartels.


Arlington, Va.: What percentage of the traffickers' revenue comes from human trafficking, weapons smuggling, extortion rackets, government corruption and other crimes unrelated to drug trafficking. If the drug money disappeared tomorrow, wouldn't many of the same problems caused by non-state criminal groups and poor governance still be there?

Steve Fainaru: Steve here. One thing you hear from all sides is that with the Mexican government squeezing the cartels and their drug operations, they are now diversifying into other activities, including the ones you listed. Hence a lot of people are calling this an organized crime problem, instead of just focusing on drugs. This is a $10 billion business, exceeded in Mexico only by the oil industry and tourism. So if it suddenly went away it certainly would have implications for the economy.


Chiapas, Mexico: There is a huge gap in perceptions on both sides of the border that this situation is totally the fault of the other, and the fact that both nations are culpable. Mexico is the largest producer of marijuana in the world and an increasingly large producer of meth. Mexicans believe the problem is American consumers and guns.

Americans, on the other hand, fail to understand that Mexico is the unfortunate corridor between Columbian cocaine and the U.S. and that 90 percent of the weapons used by the cartels are smuggled into Mexico from the U.S.

The result is a racist finger-pointing on both sides that kills any popular support to unite against this war.

Mexicans applauded Hillary Clinton's admission American guns and demand were partly to blame while Americans resented it as an unwarranted apology with the usual right wingers hating anything Clinton says.

William Booth: That is a good point. Both govenments appear to be trying hard to put past animosities aside. But these tensions between the governments actually might increase a bit -- as the relationship becomes closer, there's more to fight about. But we'll see. So far, officially, both governments are trying to play nice.


Alexandria, Va.: Is there any will, either in government or with citizens, to pursue a path of legalization of marijuana or cocaine?

William Booth: Some Mexican officials publically support decriminalizing marijuana use. It is a topic they have begun to discuss.


Penn Quarter, Washington, D.C.: I've read that Mexico has become the most dangerous place in the Western hemisphere to be a journalist. Five Mexican journalists were killed in 2008. Do foreign journalists covering the drug wars in Mexico face the same kind of danger?

Travis Fox: It's very dangerous for Mexican journalists cover the drug war, specifically those journalists who discuss the details of the cartels. I spent 10 days in Juarez producing the videos you see on the site. I was more worried about being in the the middle of a fire-fight than being specifically targeted. Local journalists I spoke with were very careful about what specifically they write about, they often stick to official reports of murders, etc. Those journalist who name names are often threatened and sometimes killed. In one of the videos, I profiled one such journalist, Jorge Luis, who fled Juarez and now lives across the border in El Paso.


Washington, D.C.: Steve/William:

I am appalled by the fact that the Brady Campaign people haven't jumped on this story to push their anti-gun efforts further. I mean, this is the perfect time and problem, it's being covered like crazy...what are these people thinking?

William Booth: I do think that the advocates for gun control have entered the fray on this, especially their opposition to assault weapons and the sale of firearms at gun shows. And both goverments have begun work -- just begun, like today -- on ways they could help each other control the flow of weapons from north to south. The US attorney general and the head of homeland security are meeting today in Cuernavaca with their Mexican counterparts and the Washington Post will have story online and in the paper about the meeting.


Green Bay, Wisc.: It appears that long-standing police incompetence and corruption on the Mexican side, and an unrelenting demand for narcotic drugs on the American and European side will forever fuel this devastating social problem (now an outright street war). How can America free itself from illegal narcotic drugs, thus decrease demand? Can the social sciences contribute to understanding the dynamics of drug use in America?

Steve Fainaru: This of course is the fundamental question. Basically we're talking about a global business; the entire focus of the Mexican government with regard to drug trafficking to the United States is on the supply side of the problem (although there is large demand side component to the Mexico policy). The United States is focused on the same. Until we all finally get serious about demand for drugs, this problem -- and all the violence and corruption that goes with it -- will never go away, in my opinion.


Saint John, New Brunswick: Americans seem to encourage myths about Mexico's origins, even among Mexicans, that the Mestizos are mainly a mixed race of Indian and Spanish, when in fact most Mexicans have a large African component in their background because the country's colonial population was once one-third African slave, large communities of which survive in Oaxaca and elsewhere. And there are large numbers of native speaking aboriginals on reserves. Why does the American press ignore the racial grievances of both the indigenous peoples and the Afro-Mestizos by the blancos (whites) against them? Don't the racial minorities make up the Zapatista guerrillas fighting alongside drug dealers in southern Mexico against the government? Do you believe that racial discrimination and socio-economic inequality in Mexico fuels crime, including the drug violence in the country?

Steve Fainaru: Well, certainly socio-economic issues are in play here. Mexico of course is going through its own economic crisis, with the attendant job losses and lack of economic opportunities. Mexico of course is a much poorer country than the United States, and so the allure of drug trafficking is obvious, particularly in poor states like Guerrero and Chiapas. Those states of course also have large indigenous populations.

_______________________ Video Series: Voices of Power


Baltimore, Md.: How strong of a connection is there between the drug cartels and members of the political parties (namely PRI and PRD)? Are many politicians bought off? And, do the cartels enjoy any kind of social legitimacy among the people such that they might be able to enjoy the protection of people and collaboration in some areas? Thanks.

Steve Fainaru: This has not yet been firmly established. In our story we note that one of the factors that drove Calderon to use the military was the evidence that drug money had made its way into the 2006 political campaign; one American estimated that $5-10 million had been used in mayors and parliamentary races. But no one really knows how much the cartels have permeated the political parties and Mexico's democratic system of government.


Washington, D.C.: In your story you talk about Calderon's decision to use the military -- but did he have any other option?

William Booth: We asked everyone that very question. From the Calderon administration, the answer is no, they did not have an alternative. They felt -- quite accurately -- that local police in cartel hotspots were ineffective or corrupt or most likely both. The federal police are also problematic, and make up only 6 percent of total forces at their disposal. So they went with the military. They say repeatedly that as their reform, retrain their civilian police, the army will step down. That could take a few years.


San Antonio, Tex.: Should Mexico's army be victorious in destroying the drug cartels what is the likely impact on Mexico's economy?

Steve Fainaru: It would be significant, no doubt, if the drug trade suddenly ended. The Mexicans estimate that $10 billion stays in the country. But as we've seen these groups tend to diversify, and realistically, it's hard to see how the drug trade will ever be erased. The Mexicans themselves say they're not out to end drug trafficking, that it will never end, especially as long as demand in the United States is "inelastic," as attorney general Eduardo Medina Mora put it. They say they're just out to reduce the violence and turn it into a law enforcement problem, as opposed to a national security problem. So far the effect has been the opposite.


Chantilly, Va.: Is it safe for Americans to travel over the border near the 4 or 5 states that seem to have all the violence associated with them?

Travis Fox: It'd be wrong for us to say it's safe or not. It depends on the amount of risk you're willing to take. The drug traffickers are not specifically targeting foreigners, but the increased violence has created a sense of lawlessness in many places, including where I was in Juarez. This gives smaller time criminals a chance to take advantage of the situation. I can say that I saw very few Americans in Juarez, a place used to have many American crossing over for the bars or to visit the pharmacy, etc. Many of the stores that cater to the Americans were shuttered. My sense is that the tourist areas are fine to visit.


Washington, D.C.: Yesterday morning I attended a special conference at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research (AEI) in which three specialists in Mexico and U.S. relations commented about this war in drugs. The three of them agreed that this is a shared responsibility and also a world problem that needs a multilateral solution. And they also mentioned that it is time for both countries to trust one from each other. In that sense I wonder how far do you think Mexico and the U.S. are from building a strategic partnership?

Steve Fainaru: I think it's getting better. Certainly the rhetoric is better, and the atmosphere is much different than when I was covering the issue in Mexico 10 years ago. Now the Americans heap praise on the Mexicans for their courage and spirit of cooperation. The U.S. has committed $1.4 billion under the Merida Initiative for the drug fight. So certainly there is more shared cooperation. At the same time, there is still a lot of mistrust on both sides -- about the U.S. commitment, and about the levels of corruption in Mexico, especially at state and local governments. A lot of Mexicans say exactly that: this is a shared problem, driven by U.S. consumption and the trafficking of weapons into Mexico. But that we haven't achieved equilibrium in finding the solution.


Costa Rica: In Costa Rica we are part of that bridge from Colombia to American cities that are buying...has the U.S. considered a more aggressive approach to this entire central American bridge? Why just focus on Mexico?

William Booth: The US goverment is working with Central America, though they have focused on El Salvador, Guatemala and Panama. If Costa Rica is a major transshipment or laundering hub, you might start seeing a few more DEA agents in town, which is either a good thing or a bad thing, depending...


Wilmington, Del.: With all this violence and difficulty, shouldn't Americans be asking ourselves whether we have paid too little attention to our own problem? Are we doing enough in fighting drugs? We are the consumers, and yet one gets the feeling that during the "war on terror" drug enforcement was not our top priority.

Steve Fainaru: I think this is true. The Mexico drug trafficking issue surged again not because of renewed concerns about drug use in the United States but because of the extreme violence we're seeing on the other side of the border. This entire story revolves around the supply side of the issue right now, but it's equally a demand side problem.


Tuxtla Gutierrez, Chiapas: Mexican Senator Manuel Velasco of Chiapas called for reprisals two weeks ago against the U.S. over issues like gun smuggling, the wall and mistreatment of illegal Mexicans in the U.S.

Is this the official government line in Mexico in spite of recent U.S. help against the cartels, or just the blustering of a young politician (who though his comments would only be consumed locally) for more popularity at home?

Steve Fainaru: I think there's a lot of generalized frustration in Mexico over these issue. The truth is that it's Mexico that has troops out on the streets, tens of thousands of people dying; the country has increased its public security budget nearly 100 percent over the last three years, despite the economic crisis. And yet we're the ones who are toking and snorting and shooting most of this stuff up, and the military-grade weapons that are used in the drug war come from our side of the border. So I don't think it's all bluster. There's genuine frustration that the drug war doesn't involve mutual sacrifice right now.


New York, NY..: We know that the Mexican federales invite the media into their raids to showcase their efforts and these stories circulate in Mexican society like soap operas...but are there any indications of cartels having journalists or editorial boards on their payrolls just like have done with entire police departments?

William Booth: Not yet. The cartels have employed people to act as protesters against the government. In some cases, the cartels may have "representatives" who are lawyers for some of the bigger fish. The criminals also appear to be using the internet to post videos, taunts, etc. They participate in message boards and chats. Perhaps one might be with us now, though I don't think so. But at present they do not employ a PR firm, though they do rent a few politicians.


Concord, N.H.: SO, what are your opinions on the efficacy of the army taking control? The cartels seem willing to commit any crime or violence -- the more gruesome the better, as they rule through fear. Does the Mexican army have enough manpower to win this war?

The cartels are dismantling what seems to be a asymmetrical, fragmented approach when maybe an all-out front attack is needed?

William Booth: Ah, this is the central question, in my mind. The Mexican army, according to the Mexican government, is good at taking and holding territory. They put up a lot of roadblocks, they do searches, they are able to restrict the movement of the cartels to some degree. They also make arrests, do raids. Their challenge, though, is that the Army is not really a law enforcement agency. They don't have detectives, investigators to slowly, methodically build cases. So, according to the Mexican Attorney General, what is victory? Victory is reducing the power of the cartels, making them less a threat to Mexican national security. They do not want cartel leaders living in impunity, in a big ranch house, going out to dinner every night in Culiacan. They want them on the run. But it is worth noting that nobody in Mexico seriously talks about greatly reducing the amount of cocaine crossing the border -- unless there is demand reduction in the USA.


Phoenix, Ariz.: Juarez has been more violent than Baghdad for well over two years and yet the mainstream media has only recently begun to pay attention. Why has this problem been ignored for so long?

Steve Fainaru: Well, as someone who has spent a lot of time in Iraq, I would just say that Mexico is not even close in terms of violence and insecurity. I would have no hesitation bringing my family to Mexico on vacation, and encouraging people to visit. It's just not the same. Yes, 10,000 dead over the past two-plus years is a lot of people, and this is certainly a very serious crisis. But it's not like Iraq, where daily life, at least until recently, was shaped and defined by the violence around you. I was in Zihuatanejo, the wonderful resort town in Guerrero. The tourists were out on the beach, the restaurants were serving wonderful meals on the water-front promenade. No one had any idea what was going on nearby, but the local police station -- five minutes away -- had recently been hit by a grenade attack, four cops had been incinerated in their truck by another attack about 15 minutes down the coastal highway, and there had been a spate of drug-related killings.


Arlington, Va.: What about the idea of a border fence? If you're trying to stop smuggling, making it harder to cross the border seems like a slam-dunk of an idea.

William Booth: I think the fence is probably thought of more in terms of stopping the flow of human traffic. The drug smugglers mostly get their product across in trains, trucks, cars. They have employed walkers with backpacks, though.


Ithaca, N.Y.: The thing in your article that struck me was the following: "U.S. and Mexican officials said Calderon did not anticipate the violence his strategy appears to have unleashed. Jose Luis PiƱeyro, a military analyst in Mexico City, said the president and his advisers had 'launched a war for which they were unprepared.' " Have you spoken to Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, considered the legitimate president of Mexico by many after the last elections, for whom the Mexican people filled the streets, who wrote an open letter to Secretary of State Clinton saying NO to Plan Mexico this week, or to the Zapatistas? There is an excellent, very well-detailed article by Bill Conroy on U.S. arms exports arming the narcos. Check

William Booth: Thanks for the tip, we'll check it out. No, we have not yet spoken with ALMO, though that is a good suggestion.


Miami, Fla.: What does the upper class in Mexico think of Calderon's efforts? Also, is there a general sense that he might be corrupt too in terms of not doing what is really necessary against the cartels? It is just fascinating how high up these cartels have infiltrated the D.F's power halls from the Interpol chief to most heads of anti-drugs agencies...

Steve Fainaru: Calderon still enjoys widespread support for this crackdown. However you feel about the violence, it is clear that he is serious about addressing this problem. But I think that popularity has a shelf life: that is, in many of the areas where I was reporting, a lot of people had mixed feelings about the presence of the military in the streets. It makes people feel more AND less secure, somehow. If the violence continues to escalate, along with human rights abuses by the army, Mexican society may soon tire of the fight. Calderon clearly has put his political career at risk here; but he seems committed to fight to the end, whatever exactly that is.


El Paso, Tex.: As a teacher in El Paso whose school is just a half mile from the border fence, I must say that the violence from Juarez has not yet penetrated here. Yet, my students who have family in Juarez don't get to see their parents/grandparents/aunts and uncles anymore because Juarez is simply too dangerous. It breaks my heart to hear students talk about family members who have been kidnapped or murdered by the cartels and to see how many families are being splintered by the violence in Mexico. What, if any, hope do you see for these children whose lives are being torn apart because of the drug war?

Travis Fox: Thank you for your question. One of the videos we produced deals specifically with a school and neighborhood that are are going through issues you describe. I'm always amazed when I go to places that might seem so hopeless like Juarez that there are people really trying to improve what they can. One of these people we featured in the video was a first grade teacher in Juarez who begins each day with a story-- and a message. The moral of his stories are always not to get sucked into the drug trade. It was such a small gesture, but he was doing his part against all odds.


Silver Spring, Md.: I know that the city of Juarez has been plagued for years by the mysterious murder of hundreds of women. One of the theories was that the attacks had to do with the drug cartels. Both Calderon and his predecessor did little to combat these murders. Is Calderon's decision to use full force against he cartels connected at all with a conviction that they are at fault for the women murdered in Juarez? And does this mean he plans to get to the bottom of these horrific murders?

William Booth: The Calderon administration talks about the drug cartels in Ciudad Juarez, and not much about the femicides. In Mexican news coverage, the drug cartels have also overshadowed solving the murder of women in CJ.


Los Angeles, Calif.: This escalation of violence reminds me of L.A. during the 80s and then the deportation of thousands of Central American gangsters that returned home and then became the infamous 'maras'.

It seems to me that an escalation of violence could cause a massive influx of poor migrants to the U.S. and that whole story could be repeated?

Does the U.S. government know that if you forget history you are subject to repeat it?

Steve Fainaru: I think this policy is being driven almost exclusively by the Calderon government, although the U.S. of course is supporting it. He made a fundamental decision about the corrosive effect of the cartels on Mexican society, and decided to go after it with the bludgeon of the military. So I guess what I would say is that the effects of that policy also are owned by Calderon. That said, those effects also reverberate in the United States, but I don't think we're nearly at the point where the violence is hitting the Mexican countryside to the degree that it has caused massive population displacement, as you seem to be suggesting.


Bethesda, Md.: What's the risk to Calderon's career? He serves one 6-year term as president with no reelection.

William Booth: Calderon tries very hard to keep his broader agenda moving forward -- on facing the economic crisis, the battered peso, etc. But his war against the cartels is and likely will be form his political legacy. The risk? His party, the PAN, could lose big-time in the mid-term elections this July and go on to lose the presidency. Or ... not. The political season is only now beginning.


Boston, Mass.: To Travis: Do you feel the story 'visually' could be a lot more graphic but that the Post readers or the American readers are just not accustomed or ready to see it? Does this frustrate you?

Travis Fox: I think this story, like others about violence, is graphic. Just watch my video about the body collectors. I think the challenge for us as journalists is to go deeper so our viewers/readers will be able to connect with the story through people who are affected by the violence. We are accustom to seeing graphic pictures, either in movies or other news coverage. Yes, it's shocking, but I'm not sure it tells a complete or personal story. We tried to be more complete with our videos. What do you think, our coverage should be more graphic or less so? Does it help your understanding of the situation?


Arlington, Va.: The Mexican cartels have used the "silver or lead" choice as a mechanism to co-opt the police. How do we know that doesn't work here? Do you seriously think many of our "7-11" cops we see tooling around Washington wouldn't melt in the face of such a "choice"?

Steve Fainaru: Of course. I may be wrong, but I don't think we're seeing our own municipal and state police forces having to make the same kind of plata o plomo calculations. These local law enforcement agencies in Mexico are facing something that is just so much bigger and more powerful than they are. More people, more money, more weapons and more sophisticated weapons. it's a totally different ballgame.

_______________________ Mexico at War: On the Front Lines


San Diego, Calif.: While I am happy that attention is being paid to the violence along the border generally, I'm concerned that people will stop paying attention to a specific problem: violence against women in the Juarez area. The hundreds of gruesome murders of women over the past 15 years still have not been adequately solved. Do you know if there is any ongoing effort to do so?

Steve Fainaru: This needs to be examined further; I don't think it's ever been established what, if any, connection the traffickers have had to these murders.


Alabama: In terms of profit...what is the percentage dealers make from start to finish? Is it like a 400 percent profit? How about cocaine, marijuana and heroin?

Steve Fainaru: Thanks everyone for the great questions and for reading the story. Look for more coverage soon.


Austin, Tex.: Isn't some of this rhetoric getting overheated? I realize the problem is very serious indeed. But this talk of a "war," of a "failed state," etc., seems over the top to me. In the vast majority of Mexico, life goes on. People go to work. Kids go to school. Mexico City is not Baghdad.

It seems to me that such rhetoric is actually harmful. It discourages tourism, etc., and also inflames nationalist sentiments on both sides of the border.

Steve Fainaru: See my answer above; I totally agree. But it's a complicated thing. Mexico is not a failed state. It's an incredible and functioning country and is a wonderful place to live, visit and work in. But putting 45,000 troops on the streets is a serious thing -- it implies a total breakdown of law enforcement authority, for one thing -- and this kind of violence has a definite effect. It's pure terrorism when nine severed heads appear in the parking lot of Sam's Club in the state capital. People don't want to go out at night. Their lives are changed. So while I don't think Mexico is a failed state, I don't think we should minimize the magnitude of the problems.


Oakland, Calif.: If you read Narconews, their reporting suggests that these crises are cyclical (every decade, there is a corruption scandal reaching to the highest ranks of the government, and the U.S. solution has always been to promote "free trade" and to dump more weapons into Mexico). Former president Zedillo and the current vice-president of Colombia have spoken out against U.S. military "solutions." Have you spoken to any of the independent human rights organizations such as LIMEDDH or

Steve Fainaru: Obviously, human rights groups have enormous problems with this policy. Complaints to Mexico's National Human Rights Commission have surged nearly 600 percent since the military was sent out into the streets. We've talked to a lot of people about this and certainly will continue to cover that issue.

Thanks again everyone. See you soon.


Boston, Mass. : To Travis: I agree that the story will not be told by how much blood you show...but the combination of it and being just a bit more out there and provocative could make the type of stories the Post covers stronger sometimes. I just think it could be brought up more and start the discussion of how Americans are so numb to graphic images.

Travis Fox: Thank you for your thoughts and joining the discussion.


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