For instance, did Calderon launch an internal war to legitimize his presidency? While Calderon was elected in 2006 with the support of the international community, and the church, the elite, and the business class within Mexico, he faced civil unrest in the southern state of Oaxaca and mounting economic problems. A solid half of the Mexican population qualifies as poor, and in the presidential race, a large number of those poor voters supported Calderon’s opponent, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.

When Calderon appeared in battle gear with the military in a spectacular January 2007 photo op, it indicated to Mexican political commentators that the president was attempting to bolster his weak position and shift the discourse from complex social issues to security. “The images and the way in which the press treats this topic creates an alliance with the most conservative class elite,” says Froylan Enciso, a Mexican historian and former journalist. “When all the coverage is around criminals, then you have an enemy and the Mexican government can have its war.”

What does victory in this “war” look like, and is it attainable? Is the objective to dismantle the cartels, reduce their size, end the violence, or disrupt drug shipments? Over the last three years, all four have been mentioned by the Mexican and U.S. governments as the goal.

Whatever the goal, is a military offensive the best strategy? In the 1970s, the U.S. funded a succession of drug interdiction programs in the coastal state of Sinaloa, where marijuana cultivation was (and remains) robust. The result: hundreds were arrested and tortured, and the traffickers morphed into today’s cartels. But the strongest reason to question a military-based strategy is the story of the U.S.’s effort to stamp out the cocaine industry in Colombia. Between 2000 and 2008, the U.S. poured some $6 billion into that “drug war.” Yet, according to a report last year by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, coca production increased by 15 percent over the first six years of this decade.

While American press reports have consistently suggested that Calderon’s deployment of the military is evidence of his commitment to the drug fight, Jorge Castaneda, a former Mexican foreign minister, noted in a piece in the May 2007 Newsweek International that the secretary of defense in the administration of Calderon’s predecessor, Vicente Fox, had refused to send his troops on the drug mission. “The Mexican military is not trained, equipped or enthusiastic about such chores,” Castaneda wrote.

Finally, are Mexico’s public institutions, many of which are notoriously weak and corrupt, prepared for a massive crackdown on drug traffickers? In 2008, for instance, after nearly two years of the “drug war,” Mexico approved a judicial reform package to address the country’s 30 percent conviction rate for alleged narco-traffickers and nearly 5 percent conviction rate in cases of murder and kidnapping.

Without an exploration of such questions, we are presented with a simplistic battle between good guys—macho soldiers with loads of ammo—and bad guys—the tattooed and sinister drug goons. Despite complaints by Mexican human-rights groups about alleged human-rights violations by the military and reports of altercations between civilians and soldiers from the outset of the offensive, rarely does the U.S. press coverage show citizens in confrontation with the Army or the experience of a civilian population under siege by cartel violence. Instead, detailed coverage is lavished on the exotic habits of the drug traffickers, their taste for ostrich-leather cowboy boots, and the romanticized presentation of “narcocultura.” Consider this representative passage from the February 21, 2009, edition of The Wall Street Journal: “Mexican drug gangs even have an unofficial religion: they worship La Santa Muerte, a Mexican version of the grim reaper.” The rising death toll, which doubled between 2007 and 2008, is explained simply by repeating Calderon’s logic: “Officials in both Washington and Mexico City also say the rising violence has a silver lining … the Mexican government is finally cracking down on the drug cartels … .”

Contrast this with Alma Guillermoprieto’s article, “Days of the Dead,” in the November 10, 2008, issue of The New Yorker, in which she too covers narcocultura and the violence, but her perspective is much broader. The article includes dissenting viewpoints and scrutiny of Calderon’s war, its origins, and its tactics, and it places the rise of the cartels in the context of the end of the one-party political system in Mexico.

Guillermoprieto’s piece delivers a sober report on an underground economy that has thrived for generations out of economic need and with tacit political approval. She approaches the story from a perspective within Mexico, rather than from the outside looking in. As a result, the reader is informed, rather than coerced by the implicit moral judgments found in articles that paint the cartels as “gangs” or “goons.”

Michelle Garcia is CJR's correspondent for Texas. She is working on a book about masculinity, myth, and the U.S.-Mexico border. García reported from The Washington Post's New York bureau for three years and her work has appeared in numerous publications. She is the director and producer of the PBS film Against Mexico: the Making of Heroes and Enemies. Follow her at @pistoleraprod or email mg@michellegarciainc.com.