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.”

But wait—the firefight took place not in Nuevo Laredo but in Matamoros, which is nearly 200 miles away, and Burnett does not say the Zetas were involved. If you listen to the story closely, it’s clear that Burnett, unable to find anyone in Nuevo Laredo who regards the Zetas as a major public menace, has to cross the border to find someone who does. Again, we’re never told why this cartel deserves so much airtime.

This genre of reporting is actually quite old, dating back to the days of Pablo Escobar and the Medellín Cartel. Journalists loved writing about the Wild-West-like operations and lifestyle of those criminals, and of the valiant efforts of drug enforcers to take them down. They finally were toppled, of course. But you know what? The drug trade has continued. The same is true of the Mexican cartels. These organizations are in the end completely interchangeable. When one trafficker is taken out, another rises to take his place. When one cartel is smashed, another quickly grabs its turf. Over the last thirty years, the U.S. has sent billions of dollars to countries like Mexico and Colombia, dispatched legions of agents to the region, dispatched helicopters, fumigation squads, eradication teams, and justice advisers, yet heroin, cocaine, and marijuana continue to flood our country. And the reason is clear: Americans continue to crave the stuff. We are the ones who sustain the drug trade; we are the ones who in the end are mostly responsible for the drug violence that periodically erupts in Mexico. You’ll almost never see a journalist explore this, however. It isn’t sexy. What is sexy are the cartels, and so the pretense about their lethal impact on the United States must be maintained.

Michael Massing is a contributing editor to CJR and the author of Now They Tell Us: The American Press and Iraq.