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How can Mexico’s violent drug cartels operate with impunity? This week on FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT

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Tens of thousands are missing, many more murdered. So why are Mexico’s violent drug cartels operating with impunity? We go inside the most powerful cartel to meet the footsoldiers. Corruption, they say, goes right to the top.

In Mexico’s Sinaloa state, violence has become a way of life.

Home to the country’s most powerful drug syndicate, the Sinaloa cartel, murders and disappearances are rife.

The police, meant to protect the population, are often the targets of violence. Over 500 officers were killed in Mexico last year.

They’re also often complicit, with corruption in the police force and government a major problem.

In this shocking portrait of a country caught in the grip of organised crime, reporter Ben Zand takes us where few have gone – inside the Sinaloa cartel in the Sierra Madre mountains where he witnesses the group’s operations up close.

From their hidden base, the group grows poppies and marijuana for export, fends off outsiders with guns and bribes visiting police and security officers with money and women.

“The government is the one in charge” say the local leader. “The cartel is only as big as the government wants us to be.”

A gun-wielding 13-year-old says that the violence stems from the drug trade. “If there weren’t any drugs people wouldn’t be killing each other over them.”

Commentator Ioan Grillo believes that the police and military used to have the upper hand with the cartels but says that’s now changed.

Some of the cartels have become much more powerful,” says Grillo. “[now] thecartel is actually bullying and controlling elements ofthesecurity forces.”

It’s the community who’s paying the price for corruption and impunity.

Mirna Quiñones’ son disappeared suddenly 7 years ago. When police refused to help her, she set out to find him herself.

She went on to set up the Trackers of El Fuerte group which helps parents looking for their children. In the last six years of searching, they’ve uncovered over two hundred bodies.

“There is no justice. We all know that.  I have been threatened by the municipal police here. The government and crime are united.”

Interior Minister, Olga Sánchez Cordero, concedes there is corruption.“The trials, and the investigations, are deficient”, she says. Lawyers are threatened. Judges are threatened. That is just the reality.”

But she maintains the government is doing its best to investigate the cartels and to undermine their support base.

Investigative journalist Anabel Hernández disagrees, saying she has no faith that the government of Andrés Manuel López Obrador, elected two and half years ago, will tackle the problem.

“He promised to do something different but….it’s just the same. Nothing changed. In some parts it’s worse.

Watch Cartel Country on Foreign Correspondent – Thursday 22 July at 8pm on ABC TV + ABC iview.

You can watch replays on Fridays at 1pm (local) on ABC TV, and on ABC NEWS channel on Fridays at 12:30am, Saturdays at 9:30pm, Sundays at 1:30pm and 6:30pm (all times AEST).

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