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Saturday, 15 June, 2002, 20:53 GMT 21:53 UK
Cracking Mexico's drug cartels
A border guard on patrol on the Mexico/US border
Better links between Mexican and US police are helping
The BBC's Nick Miles

One of the many knock-on effects since the attacks on the United States last September has been the dramatic increase in drugs seizures on the Mexico/US border.

Tightened US security to fight terrorism along the 3,000km frontier has made it harder for smugglers to transport cocaine and other drugs.

But US authorities are not the only ones turning the screws. In Mexico, long seen as home to corrupt drugs officers, efforts have been stepped up against the traffickers.

Mexico/US border country
Tonnes of drugs are smuggled across the border every year
A greater trust between the two nations has led to unprecedented co-operation in the fight against drugs.

Nowhere is that new trust more evident or more important than around the town of Tijuana on the US border below San Diego. The area is home to some of Mexico's most notorious drugs cartels.

Half of all the cocaine entering the United States, possibly as much as 80 tonnes a year, crosses at hundreds of points along the border in the desert stretching out to the east of the city.

Flying over the area in a government helicopter it is easy to see the daunting nature of the task. The border follows high mountains, far from any major cities.

"We know that we can't intercept all the drugs that make it across," Captain Andrez Ruiz, from Mexico's federal police drugs unit, tells me as we fly low over the border fence.

"But this year alone we have intercepted three tonnes of cocaine, twice as much as last year."

Police corruption

Down on the ground, we make our way past a boarded-up ranch that until two months ago was the site of a major tunnel. This was the direct entry point for up to two tonnes of cocaine into the United States every year.

It was discovered in a joint operation between US and Mexican anti-drugs agents.

Information in the past would never have been shared because of corruption among Mexican officers.

"We would call our cooperation with the Mexicans unprecedented," says US deputy ambassador to Mexico John Dickson.

Relations were extremely bad in the 1980s after a US undercover drug enforcement agent was tortured and killed, after being set-up by his Mexican colleagues.

An officer on patrol on the Mexican border
Mexican officers are now co-operating with the US counterparts
"It took us a long time to get over that, now the era of mutual recriminations and finger pointing is over," Mr Dickson says.

It certainly seems to be something of a new beginning for cross-border drugs cooperation. For years the Mexican police have been plagued with corrupt officers. That is now changing.

The process started in the mid-1990s while the Institutional Revolutionary Party, the PRI, which ruled Mexico for 70 years, was still in power.

But the clean-up has been accelerated since Vicente Fox came to power two years ago.

Dawn raids

"In the past we would fire corrupt officers, but we didn't prosecute them and they often ended as officers in other parts of the country," says Victor de la Torre, hyperactive head of special operations for the federal police in Mexico.

"Now the bad cops go to trial and never work as officers again. That's one of the reasons why the US is taking us more seriously."

As the dawn breaks over the dusty town of Tijuana his squad prepare for another raid.

Mexican police prepare to raid a suspected drug dealer's home
Mexican police prepare to raid a suspected drug dealer's home
This time they are acting on information from the United States Drug Enforcement Agency that there is a ranch being used as a crack cocaine laboratory linked to distributors in the US.

This time the spoils are meagre. The squad turns up nothing but a few grammes of the drug, but the police do turn up information that could help them in the future.

Certainly there have been failings on both sides of the border to combat the huge illegal drugs.

But, with the US and Mexican authorities working more effectively together rather than at cross purposes, both governments will be hoping to cut even deeper into the cartels' multi billion dollar profits.

With demand for drugs at record levels north of the border that will be seen as welcome news by the US electorate.

The drugs trade

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28 Mar 02 | Americas
12 Mar 02 | Americas
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