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?’”