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Casualties of the Mexican drug war

Margarita Castillo worries that members of her family who remain in Mexico could get caught in the crossfire of a war raging between two rival cartels who are fighting over the lucrative drug smuggling route to the Western United States.

Castillo, who owns La Placita, an eight-store mini-mall on West Main Street in Medford, said the cartels have put law-abiding, hard-working Mexican citizens at risk because of the violence ripping across the nation.

"People who aren't involved with the mafia types might just be walking by and be killed by guns," Castillo said.

Outside of La Placita a man, who did not wish to be named but who has visited his family in Mexico recently, said that the cartels mostly kill each other in an attempt to monopolize the drug market in the United States.

"I don't know of anyone in the area I live dying in the violence," he said. "But the gangsters are being killed right and left."

In 2006, Mexico President Felipe Calderon announced a full-on war against the cartels operating in his country. Since that offensive began, more than 45,000 people have been killed and hundreds of thousands of citizens displaced, according to The Associated Press.

The violence south of the border has been well-documented.

But you would be wrong if you thought it's limited to Mexico, says Sylvia Longmire, an author and former officer and investigative special agent in the Air Force. Longmire, whose recently published book is titled, "Cartel: The Coming Invasion of Mexico's Drug Wars," has dedicated years to studying Mexican cartels and sees them as a danger to residents of Mexico and the United States alike.

"Anyone who thinks that the violence is happening only in Mexico is not aware of the reality of the situation," Longmire said. "There is a lot of proof that the cartels are committing violent crimes within the United States."

Longmire points to a Texas shooting in which a Hidalgo County sheriff's deputy was seriously injured Oct. 31 while responding to a reported kidnapping and drug deal near the border, as reported in the Houston Chronicle.

In March, a man was found beheaded in a home in suburban Phoenix. Police there linked the killing to a marijuana deal gone bad and believe members of the PEI-Estatales/El Chapo drug cartel carried out the hit. The victim allegedly had stolen 400 pounds of pot from the cartel, Reuters reported.

Longmire said there have been reports of semitrailers shot up outside Houston by members of the Los Zetas cartel.

"This happened in the middle of a major highway outside Houston," Longmire said. "So, the violence is very much here."

Jackson County Sheriff Mike Winters says it may be "here" in Houston, but not here in Jackson County. "We haven't seen this level of violence here and it's unlikely we will since it's so far from their home base.

"But we are not ruling anything out."

Longmire faults the mayors and civic leaders of towns and cities across the border for not being more vocal about the cartel violence creeping into their areas.

"They don't want to admit it because they want people to think the problems are all on the Mexico side," she said. "There's a real head-in-the-sand mentality."

Longmire adds that solutions will remain elusive as long as politics gets in the way of action when dealing with cartels.

"We don't have the resources to stop all the drugs from entering the country and there's such a huge demand here," she said. "And we're not going to legalize drugs, so where does that leave us?"

Drug legalization?

According to a group of former drug cops and prosecutors, the only sure way to derail the cartels is to hit them where it hurts the most: their profits. They propose to do that by legalizing drugs in the United States, which would drive down the price of marijuana and narcotics distributed by the cartels.

That's the position taken by Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), a Bay Area-based organization comprised of former cops and criminal prosecutors.

"We think prohibition needs to end and drugs should be moved into a legal and regulated market," said LEAP spokesman Tom Angell. "This will deal a bigger blow to cartels than anything law enforcement can do."

Angell says the interdiction strategy by law enforcement has proved a dismal failure, as the flow of drugs into the United States has increased over the years and drug violence here and in Mexico continues unabated.

"We can't make the cartels' market go away without making the demand go away," Angell said.

Angell points to a recent "Fast and Furious" debacle involving the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and Explosives in which guns were sold by federal undercover agents in an attempt to track them back to cartel leaders.

"This shows a desperation by law enforcement that they would be willing to risk putting guns in the hands of cartels in order to make arrests," Angell said. "It's not helping anyone other than the cartels, at this point."

In an New York Times editorial, Longmire said that while drug legalization should be considered because it would lower expensive prison populations across the country and free law enforcement to focus on other crimes, it wouldn't be the magic bullet that would end the cartels influence.

Winters, who is not a proponent of drug legalization, said the strategy would only work if every country in the world legalized drugs at the same time.

"It'll never happen," Winters said. "There will always be a large market somewhere. And you would find cartels there ready to hit the ground to make money."

Angell agrees that legalization is not a perfect solution to the nation's drug problem, but says it would be a start toward a manageable drug policy.

"You would still have drug abuse and the issues that causes," Angell said. "But at least we would then treat addiction as a health issue and not a criminal one."

In the meantime, Castillo's family members continue trying to live their lives in a country that is becoming increasingly dominated by a drug war that shows no signs of letting up anytime soon.

Castillo is quick to say that the cartels do not define Mexico and its citizens.

"A lot of attention is being paid to this 5 percent that is bad," she said. "You don't hear as much about the 95 percent of people in Mexico who just want to go to work every day and take care of their families."

She points to a group of Latino shoppers entering her store to shop with their spouses and children.

"Most people are just like them," she said.

Reach reporter Chris Conrad at 541-776-4471; or email cconrad@mailtribune.com.

Margarita Castillo, owner of La Placita in Medford, says she fears not only for her familiy in Mexico because of drug cartel violence, but also for the perception of Latinos in Southern Oregon. - Julia Moore