Which country is most routinely miscovered in the U.S. press? There are clearly many candidates, but for me one stands out: Mexico. My judgment has no doubt been affected by the fact that I spent a year in that country after graduating college, working as a reporter for the Mexico City News, a quirky English-language daily that was a magnet for young North American journalists interested in Latin America. In the 1990s, I followed events in Mexico while researching a book (The Fix) about the war on drugs, and in 2001 I wrote a piece for CJR criticizing the coverage of that country (“Seeing Mexico”).
Sad to say, things have not improved. Actually, since President Felipe Calderon declared war on the Mexican drug trade nearly three years ago, the coverage has only deteriorated. When it comes to Mexico, U.S. journalists seem interested in only four things: drugs, traffickers, violence, and corruption (with an occasional nod toward immigration). Journalists peddle a sort of drug-war pornography, salaciously and insatiably dwelling on the most lurid aspects of the trade: narcos, gangs, smugglers, pipelines, cells, mass graves, severed heads, torture chambers, dirty cops. Journalists promiscuously quote DEA agents, eagerly accompany undercover cops on ride-alongs, descend daringly into drug-infested neighborhoods, and intrepidly interview members of the drug trade.
There are so many examples of miscoverage that it’s almost unfair to single any out, but last week NPR’s Morning Edition featured two textbook cases. Both had to do with the Mexican cartels, a subject that endlessly mesmerizes reporters. On October 1, the focus was the Michoacán-based La Familia. “Unlike some of the Mexican cartels that have existed for decades,” Jason Beaubien declared, “La Familia is relatively new. It burst into the headlines in 2006 when one of their members threw five severed heads onto a dance floor in Morelia.” We learned how cartel gunmen abducted twelve federal police officers and dumped their tortured bodies in a pile on the side of a highway; how the cartel is trying to “capture the hearts and minds of the population” (a paradoxical activity that’s catnip to journalists); how the main port “isn’t a normal port town” but a place where “tension is in the air” and “federal police patrol the streets in dark blue pickup tucks.” La Familia’s influence, Beaubien told us, extends “far beyond narcotics,” into the selling of pirated DVDs, the moving of migrants, and the running of kidnapping and extortion rackets. What all this added up to, and why La Familia merited such attention, Beaubien never said.
The next day, it was the turn of the Zetas of Nuevo Laredo. “Here on the Tex-Mex border,” John Burnett began, “the Zetas are mythic, their crimes chronicled in the media and memorialized in narco-ballads.” After the requisite soundbite of Mexican music, Burnett observed that the Zetas are “the most feared, most emulated criminals in Mexico. But who are the Zetas? I started my search with the DEA’s head of intelligence, Anthony Placido.” Dutifully playing his part, Placido declared the Zetas to be “every bit as ferocious and as capable as a military force as some of the rumors believe them to be.”
In describing the Zetas’ reign, however, Burnett runs into a problem. Since a violent three-year turf war ended in 2007, Nuevo Laredo has actually been rather calm. A journalist tells him that the locals, though still wary, “feel more secure now.” Nuevo Laredo, the mayor says, is “very, very, very tranquil.” But this, Burnett alerts us, is the “official story.” To get a “clearer picture of what the Zetas are doing in Nuevo Laredo,” he says, “you actually have to cross the international bridge to Laredo, where people are not as afraid to talk.” Here he finds a border cop who, after eighteen years in the field, professes to be “shocked by the cartels’ gruesome games of one-upmanship.” He recounts how the cartel cuts off heads and puts them in fifty-five-gallon drums, then fills the drums with gasoline and sets them on fire. A strategic analyst describes how the Zetas have expanded into such auxiliary lines as extortion, kidnapping, and oil siphoning. As for the Zetas’ influence in the United States, Burnett notes that the DEA regards the “spillover violence” from their activities as “minimal,” but, determined to portray the traffickers in the most fearsome light possible, he informs us that the Zetas “don’t necessarily have to cross the border to be dangerous.” On September 4, he notes,
there was a firefight between traffickers and Mexican soldiers in the streets of Matamoros, right across the Rio Grande from the University of Texas at Brownsville. Bullets flew across the river and struck the rec center and a parked car on campus….
“So who are the Zetas?” Burnett ominously concludes. “They’re very, very dangerous.”