Byron Scott, Professor Emeritus, Missouri School of Journalism: Not so long ago, Americans thought of Mexico as a great place to vacation — even somewhere to retire. But in recent years, our southern neighbor’s image has been tarnished by economic, social and political unrest. An estimated 25,000 people have died in assassinations, bombings and gun battles among warring drug gangs. Now these same cartels are using threats, kidnapping and murder to control the press. The Committee to Protect Journalists this week said Mexico has joined Afghanistan, Somalia and Iraq among the most dangerous places to be a journalist. When Mexican President Calderon addressed a joint session of the U.S. Congress in mid-May, he placed a major part of the blame on the United States. What is the Mexican story? Our guests to help us understand are Susana Seijas, freelance journalist, Mexico City; Grant Fuller, independent radio producer, also working in Mexico City; Mathea Falco, president of Drug Strategies, a Washington, D.C.–based think tank and former Carter Administration official; and Diana Washington Valdez, senior journalist at El Paso Times and author of Killing Fields: Harvest of Women. Mathea, you were the first assistant Secretary of State for Narcotics Matters during the Carter Administration. Can you give us a keyhole picture for what is happening in Mexico and how it affects the U.S.?
Mathea Falco, president of Drug Strategies, Washington, D.C.: In the 30 years since we have worked very closely with the Mexicans on controlling drug trafficking, the situation has mushroomed beyond anybody’s imagination. President Calderon has a valid point that Mexican production and trafficking is driven in large part by American consumer demand. If there were not the kind of demand for their product here, we wouldn’t have the kind of turf wars there. We in the U.S. are the major supplier of guns and heavy ammunition to Mexico, and we have done almost nothing to stop that. Which is not to say there isn’t a great deal the Mexicans can also do, but I always start out by saying if we can only do one thing, let’s start out with demand reduction. The level of violence in the last two and a half years since Calderon came to office has been unprecedented. It is not only the number of killings that the Mexican government officially revised upward yesterday to 28,000, but also the brutality and the decapitations. So the situation is driven by markets where there is a lot of struggle among the cartels, although they are even more loosely organized than we’d like to think, for turf control and control of the sales of methamphetamine. They are major producers of methamphetamine for our country, as well as marijuana, and have a lot of cocaine transiting up through the Caribbean and Colombia, Peru, Bolivia. So this has become a huge part of their not-so-underground economy and is very difficult to control. Calderon’s decision to militarize the war against drugs, which he announced as soon as he came in, was the start of what has become one of the bloodiest battles I think anyone has seen in any country.
Scott: Among the most copious shedders of blood are Mexican journalists. Susana Seijas, would you comment on a place where you have been where repressions of the press have been particularly difficult the last couple of weeks, Nuevo Laredo?
Susana Seijas, freelance journalist, Mexico City: The thing about Nuevo Laredo is that journalists there have been always under attack. Journalism in Mexico has been a life-threatening profession for many years now. In the past, what happened in Nuevo Laredo is investigative reporters disappeared for writing about drug traffickers, but these were specifically the journalists who were the muckraking types.
Scott: According to The Washington Post this week, there was a huge day-long gun battle in Nuevo Laredo and none of the local media wrote anything about it.
Seijas: They’re too intimidated. Drug cartels are dictating what can be covered and what can’t be covered. So it means there is a huge media blackout. In Nuevo Laredo a couple weeks ago, criminals tossed grenades at one of the TV stations there. This went unreported, the gun battled lasted over two hours, and 12 people were killed. This city is just on the border with Texas, (Ed note: across the Rio Grande from Laredo, Texas) so it is a new level of intimidation. Violence is completely out of hand and President Calderon came out in the last couple of days saying we’ve got to organize ourselves as a society. We have very organized crime but a very disorganized society.
Scott: Let’s get the Texas perspective from Diana Washington Valdez in El Paso. It must be increasingly difficult to cover this from the U.S. side as well, isn’t it Diana?
Diana Washington Valdez, senior journalist at El Paso Times: Yes, although we have people in Juarez, on the Mexican side of the border, collaborating with us. I don’t go over there anymore. I have been threatened several times, so I have to sneak over there. We still have to cover it. There are many journalists who are working very hard to do that and in time we may have to resort to tactics like some of the people in Iran did, using cell phone cameras, using the Internet to transmit information to places where it can be published.
Scott: Grant Fuller, can you comment on that? You’re working as an independent journalist in Mexico. I also want to ask whether you’ve met any of these drug cartel PR people who are apparently trying to dictate to journalists what they should write and how they should write about it.
Grant Fuller, independent radio producer, Austin, Texas: I haven’t run into anyone like that yet. I really don’t cover the drug war very much. I have tremendous respect for my colleagues who do because it is not the safest gig in the world. It is important to point out that the drug war is not the only thing happening in Mexico. What I try to do in Mexico City is seek out other stories to show that Mexico is bigger than just one story.
Scott: Mexico is a huge nation, but I see these datelines popping up all over the nation, including a lot of places that Americans have memories of: Acapulco, Guadalajara, Tijuana.
Fuller: It is happening across a wide swath of Mexico, but there are plenty of pockets where it is quiet. Mexico City has been relatively untouched at this point. The image Americans get a lot of times is all-out war on the ground here, ducking bullets, and bombs going off. Obviously that is not the case.
Valdez: It is in Juarez. Granted, some of the outbreaks are regional, but they are persistent and are taking place in the areas that are being disputed by the cartels. This has been going on for more than three years now. Yes, there are places that are untouched that are not of importance to the drug cartels. Just like any combat zone. You can go to Afghanistan and Iraq, places where the fighting is intense because of the strategic importance of that place.
Seijas: There are several places in Mexico where it is very safe to live. Most of us living in Mexico City really enjoy life here. The worst that can happen is get mugged or be run over by a crazy driver trying to cross a major street. That is the same danger you would have in New York or London or any big city, but we worry about the terrible intimidation of journalists in Juarez and in Nuevo Laredo, and this will reach Mexico City. It is just a question of time. Last week was a huge wake-up call for the media in Mexico. Two of Mexico’s main broadcasters and two of their cameramen, were kidnapped as well as a reporter. One of the main Televisa anchors went on air and said if one journalist is kidnapped, it means the whole journalism industry is kidnapped, and we can’t allow this as a society. So she canceled her news magazine show that evening. The view from Mexico City is this terrible terrorism is happening in Juarez or El Norte but it isn’t happening in Mexico City, almost as if it wasn’t happening in Mexico. But what happened last week with the kidnapping of these journalists is a huge turning point.
Falco: I think there are really important points for the general listener. First, what distinguishes Mexico now from the kind of drug-related violence that has been around for many decades is that it is now largely indiscriminate and involves civilians, women and children. Second, human rights violations are one of the reasons why almost none of the money in the so-called Merida Initiative that the U.S. promised Mexico three years ago has flowed to Mexico. Third, there is virtually no effective internal law enforcement within Mexico. I’m sure you all heard that amazing story about the prisoners being let out of the jail in northern Mexico to conduct some drug-related assassinations with guns from the prison guards and then went back to their cells.
Seijas: That is a very good point. The four kidnapped journalists were from Durango State. They were covering the story of how the inmates were let out of the prison to commit the massacre.
Falco: That story made it into the New York Times, but Americans in general don’t follow the larger story with the kind of intensity that the rest of us do.
Scott: Is Mexico a safe place to go to? Or are we going to start thinking of Mexico as a sort of Afghanistan?
Falco: I haven’t checked lately, but the State Department had a travel advisory against travel to Mexico. (Ed note: the advisory was upgraded to a Travel Warning on July 16.) It has had a devastating effect on the tourist industry because there have been killings in a lot of areas where people have traditionally gone to play. These have involved civilians and not just people involved in the drug trade. It is people who were randomly caught on the dance floor. I personally would not want a dear friend to go there right now even though I have been going to Mexico for 50 years and it is one of my favorite countries in the world. What is happening there now is totally tragic. And they do not have the civil institutions or the law enforcement capacity to do really anything about it.
Scott: Let’s talk a bit about other consequences for the United States. Diana, what about the interface between the borders and the economies between these two nations?
Valdez: Well, they’re much intertwined. The North American Free Trade Agreement sought to integrate the economies of Canada, the United States and Mexico. While the Free Trade Agreement has greatly benefited the U.S. economy, the Mexican economy did not fare as well. That is one of the reasons many people are recruited by the drug cartels: lack of jobs. Immigration continues to be a sore point between the two governments for the same reason. Mexico has simply not caught up with the growth that has taken place.
Scott: Where are we going with this? Grant Fuller, let’s have your perspective from the other side of the story.
Fuller: It is out of control, and I would never recommend that anyone go on vacation to Juarez. But this has had a devastating effect on the tourism industry in Mexico. The violence has been going on for a while, but what has changed recently is the nature of the violence. We have got decapitations. A couple of years ago a grenade was thrown into a crowd and recently there was a car bomb in Juarez, so that kind of news really scares people and for good reason. I returned from a trip to Chihuahua lately and the Copper Canyon, which is a huge tourist destination in Mexico, and everyone along the tracks were saying they were making far less money than before, selling things to the passengers. So that, combined with the swine flu outbreak a while back and the economic downturn has really hurt the economy of this country.
Scott: Mathea, you said that Americans don’t pay enough attention to all of this. I think I would agree with you, but why do you suppose this is?
Falco: I think in large part because Mexico has never been at the top of the foreign policy agenda in the U.S. And after the first few killings, people become numb. The shock and the horror of the first decapitation, if everybody remembers, were just huge, and now they’re routine. At a certain point, you get violence overload and there are so many other terrible things happening. A point we haven’t talked about is the importance of oil to the Mexican economy. I think 60 percent of the government revenues are money from PEMEX that they get. The oil reserves are projected by PEMEX to run out in the year 2020. What happens to Mexico after that? There aren’t really great job programs and opportunities in Mexico except for a privileged few, and corruption is pervasive. Otherwise, you wouldn’t have guards letting prisoners out at night to conduct these assassinations. At the core of it, it has to do with economic growth and income distribution and fundamental functional civil, societal institutions that honor human rights.
Scott: Let me ask Susana Seijas to comment on that.
Seijas: I agree a 100 percent. It is all about economics. Drug trafficking brings something like $40 billion a year into the Mexican economy. What happens if you take that money away? Let alone money that comes in from PEMEX? It is very worrying.
Scott: What happens to the border towns like El Paso, Diana?
Valdez: Analysts have said that as much as 40 percent of Mexico’s economy depends on the drug trade. There has to be better strategies and better policies. Otherwise, we’re going to have a disaster. And I do blame the national mainstream media for not consistently covering what is going on in Mexico. We are constantly reporting on what is going on in other parts of the world. This is right next door. This is a part of us here.
Scott: Grant, as an independent producer, do you have difficulty selling stories about Mexico not related to the drug wars?
Fuller: I do. Obviously, there are the stories that are going to grab the headlines about violence and the drug war, so if you do a story about another topic, it is not going to get quite as much attention. But what I have seen just traveling around; Mexico is a very poor country, especially in the rural areas. When you talk to people, you realize there aren’t a lot of jobs, and a lot of the jobs are related to the drug cartels. So what happens when you take that away? A poor country becomes even poorer.
Scott: If the drugs go away and oil goes away does it become a death sentence? I’m not sure.
Falco: Well, the middle class in Mexico has basically been strangled through these last years. The journalists probably understand that better than anyone. And there are large, social economic reforms that have to be undertaken. Mexico was run by decree for 60 years. This kind of thing didn’t happen because agreements were made among the oligarchy. Now they moved toward a more democratic system although there are huge problems of corruption. It is a long slow transition to a really open society, and meanwhile, thousands more people are going to get killed. It is truly tragic.
Scott: It is. I have to say that it’s unfortunate I have to conclude this discussion now. Increasingly, Mexican cities, border towns and tourist Meccas have been the dateline for ugly stories of terror and death, but there are also other aspects as we have heard today. Journalists are telling the story and some 30 of them have died or gone missing in the process. Sadly, war zones aren’t always halfway around the world.
Producers of Global Journalist are MU journalism graduate students Liz Lance, Youn-Joo Park, Angela Potrykus, Tim Wall, and Rebecca Wolfson. The transcriber is Pat Kelley.
Byron Scott, Professor Emeritus at the MU School of Journalism, was the moderator of this weekly radio program “Global Journalist.” It airs at 6:30 p.m. Thursdays on KBIA/91.3 FM or at www.globaljournalist.org. Other recent shows are available on the show’s archives.