The War Next Door

Susana Seijas is a CBS News producer in Mexico City.

Mexico has a serious drug problem these days. So serious that over 5,000 people have died this year due to drug-related violence. More than 5,000 dead. And that number keeps growing every day.

How do you begin to understand that so many people are dying in Mexico? More than 5,000 casualties because of "narcotrafficking." That's more than all of the American troops that have died fighting an actual war in Iraq. It is hard to keep a tally, but Mexico´s El Universal newspaper does a good job of keeping score.

Mexican drug cartels, dominated by the Gulf and Sinaloa cartels, have long been fighting each other for control of lucrative drug smuggling routes into the United States, a business worth over $10 billion dollars a year. And while drugs from Latin America make their way to feed the ferocious hunger for drugs in the United States, about 2,000 American weapons enter Mexico illegally every day, according to a Mexican government report. (Read more about the role of American weapons in Mexico´s drug war.)

It is the excessive amount of money from the illicit trade in cocaine, marijuana, methamphetamines and weapons that not only seduces and corrupts, but is getting so many people killed here every day, and often in a gruesome, blood-curdling way with bodies being dumped outside schools to intimidate society as a whole.

The turning point in the escalating level of violence was when an armed gang rolled five decapitated heads into a packed night club in Uruapan, Michoacán. This was back in September 2006.

Two months later, on Dec. 1, 2006 President Felipe Calderón took office and vowed to crack down on cartels by sending 7,000 troops to his home state of Michoacan. As Calderón asked Congress for more spending on security and less on culture and education, it was clear that Mexican authorities were facing their own head-chopping Taliban. Mexico's war on drugs was officially declared.

But how do you declare a war on drugs when it is not just the "narcos" and the big capos who control the drug-trade? When waging a war on drugs implies so much more than burning poppy fields here and there. How about all the middle-men and women who, for whatever reason, find themselves linked to the flow of money from the drug-trade? Let's hear that figure again: more than $10 billion in cash trickling, in some shape or form, into the Mexican economy.

In a bold move, President Calderon sent a further 10,000 soldiers to join the federal police force, hoping that the Mexican army and the police would work well together in fighting the cartels. Mexican media often report on the lack of trust, intelligence and coordination between these two forces.

"The real problem is the lack of intelligence and not knowing which governor of which state is the real capo," Paco Ignacio Taibo II, a journalist and crime author told W Radio this morning.

Corruption and collusion in the Mexican government is nothing new. Just last month, Noé Ramirez, who headed Mexico's anti-narcotics efforts, was detained for alleged links to drug-trafficking and for accepting a $450,000 bribe to leak information to a drug cartel (the Wall Street Journal make Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich look like a softy.

But back to the 5,000-plus people getting killed in Mexico. Who are these 5,000 dead? "The drug-traffickers and the army are just killing each other," is something you often hear in Mexico these days. Not so, according to Mexico´s Human Rights Commission who this week reports that up to 2 percent of all drug war-related deaths are children.

"Collateral damage" is a phrase we are hearing more often in Mexico – damage that on Nov. 28 included eight people shot to death at a seafood restaurant in Ciudad Juarez, just across from El Paso, Texas.

CBS News correspondent Bill Whitaker took an exclusive look at how Mexico's problem is crossing the border - a growing danger for innocent citizens and even American tourists journeying south.
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But it is not just drug-traffickers, soldiers and innocent bystanders who are losing their lives. Policemen and journalists have long been targeted by drug cartels for simply doing their jobs. According to several press freedom organizations, Mexico is now the most dangerous country for journalists after Iraq. Many journalists here have simply stopped covering drug-trafficking and organized crime for fear of being gunned down.

And then there are the kidnappings. Mexico is the kidnapping capital of the world, with more abductions per capita than any other nation on the planet. Just last week, in a satirical twist of fate, a U.S. anti-kidnapping expert, Felix Batista, was kidnapped in Saltillo, northern Mexico, after giving talks on security to Mexican businessmen. Batista was abducted by an armed gang as he took a cell phone call outside a restaurant. His whereabouts are still unknown.

Two other high profile kidnappings and murders – that of 14-year old Fernando Marti and 18-year old Silvia Vargas shocked Mexico this year because of the lack of police professionalism in the investigation and for the implications which alleged that police authorities were linked to Fernado Marti´s abduction and murder.

There are so many reports of so many deaths all the time, that people here are beginning to get "death fatigue." Four policemen killed in Juarez just yesterday. That's not even headlines here anymore.

President Felipe Calderon´s critics often compare his war on drugs to disturbing a very large hornet's nest. With more civilian deaths every day, the challenges he faces in rooting out drug cartels are mirrored in the number of top officials implicated in the lucrative drug trade.
  • Susana Seijas

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