In 1891, my great-great-uncle, Catarino Garza, attempted to overthrow the Mexican dictator, Porfirio Díaz, by launching an armed revolution from my family’s south Texas ranch. One year into his campaign, Garza agreed to an interview with The New York Times to explain the reasons behind his insurrection. “The impression prevails that I and my followers are simply an organized band of border ruffians,” Garza told the reporter. “As nothing can be further from the truth, I rely on you to do me justice.”
Journalists of that era who covered the new and largely unknown southern territory drew heavily on U.S. military reports, which viewed Mexico through the prism of expansionism. The United States, eager to protect trade with Mexico and secure its new frontier, came to Díaz’s defense and deployed the Army, the Texas Rangers, and other law enforcement outfits to join Mexican federales in hunting Garza down. And on the front page of the Times, in keeping with the label assigned to Garza by the U.S. and Mexican governments, Garza was branded a “bandit.”
In Garza’s day, American press coverage of Mexico paid scant attention to the fledgling nation’s internal political dynamics or the views of its population at large. More than a century later, this remains too often true, as the story of Mexico in the U.S. press is mostly a one-dimensional account of the horrible “drug war.” I am no apologist for drug cartels, and I don’t place the revolutionaries of old on equal footing with drug kingpins. Rather, I detect enduring assumptions that govern our coverage of Mexico—what’s perceived as good for the U.S. is portrayed as good for Mexico. To wit, if the U.S. interest is clamping down on the supply of drugs reaching American streets and nightclubs, then calling out the military is a wise policy decision for Mexico. Such a simplistic calculus ignores the fact that narco-trafficking is a firmly entrenched and complex organism that exists for a range of economic, social, and political reasons.
The result is that with few exceptions the press has embraced the idea of unleashing tens of thousands of Mexican soldiers on a civilian population as an unquestionably good idea. And in the last three years, the Mexican government has deployed 45,000 troops, made anywhere from 24,000 to 60,000 arrests (depending on the source), and recorded roughly 12,000 dead in this “war.” The U.S. has supplied Mexico with training and military hardware to the tune of roughly $1.2 billion.
Credible voices of dissent—both in the U.S. and in Mexico—have been available to journalists. In the U.S., for instance, some in Congress expressed concern about a strategy modeled after the failed approach the U.S. has taken in Colombia. And in Mexico, historians and political commentators raised concerns about increasing the role of the military in civilian life and its effect on Mexico’s young democracy.
But with rare exceptions, their views have been relegated to the obligatory “balancing” paragraph or two. For the most part, the horror and gore of drug-cartel violence has seized the press’s attention. By December 2006, turf wars between cartels raged in some Mexican cities. At the time, Felipe Calderon was a new and embattled president with a tiny—.58 percent—margin of victory and protestors screaming “fraud” on the streets of Mexico City. Public-opinion polls reported 69 percent of Mexicans felt “very safe,” and that unemployment and poverty were their top concerns. Still, just days after assuming office, Calderon declared drug violence his top priority and deployed the military in an offensive against the narcos.
In the U.S., the Bush administration (and then the Obama administration) hailed a “brave” Calderon who was engaged in a “courageous” battle. This perspective was repeated in news articles and in editorials urging U.S. intervention:
“Mexican President Shows He Can Lead; Election Crisis Fades”—The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, March 25, 2007
“Mexican president Felipe Calderon has been brave enough to try to wrestle back control of his country”—San Francisco Chronicle, May 13, 2008
“U.S. Bolsters Security at Mexican Border”—The New York Times, March 25, 2009
“The United States has a vested interest in seeing Calderon succeed”—San Antonio Express-News, August 15, 2009
Now, after three years of this “drug war,” press reports have appeared in the U.S. citing the mounting criticism over human-rights abuses as well as the disenchantment among Mexican political insiders with the government’s tactics. But the dominant storyline—in print and on television—has been to depict the more sensational aspects of the drug violence, focusing on body counts and decapitations and ignoring a number of relevant questions that would have framed the story much differently.