5:38am

Mon April 29, 2013
Latin America

U.S.-Mexico Alliance Against Drug Cartels In Jeopardy

Originally published on Mon April 29, 2013 7:00 am

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Mexico is considering changes to its collaboration with the United States in the war on drugs. That was the news at the top of the story in the Washington Post. But for many of us, some information further down in the article was more revealing because the article detailed just how deep and broad the U.S.-Mexico collaboration is.

Until recently, we're told, even some officials in the newly elected Mexican administration did not seem to know how much information and access Mexico was giving the U.S. and how much Mexico got in return. Dana Priest wrote the article in the Washington Post. She's on the line. Welcome back to the program.

DANA PRIEST: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: So we're talking here about drugs of course that flow through Mexico to the United States. What are some of the things that Mexico has done for U.S. law enforcement to battle that problem?

PRIEST: Well, they have opened up their entire system in order to collaborate with the DEA, the CIA, immigration authorities, justice, in a way that is really surprising. And this started probably in 2000 after the Pri, which was the party that held power for 70 years, was finally kicked out of office. And the drug problem was soaring. It started with Vicente Fox, the president there, but then intensified under Felipe Calderon and really, he came into office with such a terrible drug problem.

You probably remember all the violence that was happening there. You know, severed heads thrown onto disco floors.

INSKEEP: Right.

PRIEST: And people hanging from bridges. And he asked the Bush administration to help him with a new strategy, which was to use his military with U.S. support. And the U.S. was so eager to do that it jumped in with both feet. It started providing high flying U.S. biplanes, lower flying unarmed drones eventually. Every sort of electronic ground sensors, signal technology, voice recognition gear, cell phone tracking devices.

And eventually a lot of the type of equipment that was used in Iraq and Afghanistan to very quickly find high value target kingpins.

INSKEEP: So a total sharing of information, or nearly total?

PRIEST: It really is. It really was. Between various units. You know, the corruption problem in Mexico is so bad that the U.S. agencies had to find and really grow these particular units that they could deal with and vet and make sure that they weren't corrupted. But they went so far as to pay them, give them cell phones, set up their own bank accounts, put them in safe houses so that they really would be isolated from the rest of their institutions because corruption and penetration by the cartels were so pervasive.

And that really -although the program started in the '90s it really wasn't until the late 2000s that they figured out this way to actually make those units - they're called vetted units - smaller but less likely to be penetrated by really sequestering them, and linking them up with, again, the DEA and the CIA.

INSKEEP: So, Dana Priest, we have this system that's been used to target a lot of drug kingpins in Mexico. Now there's a new president, Enrique Pena Nieto. Why would his administration be considering scaling back that relationship?

PRIEST: Well, Mexico has had a history of nationalistic dealing and a feeling of resentment towards the United States. We did invade the country a couple times and they haven't forgotten that. They don't like the domination, you know, feeling dominated by the U.S. and the Pri, the party that was in power for so long, particularly was very nationalistic in its view towards the United States. Their sovereignty issues are very precious to them.

INSKEEP: And we should mention also, in the few seconds that we have, that this drug war has also become exceedingly violent in Mexico.

PRIEST: Well, that's the problem. When you started pitting the cartels against each other there was a huge amount of violence that came from that. Sixty thousand people died and probably 25,000 have been disappeared. And the new administration wants to change that and people here fear that that means that they will no longer go after the kingpins.

INSKEEP: Right.

PRIEST: And that there be an unofficial truce, in a way.

INSKEEP: OK. Dana Priest of the Washington Post. Thanks very much.

PRIEST: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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