Mexico Army Challenged In Sinaloa, Durango, Chihuahua

Mexican soldiers work in the mountains of Sinaloa burning this marijuana field, part of an eradication program supported by the United States. (photo: Lorne Matalon)

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CULIACAN, Sinaloa–A top boss of the Arellano Felix drug-trafficking cartel is now behind bars in Mexico. The man is a U.S. citizen. He was arrested yesterday following a joint intelligence operation by Mexican and U.S. agencies. American officials are praising Mexico’s determination in going after the traffickers. Mexico’s President Felipe Calderon has made it a top national priority. He’s ordered the Mexican Army to spear-head the fight. That means soldiers are heading into drug cartel territory to track down traffickers and destroy illegal crops. The World’s Lorne Matalon was an embedded reporter on one such mission, in the Mexican state of Sinaloa.

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The following is a transcript;

Matalon: It’s early morning at the Sinaloa military base. Special Forces soldiers are getting their orders.

Matalon: Their Commander says, “Starting at 11, the first group will begin the mission, the second and third will block the entrances and exits.” The Mexican Army’s Special Forces–their faces covered by black balaclavas–are preparing to head out onto the streets of Culiacan, in Sinaloa state, home of the powerful Sinaloa Cartel. Special Forces recently captured the group’s alleged money-launderer, while the son and brother of the cartel’s leader–Mexico’s most-wanted man–have just been sentenced to jail. The soldiers’ faces are covered because the Sinaloa cartel is killing soldiers, police and informants.

Matalon: The Air Force is ferrying soldiers to the mountain sides and valleys where fields of poppy and marijuana are easily seen from the sky. Heroin is made from the opium produced by poppy plants. Once identified, soldiers spend weeks roaming the countryside destroying those fields. Mexico was once merely a transit point for U.S. bound drugs, a half-way stop between Colombia, Peru and the United States. Now it is a production center. Heroin production in Mexico soared after the U-S invaded Afghanistan, the world’s number one heroin producer.

Matalon: The helicopter lands in mountains of Durango hugging the border of Sinaloa near Mexico’s Pacific coast.

Matalon: Soldiers are cutting the stalks. On the ground, a poppy field looks like a postcard from a flower festival. The wind caresses endless rows of fiery red flowers. Just below the flower, you see the bulbs bursting with the opium gum. The U.S. credits the Mexican Army, saying eradication has cut the supply crossing the border. As proof, the DEA says the cost of Mexican heroin and cocaine reaching American streets is rising sharply.

Matalon: General Moises Melo Garcia says the campaign will continue despite calls from the United Nations and critics in Mexico who say the Army is doing work that police should be doing. President Calderon says the Army’s role will be reduced once the police are “cleansed and purified.” General Melo Garcia says, “Once the president has accomplished this, we will work together, the Army and the Police.”

Matalon: President Calderon has sent 30,000 soldiers into the field since taking office in December, 2006. Most people here acknowledge police corruption, but some people still maintain the police, and not the Army, should be fighting this war.

Matalon: Colonel Leonardo Hernandez says, “If the Army leaves this fight, the drug trade will expand in this hardscrabble region. The people here are benefiting from drugs,’ he says. These are people who need money, and drugs are a simple way for them to get money.’ ” Still, penetrating the cartels to gain intelligence about their leaders–the people paying the growers in the mountains–is a critical component of this campaign.

Matalon: One intelligence Officer says the work is complicated. He says, “You start identifying the lower ranks, then middle management and finally the top people. I try to get people to switch from their side to ours, he says. “But it doesn’t happen overnight. It can take years. But it is working,” he says.

Matalon: Ana Maria Salazar was the deputy assistant secretary of defense for drug enforcement in the Clinton administration. She says Calderon has a dual agenda right now demonstrating to that the Bush administration’s proposed military aid package should be approved–and showing Mexicans he’s serious about securing the country.

Salazar: “You really only have a couple of years where you can take dramatic steps against major problems and still get the overall support of society. And the Calderon administration, once they understood how powerful these organizations were decided that this was going to be a priority.”

Matalon: Part of the aid package includes Black Hawk helicopters and high-tech surveillance equipment. Congress is considering the package, but in the meantime the U-S says it will expand operations on the border to stop the smuggling of high-powered weapons from the U-S into Mexico…weapons that are far more powerful than those carried by all but the Army’s most elite soldiers.

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