L.A. Times' Sam Quinones on Immigration Coverage, Drug Cartels

By Jerry Kammer and Jerry Kammer on March 20, 2009

Sam Quinones, the Los Angeles Times reporter whose combination of compassion, clear-eyed realism, and graceful prose has made him a penetrating observer of immigration and border issues, spoke proudly today of his newspaper's commitment to covering the issue even at a time of severe economic stress at the paper (and at nearly every other metro daily in the country). Appearing on C-SPAN's "Washington Journal," Quinones also described how Mexican drug cartels have insinuated themselves into immigrant communities in the U.S.

Quinones said Davan Maharaj, who was elevated last April from Business Editor to Managing editor of the Times, "ordered us to begin covering this in a more in-depth and focused way than we have been and (than) any other paper has covered up to now . . . Instead of getting mired in the dour circumstances we are facing and the dire circumstances as well, he decided, 'Let's set our sights higher.' . . . We think it's enormously important, woefully under covered."

On the presence of the cartels in the U.S., Quinones said:

"Cartels, like every mafia, have come into this country and thrived on the backs of the immigrant group it's a part of -- the Italian mafia, of course, being the main one. The Mexican cartels are no different. They go to areas where there are lots of Mexican immigrants. The difference is, of course, that we now have Mexican immigrants as our working class. From Atlanta to Anchorage -- every place in between -- Tennessee, Kentucky, Ohio, Minnesota. Places where Mexicans never were before they are now . . . . The cartels understand that's a perfect place to hide out, a perfect place to do their business. Maybe they even have relatives in these areas. And a lot of these places become new hubs of distribution. I was speaking with the DEA in Columbus, Ohio. Columbus, Ohio, now has 50,000 Mexican immigrants in it. It has now become a heroin distribution point for cartel drug traffickers from the state of Sinaloa and the neighboring state of Nayarit. All of this is related because . . . a lot of folks are illegal they can't talk to the police very easily . . . They're afraid of these guys because these guys are extremely intimidating. It's a place where people know that they can hide out."

Quinones said the ongoing wave of violence in Mexico, as drug traffickers battle Mexican government forces, while at the same time fighting each other for turf and smuggling corridors, follows decades of complicity on the part of Mexican government officials. "For many years in the '70s and '80s, elements of the Mexican government facilitated this industry. I mean, they helped these traffickers figure out these routes that are now in dispute. They are the ones that helped the traffickers figure out, okay, this route is yours; this route over here is the other guy's, and so on . . . .This is part and parcel of what's happening. And the current government is attempting to confront this problem."