If you believe their governments, the security relationship between the US and Mexico has never been stronger than it is today. However, beneath the high-level official contacts, resentment and distrust between the two nations still flourish. A recent series of articles by El Universal, arguably Mexico's most influential daily, is the latest evidence of that bad feeling.
El Universal sent reporters along the length of the border to demonstrate that corruption and violence aren't just a Mexican phenomenon, but societal maladies that plague the US as well. The end result was around a half-dozen news articles (though I may well have missed some) with titles like, “The abundant tree of American drug trafficking,” and “Phoenix, kidnapping capital.”
As though the stories were overly subtle, the newspaper complemented the news with a handful of editorials to drive the point home: the Americans too have a serious drug problem.
Point well taken; indeed we do. And while the series came up empty in its search for scoops, it did shed some light on official wrongdoing in the US, which far too often goes unreported. As one border sheriff quoted in the stories said, “Here we also have that corruption, it’s just that the US is very good at covering up those problems. We have had federal agencies that have arrested [corrupt officials], that have taken them to federal court, but the press here doesn’t pay much attention like they do in Mexico.”
Such revelations amount to a laudable if not terribly significant result of the series. Police corruption is a blight upon any society in which it occurs, and is something citizens should be well aware of. Therefore any added attention on dirty cops in the US is a positive development, even if it doesn’t come from local papers.
Taken as a whole, the series’ broad message was, “The Americans are always busting our chops over corruption and violence, but look at them: They're no better.” Indeed, one of the accompanying editorials came out and said just that: “Their police, soldiers, and civilian authorities are as vulnerable or more vulnerable than those in Mexico.”
Whatever umbrage Americans might feel should be tempered by their media outlets' decades-long success in exposing the worst side of Mexico. Yet for the Mexican media to respond to what they perceive as provocations in kind is just an elaborate way of saying, “I know you are but what am I.” There is not necessarily anything wrong with an editor’s agenda driving reporting, but that agenda should not be spite, because spite just gets in the way.
Despite the expenditure of great amounts of ink, readers were given few new insights into the transnational drug trade. Mexico reportorial resources would be better focused on other, poorly understood elements of the drug trade: the relationship between American gangs and their Mexican suppliers; cities that have managed to remain free of organized crime; etc.
Furthermore, it's hard to share the conclusion that Mexico and the US share the same security problems. A perfect illustration came the week after the series ended, in the form of the mayor of Mexico’s version of Beverly Hills, San Pedro Garza García in the State of Nuevo León. Mayor Mauricio Fernández first raised eyebrows as a candidate in June, when he was taped discussing how the reigning drug traffickers in his town were good people to work with.
At his October 31 inauguration, Fernández mentioned the formation of “teams of cleaners for tough jobs,” which many people interpreted as death squads for underworld enemies. He also referred to the death of a drug trafficker who’d previously threatened his life, doing so before said criminal’s body had been discovered. (It did show up hours later in Mexico City, along with three companions.)
Despite that, Fernández’s party (the PAN) largely supported him, with Senator Santiago Creel calling his determination “praiseworthy.” The existence of such a character in the US, such open flouting of the rule of law by those who are supposed to impose it, is hard to imagine; that his party would keep the wagons circled in such a circumstance is unthinkable.
But the question of whether Mexico is better or worse than the US is beside the point. Each nation suffers from its own set of ills stemming from the drug trade, from high rates of addiction or endemic corruption. Determining which country is more responsible or more vulnerable on which issue is little more than a distraction, for governments as well as newspapers.
Reporting on drug trafficking should not aim to raise hackles, but rather to provide the public with relevant information about the trafficking industry, the official efforts to control it, and how these two relate to one another. That sort of reporting may result in hackles being raised, but such shouldn't be any story's reason for being.
By Patrick Corcoran
November 9, 2009
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The Media & Finger-Pointing in the U.S.-Mexico Drug Wars