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.”
Daily coverage cannot match the depth and nuance of a New Yorker piece, but there are examples of efforts by newspapers to break free of the narrow, simplistic storyline on the drug story. Consider the video series produced by Travis Fox for The Washington Post’s “Mexico at War” project. By making the experiences and perspectives of Mexican citizens the central focus, Fox blurs the easy distinctions between bad guys and good guys, explores the fear and distrust of the government, and explains the myriad reasons why the drug business thrives: a confluence of a lack of social services (education) and good-paying jobs, poor social mobility, and indifference on the part of the police. We meet one family trying to protect its little girl from the “war” outside, and then learn that many parents in the violence-ravaged town where this family lives work for the “narcos.”
Such deeper reporting of Mexico requires a critical perspective on U.S. policy—a perspective that doesn’t fit the simplistic good guy/bad guy paradigm. The drug issue is too often cast as a Mexican menace, with breathless stories of the looming “spillover” of violence along the border reinforcing the notion of the U.S. as a bystander to a Mexican problem. Sam Quinones, a Los Angeles Times reporter assigned to the paper’s “Mexico Under Siege” series, which began in June 2008 and is ongoing, says that without “continual coverage” of Mexico, “what you end up getting is big boom and bash, and you don’t get a lot of subtleties.” Despite the significance of Mexico as a trade partner and a neighbor with whom the U.S. shares a two-thousand-mile border, Quinones finds that among some readers there is “a lack of knowledge that we are part of the war, the drug demand, the guns, the money.”
Part of the reason, I would suggest, is articles like a May 31, 2009, piece in The New York Times, under the headline “In Heartland Death, Traces of Heroin’s Spread,” which linked the overdose death of an Ohio drug user to the rapacious tentacles of the drug cartels. This perspective reflects the U.S. government’s own war-on-drugs mentality, with its emphasis on punitive policies and on supply rather than demand.