Writing The War On Drugs

Why do so few American papers report on the trade in their backyard?

What if American law enforcement agents arrested more than six hundred drug dealing suspects in more than twenty cities across the country in just two days and nobody noticed?

On February 24, that’s exactly what happened as raids targeted drug gangs in cities all over the United States. In two days, 676 people were arrested and authorities confiscated $12 million, 282 weapons, ninety-four vehicles, and large packages of drugs.

It was one of the largest operations against drug cartels operating in the United States in recent years. These gangs were allegedly part of the vast structure that moves millions of dollars worth of drugs out of Mexico and into American neighborhoods in hundreds of cities. But did anyone notice?

As the arrests and seizures were reported by the DEA, FBI, and local law enforcement agencies, the front pages in the cities where the operation unfolded were concerned mostly with the latest developments in Libya, thousands of miles away. The arrests made in their cities, of people selling drugs to their residents, did not seem to have the same news value.
For papers like the Los Angeles Times, The Arizona Republic in Phoenix, The Dallas Morning News, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the Chicago Tribune, The Denver Post, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Detroit Free Press, or the Newark Star-Ledger, news of the arrests did not make their front pages, even though these cities were part of the operation.

The New York Times ran a small teaser on the front page (their main story is here, as did the Houston Chronicle, where the raid resulted in a shootout and a local cop was wounded. Only a handful of papers, like the San Antonio Express-News,The San Diego Union-Tribune, El Paso Times, and in cities along the Rio Grande Valley gave the story some space on their front pages.

Watching from across the border, this was shocking. Raids against drug cartels and coverage of criminal activities surrounding the drug trade frequently jump to the front pages of Mexican newspapers. We experience the war on drugs every day through the violence employed by the cartels trying to control territories across the country. It has left almost 40,000 people dead in its wake.

But in Mexico, whenever raids or arrests don’t make the front page, the reason is frequently not lack of interest, but an abundance of caution. In the past four years, drug cartels have killed more than ten journalists, kidnapped dozens more, and carried out scores of attacks against newspaper offices or TV stations with gunfire and grenades. The objective: burying coverage of their activities.

I know this because I am a newspaper editor in Mexico, and in the past few years I have learned to take into account more than the news value of a crime story. But as far as I know, no threat exists against the US media—and so, the fact that such a significant raid against local drug gangs didn’t make the front pages of the local newspapers looked kind of strange.

Strange, but not new.. For years the absence of stories about how drugs are moved and traded inside the United States has sparked my curiosity. Ten years ago, while a graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin, I did a content analysis of how several American news outlets portrayed the war on drugs in Mexico and in the United States. I uncovered two main narratives. The one about Mexico focused on government corruption, the cartels’ structure, their control of local law enforcement, and the way they move drugs across the country. The narrative about the US dealt mostly with drug addiction and stories about prevention and rehabilitation programs.

I did not find a single story about how the drugs moved inside the United States, something that I found absurd, because people don’t buy the drugs off trucks at the border. I could not find one story detailing what happened after a drug shipment crossed the border, how those shipments were split, repackaged and transported from El Paso, Laredo, or San Diego to hundreds of American cities and into the hands of drug users. There wasn’t a word about the corridors used to move the drugs, or about the trucks or planes delivering them to the local dealers.

Ten years later, the pattern has stuck. But my surprise is greater now because in the past four years the war on drugs in Mexico has left a trail of violence, horror, and pain that has been a fixture in American media outlets. Correspondents from major American papers in Mexico have done a great job covering the drug cartels and sometimes exposing stories that are too dangerous for the Mexican press to report. But local coverage inside the United States is still absent. In any American paper, we are more likely to find details of the latest massacre in Ciudad Juárez than a story on how drug gangs operate in any American city.

Fortunately, there is not a wave of violence in the United States like the one ravaging Mexico, but that doesn’t mean there is not a problem. As noted in a recent report by the National Drug Intelligence Center of the Justice Department, Mexican drug cartels run operations in more than two hundred cities in the United States. According to the report, the Sinaloa cartel has presence in seventy-five cities, the Gulf cartel in at least thirty-seven cities, the Juárez Cartel in over thirty cities. And yet the American public knows very little about those networks.

To be fair, there are notable exceptions to the lack of coverage. CBS News recently revealed how an operation by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms to monitor the sale of weapons to Mexican cartels lost track of more than 2,000 weapons and put them in the hands of drug lords.

Last March, a series in The Dallas Morning News exposed how the Zetas cartel operates in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, relying on immigrants that keep their ties to Mexico, and carrying out killings using the same methods employed south of the border.

Last year, The Washington Post detailed the disguises couriers used to move drugs from the border.

Two years ago, The New York Times ran a detailed story about the “black tar” heroin trade in the American heartland, where cartels used immigrants to move the drugs. That was followed up a year ago by the Los Angeles Times in a series detailing how Mexican immigrants successfully opened a market for “black tar” heroine in Los Angeles, setting up a distribution network that is hard to track.

The San Antonio Express-News has closely followed investigations into drug trade and money laundering in Texas, and other papers in the state have dealt with this issue because of their proximity to Mexico and the fear that violence might spill north of the Rio Grande.

But these are the exceptions. It seems that local papers are missing a very important story in their communities, one that could shift the policy focus and get the American public more interested in how drugs are flowing into their neighborhoods. What is it that keeps most editors from confronting the reality of the drug trade in their cities?

Is it lack of resources? Is it fear of letting loose the criminal forces that will threaten the media?

Or is it something suggested by investigative journalist Lowell Bergman last year during an academic conference, when I posed these same questions: “The response of reporters and editors in the United States is frequently, ‘Who cares?’”

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Javier Garza Ramos is editor of El Siglo de Torreón, one of the largest newspapers in Northern Mexico. Tags: , , , , , ,