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.
A particularly good example of how this is done appeared on the front page of The New York Times last May. “In Heartland Death, Traces of Heroin’s Spread” focused on a spike in heroin overdoses in small-town Ohio. Rather than investigate the local conditions that might have caused this problem, the Times focused on one particular culprit: Mexico. Beginning anecdotally (as such stories inevitably do) with the death of Arthur Eisel IV, a thirty-one-year-old in Grove City, Ohio, reporter Randal C. Archibold observed that,
To the federal government, which prosecuted the heroin dealers for Mr. Eisel’s death, it was a stark illustration of how Mexican drug cartels have pushed heroin sales beyond major cities into America’s suburban and rural byways, some of which had seen little heroin before….
Federal officials now consider the cartels the greatest organized crime threat to the United States. Officials says the groups are taking over heroin distribution from Colombians and Dominicans and making new inroads across the country, pushing a powerful form of heroin grown and processed in Mexico known as “black tar” for its dark color and sticky texture.
Actually, Mexican black-tar heroin has been around for years. In drug-war reporting, however, the drugs themselves must always be made to seem new and exotic. “The case of Arthur Eisel and the men arrested for selling him heroin,” we’re told, “shows how the traffickers pushed their product and how in Mr. Eisel, already addicted to expensive pain killers because of a back injury, they found a ready customer for heroin, which was cheaper.” We’re then off into the world of drug cells, gangs, pipelines, smugglers, and all the rest.
But wait—the fellow was already addicted to painkillers. And, it turns out, his two brothers were similarly hooked. It was only after their supplies of OxyContin dried up and their dealer suggested heroin that they tried it and “quickly developed an addiction.” Given their prior dependence, it would seem worth exploring what was taking place in the Eisel family, and in Grove City, to have caused such dysfunction. Doing so, however, might undermine the presumption—unquestioningly accepted by journalists—that Mexico is a pusher nation forcing drugs on unsuspecting Americans. For the U.S. press, the fault is never in ourselves, but always south of the border.
In all this, it’s remarkable how rarely the Times, NPR, and other U.S. news organizations examine the truly serious challenges facing Mexico, from its severe economic problems, to its crushing poverty, to the stranglehold that the country’s oligarchy has on the nation’s wealth. Even rarer are mentions of the fact that this desperately poor country is home to the world’s third richest man (according to Forbes magazine), who, it should be noted, earlier this year helped bail the Times out from its financial woes by extending it a $250-million loan.
Some readers will no doubt disagree with my decision to award Mexico top honors in the misreporting sweepstakes. I welcome other nominations.