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This is your media on drugs

26 January 2010

Malcolm Beith’s “News and analysis on the global war on organized crime” has been all Mexico, all drugs, all the time (with one post on Haiti), but even he notices the obvious problem with U.S. media coverage of Mexico:

…  Calderon made the drug war a priority in December 2006. But now that he’s said he’s shifting gears, will that change foreign reporting? I haven’t seen any evidence of that…  but we’ll see what the English-language foreign correspondents write about Mexico in weeks to come.

Personally, I think it’s also a symptom of the Bush years. Many US journalists who covered that period spent time in Iraq and Afghanistan, and are now capable/willing to report on things in Mexico that previously were left untouched by the foreign media…

But beyond just being able, I think there are a number of journalists (I probably am sometimes among them) who are now simply obsessed with the darker side of the news.

I’ve tried to pitch stories about the good: the arts, travel, turtle-saving, etc. But no one’s willing to pay for them…*

Malcolm may be right about editors.  It seems impossible to write about Mexico without some reference to the “drug war”.  There was an amusing story in the Sunday New York Times on the possible battle of the telenovela stars in the next Presidential election:  PRD front-runner Marcelio Ebrard is married to actress Mariagna Prats; PRI front-runnger Enrique Peña Nieto — whose wife died in soap-opratic worthy mystery in 2007 —  is the “constant companion” of Angelica Rivera (and — left unmentioned — PAN wannabe candidate, Santiago Creel Miranda fathered a daughter during his liaison with  liaison with Edith Gonzales).

All great fun — and hopefully making for extra drama in the 2012 elections — but the Times (or rather the Associated Press) drops in its obligatory “Mexico = drugs” reference:

Neither [Ebrard nor Peña Nieto] has said much about the top problem on most Mexicans’ minds: the drug war and violent crime. That may be why they remain so popular, a welcome diversion from a sober reality.

Could it also be that “the drug war and violent crime” aren’t the top problem on most Mexicans’ minds?  The most recent El Universal poll, which was about political reform, found only nine percent of Mexicans mentioned “insecurity” as a political issue… and “insecurity” does not necessarily mean insecurity related to the “drug war”

You won’t see it in the U.S. press, but at least well-read Mexicans are aware that the murder rate — never nearly as high as in other Latin American nations – has been dropping for a number of years, despite the “war on drugs”, and drug use here, even if it doubled as the Administration claims, is a fraction of that in other places.

Muggings, robberies, shoplifting… the types of crimes associated with bad economic times… create the sense of insecurity more than murder does.
The typical “stranger on stranger” type murders common north of the border (and elsewhere in the Americas) are very rare here.  Even a shooting like that of Americas’ forward Salvador Cabañas — which of course is going to dominate the news cycle — may have been the work of an obsessive futbol fan, who in a sense “knows” his victim.  In a sense, everybody “knows” Cabañas, and reportage on his shooting feeds the sense of insecurity much more than reports on some low-level gangster (or gangster informant, or hanger-on) being found with his head in a garbage bag and the rest of him scattered around the town.

This isn’t to say the concerns aren’t real, nor that crime — in the border area especially — is an irrational fear.  What is real is that the crimes, especially in the border region, are taking on more a U.S. style violence.  Maggie Drake, the Woodward and Bernstein (both of ’em… in one “old radical surfer”) of the Baja, has made a specialty of reporting on the crimes BY and against gringos in her corner of the Republic.  There is real crime there, and much of it is ignored… by the local gringo press, which has pecunary reasons to overlook it (they want to sell real estate), and — as she notes in her recent post on carjackings in Rosarito — by the San Diego press as well.  It’s troubling that such a U.S. style of violent crime is happening in the Baja, but I have to let the San Diego press off the hook on this one.  It doesn’t appear to have the “Mexican drug angle” their editors require, and — in a city where a carjacking with a shooting only merits five sentences — carjackings without anyone getting shot just don’t rate a mention.

The point is, that “insecurity” , “the drug war” and “drug users” .. and despite what the editors expect foreign readers to believe … are seen as separate issues, and none of them dominate political and social discourse to the point of paralyzing the political system.  For policymakers, like Ebrard and Peña Nieto, there isn’t much reason for them to blather on about the “drug war”, which isn’t associated with their parties — but is a “made for media” event from the Calderón Administration (my interpretation of their non-platform).  That the editors are “buying” the drug war — with its implications for other economic and social policies — THAT may be an issue.

* I don’t expect to sell this piece to the editors — even though it does have the obligatory “drug war” reference, but on the other hand, a “free press” isn’t expense-free.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. 26 January 2010 6:58 am

    Crap I had that idea for the Times sotry like six months ago!!! I shopped it to no one bought it.

  2. 26 January 2010 8:05 am

    “and are now capable/willing to report on things in Mexico that previously were left untouched by the foreign media…”

    Balderdash. Horse hockey. Fiddle sticks. Preston and Dillon won freaking Pulitzers for reporting on gritty matters of narcotics, government, money laundering, and corruption in the 90s. Frankly they were far more informed about the ruling party at the time than correspondents now seem to be.

  3. 26 January 2010 10:36 am

    jason, i noted in my blog post that Preston and Dillon were the exception, to the best of my knowledge.
    richard, this is my favorite ridiculous story, from a while back

    • 26 January 2010 11:01 am

      Yup, Malcolm, that was a classic. Anyway, aren’t Americans still dodging bullets (and IEDs) in Iraq for cheap gasoline too? Maybe the Reuters reporter was one of those ex-war correspondents who got a little confused.

  4. 27 January 2010 7:59 am

    Tom Golden (at times with Chris Wren)? Sam Quinones? We’ve seen good reporting on narcotics and Mexico before.

  5. 27 January 2010 8:04 am

    Sorry, I sound like a GOM… I agree with the bulk of the post that there could be better features on Mexican life, culture, and politics beyond the violence on one hand and the facile “my two days in Cancun” on the other.

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