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.”
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.