Brutal Drug War Fueled By U.S. Appetite

mexican gang slayings
In the past few years, Mexico has become one of the most dangerous places on earth. Drug gangs have killed more than 5,000 people this year - more than the entire American death toll in Iraq. Tuesday, the Justice Department declared Mexico's drug cartels have become the biggest organized crime threat to the United States. CBS News correspondent Bill Whitaker takes an exclusive look at how Mexico's problem is crossing the border.

The sound of a country in crisis includes the cries of a woman wailing upon finding husband dead in cab of truck. The United States' southern neighbor is in the throes of a drug war - one that's growing more savage every day as the brutally aggressive Sinaloa Cartel muscles in on territory controlled by the Arellano-Felix, the Juarez and Gulf Cartels for control of lucrative routes for smuggling marijuana, cocaine and amphetamines into the United States - a $14 billion a year illegal trade, Whitaker reports.

The drug traffickers are more reckless and ruthless than ever. A group of terrified school children were caught in the crossfire of a three-hour shootout on the streets of Tijuana. In Juarez, a crime reporter was shot to death, the fifth Mexican journalist silenced this year.

Bill Gore has witnessed the carnage, first as the FBI Special Agent in Charge in San Diego, now as the county's undersheriff. He says American drug users should realize they have blood on their hands.

"This is not a victimless crime," Gore said. "That people are dying, literally hundreds of them, on the streets of Tijuana, so they can have their recreational drugs on this side of the border."

The most extreme violence is just south of the border - nowhere worse than Juarez, across the Rio Grande from El Paso. There have been 16 murders in El Paso this year and almost 1,500 drug-related killings in Juarez.

One grisly new tactic is beheadings. A headless corpse hung above a busy highway almost two hours before police covered it with a sheet - the head found in a nearby park.

In Tijuana, nine men were decapitated last month, three of them policemen, their badges stuck in their mouths - some of the 40 murders in Tijuana occurred in just one weekend.

It is a bloody war fueled by a high-powered arsenal of weapons, most smuggled in from the United States.

Read more about the role of the cartels at Tijuana Press (in Spanish) and at KPBS online.
The gun violence is fueling a boom in the security business. Gabriel Martin turns cars into tanks with armor plating, bullet-proof glass. Of one car he says: "An AR-15 with armor-piercing nose could not get through that."

And there's a long waiting list of people anxious to pay from $30,000 to $90,000 to outfit cars with James Bond-like smoke screens and nails to puncture pursuers' tires.

"As crime rises it seems like the business grows," Martin said. "People are scared to be kidnapped."

The current FBI Agent in Charge in San Diego says gangland kidnappings, common in Mexico as a secondary source of cartel income, are becoming common there.

"The violence is absolutely spilling across into the United States," said FBI agent Keith Slotter said.

About 40 San Diego residents were kidnapped in Mexico this year - double the number three years ago. Many more go unreported.

"Normally, the kidnappers have done, we believe, extensive research ahead of time," Slotter said. "They have a good, a solid background on a person's financial means."

World Watch Blog: The War Next Door
World Watch Blog: Mexican Drug Raid Turns Into Hot Tub Party
They kidnapped one woman's husband, an American with businesses in Tijuana. They demanded $2 million. She's afraid to reveal her identity.

"I had to sell my business. I had to sell property. Anything to get back my husband," the woman said. "There was no need for them to kill my husband."

Ironically, this orgy of violence erupted after Mexican president Felipe Calderon declared war on the cartels last year, dispatching 40,000 troops and federal police to cities under siege. They've killed or captured scores of drug kingpins.

Authorities call this a success, though a fierce gun battle raged in the middle of the city for almost an hour. In the end, the federal police and the military took custody the most wanted chief of the Tijuana drug cartel.

With the arrest of Eduardo Arellano-Felix, the once powerful cartel is in disarray. The unintended consequence of success: a bloodbath, as the next generation of gangsters battles for dominance.

"We cannot live with that kind of intimidation, with that kind of terror on our streets," said Jorge Ramos, the Mayor of Tijuana.

So the mayor of Tijuana last week tapped former army Lt. Colonel, Julian Leyzaola, to run the city's police department.

He promises to take back the streets.

"Even in war you don't see what you see here," he said through a translator. "People whose heads are cut off, people who are dissolved in acid. If the cartels only understand the language of violence, then we are going to have to speak in their language ... and annihilate them."

In other words, fight cartel violence with superior violence: the coordinated power the police and military. As the government fights to get the upper hand, there's likely to be more blood in the streets.