I do find myself limiting what I can do. But more and more I think it’s gone from the country of my ancestor’s roots, to covering a country at war. You have to think of it that way: in the end this is a war. What’s even worse about that is that it’s not a war of ideology. It’s really a war based on greed. And so it’s really a lot easier for people to kill you, because no information is good information for them. So I try not to let fear be the ultimate editor, but I do listen to fear a lot. I think that factor, the factor of fear, can help you stay alive.
Why do you think cartel violence has gotten so bad lately? Is there any way to analyze the scope of it, the trajectory of it? Can you predict where it will go; is it just going to keep getting worse all the time?
There are generally three factors that tell you why it got worse. One is, in the late eighties and early nineties, when the United States basically ended up blocking the drug trade from Colombia to the United States via the Caribbean and South Florida, the U.S. successfully pushed the flow into Central America and into Mexico. That was a huge policy shift. And then, number two, you had the democratic opening in Mexico in the late nineties and early 2000s, with the election of Vicente Fox, the first opposition government in seventy-one years. That left a political vacuum in Mexico. In the old days, cartels and the government kind of operated side by side: [the cartels] were there, but the government was able to kind of control them, kind of limit what they could and couldn’t do. After 2000, the cartels saw a vacuum, and they basically took over. They took over city governments, they took over police departments, even NGOs and, eventually, the press. And then the last factor, I think, has been the economic recession in the United States. It’s affected Mexico; you almost have a narco-economy. You have all these people who used to have regular jobs, who are now working as watchmen [for the cartels], from the drug carrier to the assassin. It’s like this whole economy has developed.
Unfortunately, I think everybody agrees that things will get worse before they get better. Whenever I talk to Colombians, they depress the hell out of me. They say that things are not as bad in Mexico as they should be, and they will get worse. And until civil society wakes up and decides what kind of Mexico they want to see, you will just see it gradually get worse. I think Juarez is about to set a new record, probably by the end of the week. Last year [the number of homicides] was 2,600, and right now [October 25] we’re up to about 2,590, or something like that, and we’re two months away from the end of the year.
Mexico is our neighbor, but it’s so underreported in the United States. Why is that, and what can the American press do to rectify it?
I think we’re slowly grappling with the significance of what this all means. For the longest time, Mexico was a place you vacationed in; you went to Cancun, you liked the food, you liked the Tequila, you liked the mariachi music. It was just a country, kind of like Canada, it was just there. Now, even when I talk to my colleagues and other foreign correspondents, there’s a new sense of urgency. We’re making the turn, we’re making the change, we’re all adjusting to the fact that this is a country at war.
As foreign correspondents we used to travel all over the country; now we don’t. We’re basically locked up in Mexico City. We get on a plane, we fly in somewhere, we get in, and then we get out.