Story transcripts

Mean Streets

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Reporter: Michael Usher

Producer: Stephen Rice

October, 2008

Here at 60 Minutes, dodging bullets is part of the job. You never get used to it.

But, the fact is, you knowingly and deliberately, put yourself in harm's way. Not everyone has that choice. In Mexico, the drug traffickers have taken over. Even quiet middle class neighbourhoods can suddenly erupt in gunfire.

When Michael Usher ventured onto the mean streets of Tijuana two years ago, it was like something out of the Wild West.

And so was the man hired to fix the problem.

Full transcript:

STORY

MICHAEL USHER: Forget anything you've heard about Mexico being a friendly tourist paradise. I'm in a country that's been turned into a battleground by the drug cartels. But now, in one city at least - the cops are fighting back. You're telling them, "Go for it."

ALBERTO CAPELLA: Kill them. Go for it."

MICHAEL USHER: Only a year ago, Alberto Capella was a corporate lawyer. Now he's Tijuana's police chief - all the others were corrupt or killed. It's a tough job you've got.

ALBERTO CAPELLA: Very difficult, you have to be crazy to be here. (LAUGHS)

MICHAEL USHER: Spend a few days with Chief Capella and you have to wonder why anyone would take on the cartels. Day and night, you can't escape the violence. It is another bloody night. This time witnesses say they didn't just shoot this man in the back and the head many times, they backed over him with a truck for good measure. In just one hour, of one morning, we witnessed the shocking aftermath of four drug murders. The investigators are just turning up The bodies are still in the car, and believe it or not, the radio is still going in that car.

Here, two off-duty police machine gunned on their way home from work. Here, a young man out jogging just metres from home. This is an upmarket area. A rich neighbourhood with security, very heavy security on the front gate but it doesn't matter. It seems anyone can be bought, anyone can be paid off to get access to a fellow like this if they really want to get him. It is a war. Since January, more than 3,500 people have been killed as Mexico's four main cartels fight for turf. A bloody and vicious battle for control of the drug routes into the United States. Mexico has taken over from Colombia as the world's number one drug trafficking nation. Cocaine, amphetamines, marijuana - tonnes of it - A trade worth a staggering $70 billion a year. And Tijuana, right next to the border, is the gateway into America.

ALBERTO CAPELLA: You have to fight.

MICHAEL USHER: I've heard locals describe you as Tijuana's Rambo.

ALBERTO CAPELLA: Hah!

MICHAEL USHER: Are you Tijuana's Rambo?

ALBERTO CAPELLA: I have a little complaint from Sylvester Stallone right now. I try to go around the city in very low profile.

MICHAEL USHER: Hard to move around in low profile, though, when you've got up to 20 bodyguards in a convoy travelling with you in an armoured vehicle.

ALBERTO CAPELLA: (LAUGHS) Well, I say, "we try!"

MICHAEL USHER: Try? This gutsy 36-year-old has already survived one attempt on his life - an all-out assault on his family home.

ALBERTO CAPELLA: So I wake up and when I saw that, I was being incredible scared because I know they did not come to take a a cup of coffee, no? They came for me.

MICHAEL USHER: You returned fire. You started shooting at them?

ALBERTO CAPELLA: Of course, yeah, because they shoot like 250, 200 times and I shoot 25 times.

MICHAEL USHER: And what happened, you won?

ALBERTO CAPELLA: Well, I still here.

MICHAEL USHER: And he's here to stay unless the drug cartels kill him first. Alberto's entire family is now in hiding. His office is a fortress. He knows what would have happened if the cartels had taken him alive.

ALBERTO CAPELLA: I knew it in that moment, they probably go against me, to kidnap me, to make some torture against me. And take some video and send the video to the media and an after that - kill me, no?

MICHAEL USHER: Like Middle East terrorists, the drug gangs kidnap, torture, extract confessions and post it all on the Internet, even the executions.

ALEJANDRA GOMEZ: I have a four-year-old cousin and I told her, "Let's go get some ice-cream" and she said, "OK, but we'll eat it inside because of the executions." Alejandra Gomez knows, more than most, the horror of the drug wars.

ALEJANDRA GOMEZ: There was more than 500 shots. They they killed my mother when she was pregnant. They killed my grandmother and they killed my dad's best friend.

MICHAEL USHER: 500 bullets into that car?

ALEJANDRA GOMEZ: Yes.

MICHAEL USHER: Her mother was one of Mexico's most fearless journalists.

ALEJANDRA GOMEZ: She made some people angry and there was retaliation because of that.

MICHAEL USHER: Alejandra has watched the country she knows and loves disappear under a tidal wave of violence.

ALEJANDRA GOMEZ: It is sad because this place reminds me of the true Mexico.

MICHAEL USHER: The markets in her hometown of Juarez are empty of the Americans who once poured across the border in search of bargains and good times. And the drug wars have made it a no-go zone?

ALEJANDRA GOMEZ: Yeah, slowly tourists have stopped coming.

MICHAEL USHER: Now, like her mother, Alejandra is herself a journalist writing about the war zone outside her front door.

ALEJANDRA GOMEZ: We know exactly what to do. We just drop to the floor and we try to save our lives. There used to be a code of ethics and you weren't supposed to touch children, you weren't supposed to touch woman. Now you see that they're killing children, they're killing women.

MICHAEL USHER: The drug war may be at its absolute worst, the cartels ruining lives and neighbourhoods. But believe it or not, these drug runners, the narco-traffickers, have their own patron saint, a man by the name of Jesus Malverde. A Mexican bandit, sort of like a Ned Kelly figure. And this is extraordinary, have a look in here - they have built a shrine to the man. It has become one of the most visited, most holy sites in all of Mexico. They light a candle, they kneel, they pray to this figure who they believe will help them deliver their drugs successfully across the border and get them home safely. This is where they come - the hit men, the drug mules, the 'Mr Bigs' and their women - all praying this narco-saint will watch over them. It doesn't always work. Not if this bloke has anything to do with it.

ARVIN WEST: These are all bundles of marijuana.

MICHAEL USHER: This is all marijuana and in here as well?

ARVIN WEST: Marijuana, right.

MICHAEL USHER: Arvin West is Sheriff of Hudspeth County, Texas. Like Alberto Capella on the other side of the border, Sheriff West is another tough cop on the front-line of this war.

ARVIN WEST: Stick around in here for a while and you'll get stoned.

MICHAEL USHER: His storeroom is stacked to the ceiling with drugs seized in just the last few months.

ARVIN WEST: Before it gets to the checkpoint it's probably worth about $100. This right here in Chicago is worth probably $800.

MICHAEL USHER: The men, women and children who haul these loads across the border on their backs are called drug mules and when you feel how much these packs weigh, you can see why. Oh, gees. ALVIN WEST: And they'll walk 30-, 40-, 50 miles...

MICHAEL USHER: That is heavy. ALVIN WEST: ..With that on their back.

MICHAEL USHER: Gees, it it takes your breath away, I can tell you that. Every arrest is potentially deadly for Sheriff West and his men. The drug runners are armed and dangerous.

ARVIN WEST: This one was seized coming back from Mexico. This was a guy we picked up on the border.

MICHAEL USHER: And most of these weapons were bought across the counter in America. This can do some damage?

ARVIN WEST: Real quick, real quick.

MICHAEL USHER: Arvin West's county jail is full of drug traffickers and believe it or not, for many of them it's not the first time they've been caught. This is Anthony's second stint for running marijuana across the border. Why did you do it?

ANTHONY: Ah, fast cash. Money is good, money is fast, it's easy. You know, just ride through, it's a quick trip and you've got a bunch of cash.

MICHAEL USHER: You went down into Mexico, you found the stuff, packaged it up?

ANTHONY: Like a lot of a lot of people say that's how America was built. You know, find something cheap and sell it at a greater price and that's what we were trying to do.

MICHAEL USHER: What a take on the American dream. But it's easy to see why they're tempted. This border is wide open. We're walking in the US right here, but if we look here it changes, right?

JOE ROMERO: Correct. What we've got over here is Mexico, and the mighty Rio Grande here is not so mighty, it's a dirt bed.

MICHAEL USHER: Little wonder the US border patrol is fighting a losing battle to stop the flow of drugs into America.

JOE ROMERO: A person or vehicle can easily come across. You can drive a vehicle through here, you can run across. There's nothing to impede you.

MICHAEL USHER: Every day, Mexican spotters simply watch for the moment for their drug mules to cross. He was back that way a bit. A farcical game of cat and mouse played out under our noses.

JOE ROMERO: And it's not just the drugs we're dealing with. Where there's drugs there's guns, and where there's guns there's violence. And that violence is full-blown in Mexico right now - it's a full-blown war.

MICHAEL USHER: So, what's America doing to keep the war from spilling across the border? It's building a fence. But one that will only go through city areas, leaving another 1,000km of border completely open.

ARVIN WEST: I've got 100 miles of border in my county. over 50 miles of it you can cross without even being detected.

MICHAEL USHER: Just walk across it?

ARVIN WEST: Just walk across?

MICHAEL USHER: No problems at all?

ARVIN WEST: And if you don't want to get your feet wet, the Federal Government, our Federal Government in conjunction with Mexico have placed bridges up and down this border, just so if you want to keep your shoes from getting wet, you can cross at one of these unmanned bridges.

MICHAEL USHER: Come on over.

ARVIN WEST: Come on, yeah, sure.

MICHAEL USHER: And Sheriff West has proof the drug traffickers are protected on the Mexican side of the border. When Hudspeth County deputies took off in hot pursuit of a car loaded with marijuana, the drug runners high-tailed it back to the border. Where they were met by a squad of heavily armed Mexican soldiers... ..Who trained their weapons on Arvin West's deputies.

ARVIN WEST: They held my officers at bay. Then they retrieved the narcotics out of the vehicle safely into Mexico and then they set the vehicle on fire.

MICHAEL USHER: And they helped drug runners get back across the border?

ARVIN WEST: They did then, they did before and they're still doing it today.

MICHAEL USHER: Is it any wonder the drug lords are winning? But if they do, it will be, literally, over the dead body of Alberto Capella, now the only cop in Mexico willing to tackle the drug cartels head on.

ALBERTO CAPELLA: Every morning I wake up and I say, "Thank you God for giving me these extra moments." No. It's not easy.

MICHAEL USHER: And then, as we talk, Chief Capella is passed a note. Two of his men have just been gunned down.

MICHAEL USHER: This is a bad, this is bad news for you?

ALBERTO CAPELLA: Yeah, but we took somebody right now.

MICHAEL USHER: You have an arrest?

ALBERTO CAPELLA: Yes, finally.

MICHAEL USHER: And with that, we head out with Alberto Capella to the scene of the ambush. Another high-speed dash through the streets of Tijuana. For the Tijuana police, and their new boss, another grim reminder of the fate that awaits those who stand up to the cartels. How does it make you feel, these are your officers shot and killed in broad daylight?

ALBERTO CAPELLA: It's impossible to think we are going to fight a war in the level of this one without this kind of consequence.

MICHAEL USHER: It's a sombre police chief who heads back to police headquarters where his men are gearing up for all-out war. There's only one piece of good news. Some of the killers have been arrested. And it's clear Capella's men have not treated them gently.

ALBERTO CAPELLA: Our justice is very bad, very bad. Is not the fair fight, OK, because we fight against them to arrest them. They fight against us to kill us.

MICHAEL USHER: For many ordinary Mexicans, the best hope of peace is that one of the cartels will finally wipe out its rivals. But for Alberto Capella, that's not good enough. For him, it's personal and it's a fight to the death.

ALBERTO CAPELLA: My only concern is what is going to be the final price we are going to pay.

MICHAEL USHER: But price you pay could be your life?

ALBERTO CAPELLA: I am 100% sure we are going to win this war but I don't know if I am going to see that.

MICHAEL USHER: Well, good luck with your fight and stay alive.

ALBERTO CAPELLA: Thank you.

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