Avoiding Sensationalism and Fiction in Drug War Reporting

There is a lot of daily drama surrounding Mexico’s drug war. In fact, I often refer to the frequent changes of command, violent territory grabs, and back-room deals between former rivals as something akin to As the Narco-World Turns. As a result of that, I believe that some reporting on cartel happenings on both sides of our southwest border tends to turn sensational, either to grab headlines, generate buzz, or spark controversy in an attempt to increase readership. In some cases, an overblown and alarmist article can simply be the result of a misinformed writer.

On February 20, 2014, an associate of mine brought to my attention an article from World Politics Review titled, “Strategic Horizons: All Options Bad If Mexico’s Drug Violence Expands to U.S.” I read this article with interest because I assumed it would address border violence spillover and cartel activities within the US. It did, but unfortunately, it wasn’t long before I was shaking my head with disappointment. Here was another article from a writer with a strong professional background that would inevitably lead readers to some very wrong conclusions.

The “shock factor” treatment began in the first paragraph when I read, “Americans must face the possibility that the [Mexican] conflict may also expand northward, with inter-gang warfare, assassinations of government officials and outright terrorism in the United States.” This statement is sure to suck readers in, particularly with the notion that Mexican drug cartels could possibly engage in terrorist activity in the US. The writer, Steven Metz, expands on this thought by saying, “The Zetas already have a substantial connection to Hezbollah, based on collaborative narco-trafficking and arms smuggling…Since Hezbollah is a close ally or proxy of Iran, it might some day attempt to strike the United States in retribution for American action against Tehran. If so, it would likely attempt to exploit its connection with the Zetas, pulling the narco-traffickers into a transnational proxy war.”

Unfortunately for Metz and his readers, this information is flat-out wrong. I devoted an entire chapter in my forthcoming book, Border Insecurity, to laying out the facts and fiction surrounding the potential (or lack thereof) for cartels and terrorist groups to work together. It seems that not enough people understand the corporate and profit-maximizing interests of cartels, and how any government or law enforcement attention brought upon them by such associations would crush their business operations. Drug cartels have almost less of an interest in working with Hezbollah than our government does in seeing them do so.

This isn’t to say that terrorist groups and drug trafficking organizations don’t have several things in common, like selling drugs to raise money and using a variety of avenues to launder their ill-gotten proceeds. It’s well known that groups like the PKK in Turkey, the Taliban in Afghanistan, and the Lashkar-e-Taiba in South Asia all benefit tremendously from their involvement in the drug trade.

However, Hezbollah and a cartel like Los Zetas have two very different goals. Hezbollah has a fundamentalist and Islamist mentality that involves a deep hatred of the West and a desire to spread radical Islam throughout the world. Los Zetas and their rivals just want to make money, and need a stable government apparatus that they can simply manipulate, not control or take over.

The statement that “…using the U.S. military against the cartels on Mexican soil could weaken the Mexican government or even cause its collapse…” also demonstrates a deep misunderstanding of the dynamic between our two governments, as well as a highly exaggerated view of what it would take to collapse the Mexican government. It’s true that our relationship with our neighbor to the south is delicate and complicated due to over a century of meddling in Latin America’s affairs.

However, the US Department of Defense is extremely aware of Mexico’s desire to assert its sovereignty. Current Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto is pulling away from bilateral cooperation in a likely attempt to prove that Mexico can handle its own affairs—a contrast to his predecessor Felipe Calderón, who drew considerable heat for allowing US drones to fly in Mexico in 2009 in order to provide imagery in support of counterdrug operations. Mexico is not on the verge of collapse, despite a criminal insurgency that has affected many parts of the country. It has the 13th largest economy in the world, a strong military, free and relatively fair elections in a functioning democracy, and a broken but existent justice system. Somalia or Sudan, it is not.

It is very true that Mexican cartels—mostly by proxy through lower-level associates and gang members—have a widespread presence in virtually every corner of the US. They supply 90 percent of the illegal drugs on our streets, and engage in violent behavior against each other, migrants, and law enforcement officers on US soil. However, the dramatic “possibilities” that Metz outlines in this piece are alarmist and not based on solid or reliable facts—merely conjecture.

The problem is that there is a lot more material out there like this. People will read these articles and assume they are true, then express anger that our government can’t even begin to address this apocalyptic threat. I am solidly in the camp that our government does not give nearly enough credence and attention to the national security threat posed by Mexican cartels, nor does it come close to validating the security concerns of many border residents.

However, that doesn’t excuse anyone from publishing information that is not thoroughly researched and based on more than blog “reports” with no obvious author. It’s a disservice to readers, and I encourage you to read any report about Mexico’s drug war or border security—yes, even mine—with a discerning eye for facts, sources, and anything that sounds even remotely outrageous or sensational. This is how we writers are held accountable, how we propagate facts, and how we restrain fiction.

Follow Sylvia Longmire on Twitter @DrugWarAnalyst


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