Reporting the Drug War
by Sito Negron
Posted on September 21, 2009
Self-censorship, tracking the body count without losing depth of coverage and meaning, and how to get the national media to understand the border beyond the caricature in which it's often portrayed were among the topics discussed at the "Reporting the Drug War" panel of the Global Public Policy Forum on the U.S. War on Drugs in El Paso and Juarez.
The panelists were John Burnett, a National Public Radio correspondent based in Austin, Ramon Cantu, executive editor of Nuevo Laredo's El Manana, and UTEP alum Alfredo Corchado of the Dallas Morning News. Belo Television Border Bureau reporter Angela Kocherga moderated.
Burnett said covering the Drug War on the border is like trying to cover New Orleans or Guatemala -- chaotic and murky. To understand it, you have to be there, and "you have to read between the lines," he said. While there is something missing from the reporting typical of the Drug War -- dropping in on a hotspot, writing a few dispatches, and leaving -- there is an advantage.
"I get to leave," he said, while people who live in the communities they cover are at risk. Sometimes, it's the outsider who is more free to report the truth of a given situation, because one never knows when they might cross that line -- take the wrong picture, mention the wrong name, refer to the wrong incident.
Kocherga asked how reporters and editors keep a sense of fatigue from seeping into their stories.
Burnett said that people from elsewhere tend to see the border as "one shade," a place where violent cartels shoot people in the streets. Because it has gone on for so long, "it is a struggle to make people care." One way of reporting is to let the numbers tells the story, but, Burnett said, it becomes superficial, "one way of keeping score, but not a very good one."
Cantu said he of necessity must impose some self-censorship. "The life of our staff is more important," he said. In Nuevo Laredo several years ago a shooting war broke out between the Sinaloa and Gulf cartels, with the Gulf using "los Zetas," a sophisticated group of ex-military who spread fear through media management and other techniques. Journalists were threatened and attacked.
Paraphrasing the famous saying, "Poor Mexico, so far from God, so close to the United States," Cantu said that the U.S. does not understand its neighbor, stating, "Poor United States, so close to Mexico, so far from Mexican reality."
That reality, he said, includes millions of people living in poverty, and plenty of weapons.
Corchado said that said since 2003, about 75 percent of his stories relate to the Drug War. He took a year off for a fellowship, and "left hoping things when I came back things would be better." On the contrary, he said, the staff to cover Mexico shrunk, as did the amount of space allotted to coverage. And he noticed something else.
It used to be that border newspapers self-censored, he said, but that has reached into Mexico City. He related an anecdote about having dinner recently with a colleague from Proceso, one of Mexico's leading publications, who said that they report only half of what they know. Given what they do report, Corchado said, what they're leaving out must be incredible.
He said the year off added an element to his reporting he had not experienced -- fear. He said an unfortunate reality is that Mexican journalists can be killed with impunity, unlike U.S. journalists. Speaking with a source, he said, he was told that was true. "But the bad news is, you look like a Mexican," his source told him. That led Corchado to get a Congressional Press Pass, he said, so that he is easily identifiable as a U.S. reporter.
In response to a question from the audience about how to plug the holes in the national media coverage of the border, Burnett related how stories spread about two and three years ago dealing with the allegations that Al-Queda or other terrorists were cooperating with cartels to smuggle people into the U.S. Those stories turned out not to be true, but they still create a kind of framework in which politicians can use the border as a symbol of fear.
As an example, Burnett cited Texas Gov. Rick Perry's decision to send Texas Rangers to the border, and the fact that former New York Gov. and presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani, traveling with Perry, used the border to attack President Barack Obama's health care proposals. “A federal government that can't defend the border is hardly the federal government that can run health care,” Giuliani was quoted as saying in the Dallas Morning News. Burnett said that there comes a time to say, "actually sir, you're full of shit."
Cocherga asked the panelists what they thought the U.S. media was missing.
"It takes two to tango," Corchado said. He referred to UTEP Professor Howard Campbell's phrase that Mexican drug gangs ought to be referred to along with the U.S. operational counterparts -- instead of the Juarez Cartel, for example, it ought to be the Juarez-El Paso Cartel.
Burnett said that he tries always to include a mention that the U.S. is the biggest illegal drug consumer in the world, and noted an Associated Press investigation that found that 80 law enforcement officials, from local to federal, had been convicted of drug-related corruption on the U.S.-Mexico border since 2006.
Cantu said the U.S. media should do more to understand Mexico, where the ideal of democracy is under siege. He cited a theory that holds that the PRI tanked the 2000 presidential election, allowing Vicente Fox and the PAN to win and take the blame for the problems that have developed in the last 10 years. Then the PRI could come back on the anniversary of the Mexican Revolution.
"We hope the U.S. press helps us accomplish the democracy we've been hoping for for so many years," he said.
Another question was why the media did not do more to point out when social activists were killed.
Kocherga said that there was no concerted effort to hide what happened, and that the person's background would be part of any story, but as far as connecting dots between a specific murder and an attempt to silence, "we're only as good as our sources."
Burnett turned to Cantu, and said that in the case of Nuevo Laredo, the lack of violence was not a sign of anything other than either one cartel beat the other, or they made a truce. Either way, it's back to business.
Cantu responded that people have worked very hard to find things to be positive about, to create social structures like football (soccer) teams for children, to build up the economy. The media reflects that effort. And, he said wryly, but seriously, people have reached a point where they've been traumatized, and he's suggested they see a psychologist.
The panelists referred to a "shadow government" that has taken control of Nuevo Laredo.
Corchado said that people know, "you have a mayor, but he has a boss."
Said Burnett: "This is the tense peace we're hoping for Juarez now."
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