Reporting the Drug War

LAT’s commendable multimedia effort on Mexico’s drug war

Props to the Los Angeles Times for its ongoing series, “Mexico under Siege,” which examines the complexities of that country’s drug war and its steeply increasing death toll.

A recent article looks at drug-related killings in Ciudad Juarez, a “sprawling border city that has registered more than 1,350 slayings in 2008, about a fourth of the country’s total.” It’s a strong argument for in-person reporting, and a reminder that this sort of coverage is not seen nearly as often as it should be (at the LAT and elsewhere). (The explainer at the top of the article reads: “Two journalists visiting the border city for three days find that death is always just around the corner.”)

Reporter Ken Ellingwood, the paper’s Mexico correspondent, vividly contextualizes the ambush shootings and the war between rival cartels and the Mexican military that plague Juarez. He also manages to describe the deadening pall cast by the overwhelming number of such killings—more than 5,300 this year countrywide. Leading with an anecdote of two men killed in their car by gunshots (fifty-two of them, in broad daylight), Ellingwood places himself in the crowd that surrounds the bodies:

“That’s 12 today?” a young man standing nearby asks, in the matter-of-fact tone of a baseball fan confirming the number of strikeouts. “Ten,” I answer, meaning that 10 people have been slain in Ciudad Juarez so far on this chilly Tuesday. It is barely 3 in the afternoon. Seven more people will die later, bringing the day’s total to 17 in the city of 1.3 million residents.

The young man nods. Around us, amid cut-rate dentist offices and bars with names like Club Safari, the looky-loos keep their rapt silence as workers from the coroner’s office wrestle the newest victims from their car.

The series recently served up another small snippet, called “23 seconds of the Mexican drug war,” this one reaching back to the near past—the 2007 killing of four people in a small jewelry store in Monterrey, Mexico, by three gunmen. One of the victims was a police commander, Benjamin Espinosa, and journalist Sam Quinones, who won Columbia’s Cabot Prize this year for outstanding reporting on Latin America, made it clear that these shootings were supposed to send a message.

Quinones, reporting directly from Monterrey, revisited the killings nearly two years after the fact, supplementing details of the crime with history about the buildup of drug activity in the area surrounding Monterrey. That’s commendable, because it brings some much needed sense to the daily-increasing number of dead. (The Washington Post’s William Booth, another reporter who is keeping tabs on the drug war, provided some grounding for that overwhelming number in a recent article about the murder of a top federal prosecutor in Ciudad Juarez. Writing about his visit to the city morgue, Booth brought readers closer to the city’s gruesome reality: “In the Juarez morgue, the three walk-in freezers are filled to capacity with more than 90 corpses, stacked floor to ceiling, in leaking white bags with zippers. After a few months, those who are not identified are buried in a field at the city cemetery at the edge of the desert.”)

To help readers visualize the steeply rising number of deaths in Mexico’s most drug-addled areas, the LAT series includes the same sort of interactive graphics that the paper used to successfully track California’s Proposition 8 contributions earlier this year: overlaying a map of Mexico with differently sized circles to indicate the number of drug-related deaths that have occurred in each state since January 2007. Accompanying the map are photographs, a comprehensive list of the articles written for the series (sixty or so since June), and a video forum where reporters can respond to reader questions (for responses from Quinones and LAT border reporter Richard Marosi, click here).

The manpower isn’t huge, but is nonetheless considerable. It incorporates reported and video efforts based out of the Mexico City bureau (headed by Tracy Wilkinson) and the multimedia skills of a group that includes Sean Connelley and Katy Newton, the couple behind Not Just a Number, an award-winning community journalism project that sought to put a human face on Oakland-area homicides.

The death toll continues to increase: today brings news of twelve beheadings scattered through the southern state of Guerrero, likely acts of retribution following a shootout in Guerrero during which soldiers killed several gunmen. In light of recent rumors that the LAT might begin to outsource its foreign coverage, the “Mexico under Siege” series could very well be a swan song for the Times’s international reporting. If it is, then it’s a strong final note.

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Jane Kim is a writer in New York.