Examining the Reach of Mexican Cartels in the Wake of Alleged Saudi Plot

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman and this is The World, a coproduction of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH Boston. Mexico's brutal drug cartels like to broaden their operations, unfortunately. They've exported their traffic and violence to Central America, for instance. They moved into the people smuggling business too by controlling the movement of illegal immigrants into the United States. But it's still surprising to hear US officials say that a Mexican drug cartel was involved in the alleged Iranian plot to kill the Saudi ambassador in Washington. The plot supposedly called for the Zetas cartel to carry out the actual murder. Alfredo Corchado covers Mexico's drug cartels as a correspondent for the Dallas Morning News. He's in Juarez, Mexico right now. Corchado says Zetas hit men have a reputation for being ruthless.

Alfredo Corchado: They're not shy about murdering people, they're not shy about beheading or brutality, but they usually do this on Mexican territory or in a country with very weak judicial systems at all aim of protecting their criminal enterprise. To do a murder for an alleged $1.5 million in the United States is pretty bizarre.

Werman: Well, we know that the Mexican cartels have crept into the US, but what are their actual on-the-ground capabilities in the US in places like Washington that might make this sort of plot possible?

Corchado: Well, they're very sophisticated when it comes to operating within Mexican limits or you know, in Central America where there's [inaudible 1:27]. They have ties all over the world, but that's what makes this thing so bizarre is why would the Zetas you know, they're part of a $40 billion industry, I mean why would they take $1.5 million to go to Washington, DC and blowup some restaurant or something?

Werman: Would the Mexican drug lords take that sort of gamble and risk antagonizing the US government with an assassination plot?

Corchado: Mexican cartels for the last few years have been you know, under a lot of pressure by the Calderon government, often times with the help of the US government. The Zetas in particular are being targeted by not just the government itself, but also by paramilitary groups. That's why you know, passing into the United States to create this kind of mayhem just sounds very, very impossible.

Werman: Alfredo, you follow the drug cartels as a reporter and the Zetas are among the most notorious if not the most notorious, as far as their presence in the United States, what is that like? I mean how deep do they penetrate and what are their numbers here like?

Corchado: We don't know exactly about numbers, I mean in Mexico there's talk there may be in the 15,000 range. You're talking about hit men, you're talking about lookouts, the support groups. In the United States you hear a lot about elements of the Zetas, people who work for the Zetas like gang members. In the Texas area we have reported on assassinations, whether it's Dallas, whether it's San Antonio, whether it's Houston, but these are assassinations that are carefully planned out by the Zetas to protect their business interests. We haven't you know, heard anything about them being involved or interested in anything other than that.

Werman: What are Mexicans saying today about this?

Corchado: The Mexicans are waiting for the Zetas to come out with one of those famous you know, signs. I mean the way they communicate with the public is they put out what they call [speaking Spanish], which is a handwritten note that says yes, we did this, or no, we didn't do that. So Mexicans are eagerly awaiting for the sign on some bridge along the Mexican border that says we had nothing the Iranians you know. And many sources I've talked to have been you know, logging onto the computers and looking at these narco blogs waiting for something to come up on the Zetas. I mean we're all eagerly waiting to see what they have to say about this. You know, and it also makes you question who the informant is and we'll probably never know that. Was he a high ranking member of the Zetas or just someone who claims to have known the Zetas? There's a lot of details that we still don't know.

Werman: How do you think this is gonna change the US assistance and attention on the drug war and helping Mexico fight the cartels?

Corchado: I think in some ways it helps the Americans make the argument that what happens south of the border is something that Americans need to be worried about. It brings up this notion that there really isn't that much difference between a terrorist group and a Mexican cartel group. The tactics used by cartels are not that different than those used by the terror groups, but again, up to now the Mexican cartels have shown no sign that they're interested in political causes. For them it's all about greed, it's all about controlling territories, it's all about controlling communities. But I think it makes the argument at least for mainstream America that what's happening along the US-Mexico border and south of our border is something that should be paid attention to.

Werman: Alfredo Corchado, with the Dallas Morning News speaking with us from Juarez, Mexico. Thank you very much.

Corchado: My pleasure.