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.