I've been thinking a little about media coverage of the drug war, after an email from a Mexican friend in Mexico who asked me what was happening in his own country.
The reason for his questions and lack of clarity from his standpoint, is that the media is doing a horrendous job of covering the drug war. Simple as that. It's hard, no doubt, to find out exactly what is going on in the fog of this war. It's messy, confusing and dangerous. But for some reason, a lot of print media has turned toward TV-style, lazy reporting.
For instance, quotes like this in a Reuters story:
"Restaurants, bars, delicatessens, shoe shops, everyone is paying extortion money," said a business man with an car dealership who has been extorted by drug gangs and declined to be named. "And if you can't pay both extortion fees and your taxes, you tell the gangs and they sort it out for you."
This quote was in an "analysis" piece about how "Mexico risks losing large areas to drug gangs." But the quote offers no context or even evidence of anything except the man's general vague interpretation of what's happening. Details, please. Average Mexicans living in the midst of organized crime are not prone to giving up details, but you have to probe. You have to ask, for instance, what this businessman means by "everyone." Everyone on his block? Everyone he knows? Every one of Reynosa's 200,000 residents? And was it worse six months ago? Two years ago?
Well, according to a Reuters story a little over 6 months ago, it appeared to be worse then. "In another sign of escalating violence, men threw three grenades in the center of the manufacturing city of Reynosa," Reuters reported.
In a 2009 story, Marc Lacey of the New York Times quoted one Reynosa resident as saying: "You begin to wonder what the truth is... Is it what you saw, or what the media and the officials say? You even wonder if you were imagining it."
I think this is a great quote to describe just how little everyone actually knows.
A Mexican colleague of mine at The News once told me that Mexicans have no memory, which explains why it's difficult to get detailed answers. But she also advised me that if I wanted to get people talking, I should try to trigger their memories with gentle suggestions or hints, which might help them open up or reveal details. It worked at times, and I think is necessary. The authorities can pay their informants, but journalists have to work a little more ethically. (With poverty come principles.)
Of course, the problem with having no memory is that the general public is extremely susceptible to manipulation by the authorities and the media. We like to think of the media as the good pillar of society, but that's not always the case.
Take, for instance, the recent stories about the drug war encroaching on Mexico City. Folks, this is not happening. And I would be willing to put my money where my mouth is.
In late 2007, El Universal ran a story about the cartels surrounding the capital. In 2008, they published a similar story. I believe there was one in 2009, too. There was one late last year, and now again this year.
The reasons for the cartels not coming to the capital are the following: there are about 70,000 cops in Mexico City. Sure, some are corrupt, but by and large, it's a cohesive force that operates properly, and is certainly impossible to buy off entirely. There are also gangs, and those gangs are very well-established. Muscling in on them and their turf will cause serious problems. These gangs have ties to the cartels, to deliver drugs and whatnot, but the cartels don't operate in the capital. There is no reason for them to: Mexico City is neither a major production hub nor a transit route. The State of Mexico and Morelos, where the recent violence has occurred, are.
Mexico City is attractive as a place for big-time narcos to hide out, and sometimes, live a quiet life of luxury. Chapo and his cronies have long nicknamed the capital "the smoke," because of their ability to just disappear there.
But they don't want to take over Mexico City. These scare stories unfortunately do nothing to inform the Mexican people, they simply seek to sensationalize and scare. Neither do soundbite-like quotes which sound good in a TV story but don't give me enough information for a print story.