Upside Down World
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Behind the Headlines in Mexico PDF Print E-mail
Written by Dawn Paley   
Wednesday, 20 June 2012 15:37

Newspapers for sale in Tampico, Tamaulipas, February 2011. Photo by Dawn Paley.On Friday, May 4th, 23 mutilated bodies turned up in the Mexican border town of Nuevo Laredo, which lies across the Rio Grande from Laredo, Texas. Nine of the corpses were hanging from a bridge, and fourteen headless bodies were left in a van parked in front of the office of a local association of customs agents.

Journalists attributed the killings to a conflict between two drug trafficking groups, the Zetas and the Sinaloa Cartel. “The grisly surge in violence in Nuevo Laredo, across the river from Laredo, Texas, appears to be part of a battle between Mexico's two largest drug-trafficking gangs for control of the important land corridor,” wrote the Los Angeles Times on the day the bodies were discovered.

The story reads like a straightforward territorial dispute between crime groups, but the facts around what is taking place in Nuevo Laredo are murky, at best. Just a few weeks before, on April 17, another 14 dismembered bodies were found in a van parked in front of Nuevo Laredo’s City Hall. Media reports initially said the killings indicated an escalation of a conflict between the Sinaloa Cartel and the Zetas, a paramilitary organization involved in drug trafficking. The Zetas formed when members of a specialized Mexican military unit defected to provide security for the Gulf Cartel in the late 1990s. The two groups split in 2010.

The Gulf Cartel’s home city is Matamoros, while the Zetas, since the split, have had their primary base in Nuevo Laredo. The region has since been militarized, with at least 8,000 soldiers deployed to Tamaulipas state. The supposed arrival of the Sinaloa Cartel to Nuevo Laredo was announced on a banner that accompanied the 14 bodies discovered in mid-April.

One week after April massacre, state level officials in Tamaulipas held a small press conference, convening only a handful of journalists, who gathered to hear a statement. Officials said that there was no indication that what was taking place resulted from an inter-cartel rivalry. The Tamaulipas state prosecutor said the exhibition of the fourteen bodies was carried out to generate psychosis, and that those murdered were workers in the informal sector and migrants. After the statement was read, journalists were were not allowed to ask questions.

Regardless of the admission by the state government that there is no proof of inter-cartel fighting in Nuevo Laredo, after the discovery of the 23 bodies in May, the media fell back into the Sinaloa Cartel against the Zetas frame. Proof of such a conflict is sparse, but media organizations promote the story regardless, encouraging the idea that the dead were implicated in criminal organizations and that local, state and national governments and their repressive forces are mere bystanders in the carnage.

Original reporting on organized crime and the drug war is dangerous and sometimes deadly in Mexico. The Mexican magazine Contralínea reports that 93 journalists have been assassinated and 16 disappeared since 2000. The U.S. and Mexican police, army and government have become the principle sources of information for what is taking place in increasingly violent areas throughout Mexico.

The sensationalism and state-oriented perspectives in the mainstream media are key elements which keep the notion of the drug war alive and well in the public mind, not only in countries like the U.S. and Canada where the bulk of narcotics are consumed, but also in the countries where the military is in the streets. Journalists who dare to investigate and report on what is actually taking place face enormous risks.

According to Julian Cardona, a photographer and journalist based in Ciudad Juárez, official discourse blaming inter-cartel rivalries for violence there started in 2008, the same year murder rates spiked. “The police and prosecutors started to say there was a war between two criminal organizations, two cartels, the Juarez Cartel and the Sinaloa Cartel,” he said in an interview last fall. “This narrative has been propagated in the media during the last three to four years.”

Over time, said Cardona, the beliefs of Juarez residents began to change. “At the beginning, the people believed it, but eventually, they began to construct their own narrative based on what they saw in their day to day life, and what they saw was that the army was involved in criminal activities, that the Federal Police were involved in criminal activities, on a massive level,” he said.

The notion of the drug war as a government fight against criminals, or a war between criminal groups, is heavily promoted in the mainstream media. News reports regularly criminalize the dead as being members of one cartel or criminal band or another based on official sources, not on investigations.

Media representations of the drug war dominate headlines, taking attention away from other elements of war, including the financial and legal transformation of the state, and the war against people.

“Objective performance indicators show that in many meaningful dimensions Mexico is in the best shape that it has ever been, yet this message is not reflected in the press,” reads a 2011 study by the Woodrow Wilson Centre. “Articles published in the [New York Times] and [Wall Street Journal], or for that matter, in the Mexican press, and even The Economist focus primarily on organized crime, corruption and undocumented aliens."

News coverage forms the basis for how the majority of people outside of areas directly affected by the drug war understand what is taking place. The tendency for this coverage to be heavily reliant on official sources has been the standard for decades.

“Most information about narcotraffic is furnished by the Miami Herald and other U.S. newspapers that use the U.S. DEA (Drug Enforcement [sic] Agency) as their information source,” wrote Colombian historian Germán Alfonso Palacio Castañeda in 1991. “Such media tend to follow the DEA’s strategic orientation, which is empirically unacceptable.”

In considering coverage of the war Mexico today, it appears that little has changed over the past 21 years.

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