May 1 2009

Does Violence ‘Spill Over’ or Come Home to Roost?

The U.S. media and the Mexican drug conflict

Protest against violence caused by the drug war.--Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/Fronteras Desk

Protest against violence caused by the drug war.–Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/Fronteras Desk

From the New York Times to Fox News, corporate media interest in Mexico’s drug-related violence has risen recently to an almost fever pitch. Initially this was a welcome sign: U.S. media were finally taking notice of a security and political crisis that had been festering for years, and seemingly worsening by the day, right at “our doorstep.”

What has emerged, however, is a portrait of Mexico as an out-of-control orgy of violence at the hands of the narco-trafficking cartels, criminal organizations that annually feed billions of dollars worth of drugs to consumers in the United States. Realities on the ground—and in the background—are much different and more complex, and so far the press has failed to capture them. At all levels, there’s a slurred, fleeting quality to the coverage, as if the reporters and commentators on the story are merely relaying hearsay and conjecture. It is a treatment of Mexico’s crisis as something foreign, unknown and dangerous, as opposed to a threat affecting an intimately close neighbor—and in many respects, a crisis that is at least partly a product of American policies.

The phenomenon reached a peak of sorts on March 23, when a New York Times headline trumpeted the news, “Drug Cartel Violence Spills Over From Mexico, Alarming U.S.” The story stated: “Law enforcement authorities say they believe traffickers…are responsible for a rash of shootings in Vancouver, British Columbia, kidnappings in Phoenix, brutal assaults in Birmingham, Ala., and much more.”

As in many such pieces that swamped the news cycle earlier this year, what “much more” means or refers to isn’t clarified further, and neither are these law enforcement authorities questioned much on how what “they believe” compares to what they know to be provably true. A month earlier, in an article headlined “Wave of Drug Violence Is Creeping Into Arizona From Mexico, Officials Say” (2/24/09), the paper basically admitted that no one truly knows the extent of the cartels’ footholds in the United States: “In some cases, the connection to the cartels in American cities are tenuous or not fully understood, law enforcement officials have said.”

It’s worth noting that in this case the reporter, Randal C. Archibold, was relaying law enforcement statements during a legislative hearing at the statehouse in Phoenix. This is a common technique employed by corporate news organizations when they’re outmatched by a deadline and the complexity of a story: Just report what the officials say, let readers believe what they wish—a method that inevitably attracts abuses and distortions.

In short time, “spillover” would be the operative word to suggest an overarching danger when Mexico emerged in the news cycle—as when CNN’s Anderson Cooper previewed a segment (3/23/09): “Michael Ware just back from the war next door, Mexico’s drug war spilling over here into the United States, spilling blood on American streets.”

The term treats Mexico’s violence as a kind of “contagion,” as one of many critical reader comments noted of the March 23 New York Times article. “Fact is, the drug trade is a transnational commodity chain that links consumers [in] the U.S. with a pyramid of distributors, processors, financiers and growers. In that sense, the violence is a product of the trade itself, not a disease vector from Mexico,” wrote a Times reader identified as Heather Williams of Durham, N.C. “Do we really think that all the people profiting from this trade are colorful (and brown) cartel leaders walking around with TEC-9 pistols in their coats? Give me a break. You can’t move that kind of cash without bankers, real estate agents, trucking firms, lawyers, bureaucrats, cops, border patrol agents, etc. helping out at every stage of the game.”

Yet this kind of probing of distribution networks is rarely included in news reports looking at drug violence in Mexico. Indeed, a certain naivete is readable in the corporate coverage. Consider: Since the implementation of NAFTA in 1994, Mexico and the United States are more connected than ever. Mexico, which shares a 2,000-mile border with the U.S., is the world’s drug bodega, funneling narcotics from South America to markets worldwide. And the largest consumer market for those narcotics, by a wide margin, is in the U.S. In such a scenario, how could drug-related violence not “spill over” into the U.S. at some point?

Yet there was the L.A. Times declaring with an almost gleeful urgency on February 12 that Phoenix is the nation’s “kidnap-for-ransom capital,” before going hot on the trail of a kidnapping case in progress with the Phoenix police. Yes, Phoenix had seen an increase in kidnapping cases, as the mayhem of the warring cartels south of the border naturally merged into criminal environments in the north. But the overall theme did not become explaining why this was happening, but sounding the alarm of hysteria over the fact it was happening at all.

And there was the New York Times, employing “spillover” three times in one week at the height of the hysterical coverage (3/25/09, 3/26/09, 3/30/09), and CNN using the term or its variants in no fewer than 53 segments in March. The “spillover” concept had become permanently cemented in Washington’s media and political echo chamber.

On cable news outlets in particular, narco-related news and commentary is often deplorable. On January 28, Fox News’s Glenn Beck raised the bar of sensationalism on the Mexico story when he asked his viewers to name the second country that presents the greatest threat to the security of the United States, after Iran. He answered for us: “Meh-hee-ho,” attempting to mock but merely garbling the Spanish pronunciation. He continued:

It is a nation that is on the verge of collapse, and we Americans are already in grave danger because of it…. I just had a friend go down to Mexico, and he said he was in Puerto Vallarta, he pulled in in one of these cruise ships, and he’s got his family out, and he said it’s like every third hotel was boarded up, and it is—they are in real dire times already.

The empty-hotels anecdote had literally no relevance to the narco violence, yet his on-air guests during the segment—a former CIA covert operative and a former Department of Homeland Security official—concurred with Beck’s assessment.

Even when it appears the cable news outlets make some kind of headway in complicating or advancing the story, the coverage is characterized by an overwhelming tone of fear and alarmism. When CNN’s Cooper interviewed an alleged cartel member on camera on March 27, the segment seemed much more focused on titillating viewers than illuminating the situation:

Cooper: How are people tortured?
Cartel member: Ah, you got different ways. Burn them. Burn testicles. They’ll stick ice picks into people’s feet….They’ll remove his nails one by one with some pliers. You name it, whatever you can think of.

Cooper: You say they burn people. With what?

Cartel member: A torch…. Like the ones you use at a body shop.

With only minor deviations from the general theme—empathetic human impact narratives, stories on the tourism-is-still-OK factor—corporate news outlets have consistently relied on official and official-serving storylines on the drug-related conflict, without much checking or corroboration.

Characteristically, official narratives are rife with holes and competing interests, and journalists more than anyone else should know this. As Laura Carlsen of the International Relations Center argues in “Drug War Doublespeak” (Americas Program, 3/9/09), such official voices are continually contradicting themselves, praising Mexican President Felipe Calderén’s war on the cartels while sending out warnings against his nation’s imminent collapse as a “failed state.” Yet the mainstream news media are simply relaying these contradictory statements, and often amplifying them with frightening images of violence.

The narco story is urgent, and the public must expect more and better coverage than what we’ve been served so far. We need precise media analysis on the effectiveness of the Mérida Initiative, the U.S.-to-Mexico military aid package, for example, and on the complete nature of binational weapons-smuggling networks. We need more coverage of the enormous consumer demand for illicit drugs on the U.S. side, and explanation of how this demand affects the situation in Mexico. That’s a huge human-interest angle that could take us beyond sensational yarns about the victims and perpetrators of the narco violence.

So far, the holes have highlighted a whole cottage industry of independent journalists self-publishing online and covering the narco situation with true investigative and transnational ambitions, often using primary government documents to make their cases. While U.S. corporate media continue treat the notion that weapons are smuggled to Mexico from small U.S. gun shops as an assumed truth, for instance, Narco News writer Bill Conroy (3/29/09) revealed that more than $1 billion in weapons entered Mexico legally from high-level private-sector U.S. suppliers from 2004-07—with consent and monitoring from the U.S. State Department.

Meanwhile, the U.S. corporate news consumer is left unaware of economic forces at play in the current military-based efforts to combat the drug violence in both countries. As the IRC’s Carlsen said on FAIR’s CounterSpin radio program (3/20/09):

We do know that there’s a lot of interest on the part of defense contractors and private security firms to get involved in the Mexican security business, both within Mexico and along the border. Many of the firms that are probably going to see a reduction of their business in Iraq are beginning to see Mexico as a new market. It’s considered a real new frontier for both private security firms who do the kind of training that are involved in measures like the Mérida Initiative, the new aid package for military and police support coming from the United States to Mexico, and other types of measures that are being pushed now.

The corporate press has a responsibility to probe this subject and the interlocking issues far more deeply than ever before. Right now, the omissions, slants and general superficiality of the drug conflict coverage seriously undermine the media’s mission of informing—and protecting—the citizen and civil society at large.

Daniel Hernandez, a journalist and blogger based in Mexico City, is a former staff writer at the Los Angeles Times and LA Weekly.