Mexico’s “Museum of Drugs,” buried up on the seventh floor of the Defence Ministry, isn’t open to the public. The installation was designed as an educational tool for military personnel who have been tasked with fighting Mexico’s narco-trafficantes and organized crime networks. It explains the methods that drug traffickers use to get their product around and out of the country, as well as the strategies that the army employs to try and stop them.
Last week, I was invited to speak at the University of Texas Pan America about this website, MexicoReporter.com, violence against journalists in Mexico, the drug war coverage and how new technologies are contributing to the journalism beast. So I went.
The day started with a panel discussion about media coverage of the “drug war” in Mexico. I can’t help but put those two word in commas because, well, it just makes it sound so dramatic. Although it IS dramatic — the violence I mean — it’s not like the whole country is at war. Far from it.
The panel was filled by three representatives from local media, as well as three journalists from Mexico – none of whom spoke great English so a lot of the discussion was lost in translation.
The panel session was rather like a lot of television news – about a mile wide and an inch deep. It was frustrating because it focused so much on the current border violence plaguing the line between Mexico and the United States, without delving any deeper.
As I said pointed out during the discussion, the drug-related border violence between Mexico and the United States is really just the head of the beer – the violence is present in many of the country’s states and failing to report that misrepresents the problem.
Failing to report the U.S’s seemingly insatiable appetite for narcotics — which is the main driver between the illegal trade — is also problematic. One of the speakers described the responsibility of the U.S for the drug violence problems in Mexico as a “school of thought.” I’d say it’s a hard fact, not a theory. People buy fair trade coffee but then roll up a joint or have a few lines of coke at the weekend — chances are they haven’t stopped to think much about where their drugs come from and at what price in the same way that they worry about the origins of their coffee.
There was also a lot of concern over whether the border violence is “spilling over” into the United States. There was a lot of difference of opinion over that issue, and not one that I could apply any of my own experience to being based mainly in Mexico City. What I DO know that the Los Angeles Times (full disclosure: I spend the majority of my time working for them) has reported drug-related incidents spilling over into the United States here and here.
It’s also been reported by the LATimes that the drug cartels are moving in on the people smuggling business.
The other thing the television reporters during the event in Texas were especially were keen to talk about was what they see as the similarity between Mexico with the Iraq and Afghanistan.
That was a hard one for me to sit still through. Although the drug-related violence around Mexico is widespread and brutal, there are also huge swathes of the country — Mexico City being one of them — where you wouldn’t even know that there was a “war” on between the drug traffickers, as well as between them and law enforcement .
It’s my understanding that the vast majority of the 7,300 or so people that have been killed in drug-related violence since the start of 2007, when Calderon’s offensive began in earnest, are either law enforcement agents, drug traffickers or people involved in some way with the drug trade. Innocent civilians have been caught in the cross-fire, but they’re in the minority.
The media coverage of the drug war shows us how now more than ever, in these times of media accountability and economic hardships, we have to balance information and news provision with a need to entertain and engage audiences.
Everyone wants to report accurately, but they also want good ratings / reading figures / hits. Good reporting takes time and money — the internet means that news rolls now, there ARE no deadlines. Blood and guts gets more viewers / readers. In a time and cash-poor world, its understandable that alot of coverage focuses on the blood and guts of the illegal drug story. Understandable, but is it forgivable?
The music of Mexico’s drug trade has taken a beating lately. As we reported from Tijuana last year, some radio stations south of the border have stopped playing the songs and promoters have banned the music from many public events. Nightclub owners ask bands to turn down narcocorrido requests.
Richard Marosi wrote: Narcocorridos still draw legions of fans, despite government
efforts to squelch the music. Calor Norteña played the song about
Villarreal only because of repeated requests from hard-drinking
bar-goers. But it was a momentary exception to a backlash that has
succeeded like none before in changing people’s attitudes toward the
music, say members of several bands, nightclub owners, concert
promoters and government officials.
They describe a growing dislike, even revulsion, for music that critics
say celebrates the people terrorizing a community that has suffered at
least 207 violent deaths this year. Attendance at narcocorrido concerts
has dipped; bands say audiences request the music less and less,
preferring dance and romantic tunes that take their minds off the
But Mexican artist Cristina Rubalcava wasn’t put off by the controversy. After writing a song for los Tigres Del Norte about the controversial 670-mile fence project along the U.S.-Mexico border, she got to listening to some of the band’s narcocorridos and created a mural that illustrates phrases from more than 40 of their canciones. Watch the video for more.
Mexico City’s Museo de la Ciudad is playing host to a photojournalism exhibition — Expofotoperiodismo — that features nearly 50 photos from 2008. You can see some of the images featured in the show in the above slide show.
All images appear courtesy of the Museum de la Ciudad, and the show runs until April 19th.
Mexicans might be encouraged to do a bit of soul-searching today by a United Nations campaign, which has declared December 9th International Anti-Corruption Day.
Why should Mexico be particularly interested? Because, as we reported today, more than 5,000 people have been killed in drug-related violence so far this year – that’s more than double the toll for that time period in 2007. Although a lot of the violence is being put down to infighting within the drug gangs, corruption within Mexico’s police force and legal branch is also a major obstacle to bringing down the powerful drug networks.
President Felipe Calderon‘s government is currently undergoing a probe called Operation Cleanup, which has resulted in a number of ugly discoveries within its ranks. As Tracy Wilkinson reports in the dispatch linked above: “Mexican law enforcement has also suffered its worst corruption scandal in a decade, with dozens of senior officials and agents accused of accepting money to pass secrets to traffickers.”
Noe Ramirez Mandujano, for example, a veteran federal prosecutor who headed an elite organized crime unit known by its initials in Spanish, SIEDO, was arrested in November on suspicion of passing intelligence to drug gangsters based in the northwestern state of Sinaloa, reported Ken Ellingwood.
A TV spot from the United Nations campaign marking today can be seen below, and shows how corruption is the responsibility of everyone, not just law officials. Few Mexicans and foreigners living in this country can honestly say that they haven’t in some way sanctioned a corrupt system, even if it’s something as small as paying off a policeman to get him out of one’s hair or tipping the garbage collectors for collecting the trash.
As we reported in April, Mexicans paid the equivalent of about $2.6 billion in bribes last
year, according to the nonprofit group Transparency Mexico. That’s 42%
higher than two years earlier and an average of more than $24 for each
of Mexico’s 105 million people. Much of the money went to fix parking tickets, get garbage collected
or secure parking spots from the legions of informal attendants who
block off spaces and charge for them.
Almost everyone who lives in Mexico shares blame because so many turn a blind eye to the corruption of others. So it’s smart of the spot to focus on individual responsibility.
On a side note, activism for a reduction of corruption around the globe is based around the U.N.’s Convention Against Corruption, which of course, Mexico has signed and ratified. The 2003 Convention was opened for signing by participating states in Merida, Mexico.
Mexico’s National Commission of Human Rights (CNDH is its Spanish acronym) appealed to authorities over the weekend to investigate thoroughly the recent killings of a number of journalists here, and to put an end to the impunity for those who murder members of the profession.
Since 2000, 45 journalists have been killed in Mexico, according to the latest missive on the issue from the human rights body. Those who cover organized crime are especially at risk.
The appeal from the CNDH follows the recent murders of Miguel Ángel Villagómez Valle, editor of the newspaper La Noticia, in Lázaro Cárdenas, Michoacán state; David García Monroy, columnist from El Diario, Chihuahua; and José Armando Rodríguez Carreón, from El Diario in Ciudad Juárez, in the state of Chihuahua.
The largest number of killings of journalists has been in Tamaulipas, where nine cases were recorded since 2000. Six journalists were slain in Chihuahua, and four in each of the following states: Veracruz, Oaxaca and Michoacán.
The CNDH also refers to the recent attack on the offices of the Culiacán newspaper El Debate earlier this month, which it said was an attack on the fundamental rights of the newspaper’s workers. Two grenades were thrown at the offices in the early hours of the morning of Nov. 17. No one was hurt.
Towards the end of last week, the global non-profit Reporters Without Borders issued a statement appealing to the international community, and especially the United States and Canada, to grant asylum to journalists fleeing Mexico.
Violence against journalists in Mexico has become increasingly intense over the last few years. In 2007, Reporters Without Borders said in its annual report that the country in 2006 was second only to Iraq in dangers for journalists.
Today, the CNDH said that it “deplores…the lack of results from investigations to identify and apprehend those responsible.”
Reports are surfacing this morning that the offices of the Culiacán newspaper El Debate were attacked with two grenades early Monday. The explosions, which shattered windows but caused no injuries, happened at around 1a.m when two youngsters wearing white shirts threw the grenades at the main entrance to the offices, reports La Jornada.
The area has been cordoned off by the Army.
El Debate is the largest newspaper in Sinaloa and “fairly aggressive in its organized crime coverage”, according to BorderReporter.com. As Tracy Wilkinson reported earlier this year, the city of Culiacán is the birthplace of Mexico’s multi-million dollar drug trade and home to some of the major players in Mexico’s powerful drug cartels.
El Debate is not the first newspaper to be targeted with grenades in Mexico, where attacks against journalists and the media – especially those who cover organized crime – are depressingly frequent. More than 30 reporters have died or disappeared in Mexico since 2000, the group Reporters Without Borders says.
In May last year, Cambio in the Northern State of Sonora closed its doors after two grenade attacks and what its editor said was a failure on the part of the Government to protect its 250 employees. In October 2007, journalists of the Oaxacan newspaper “El Imparcial del Istmo” resigned out of fear for their lives following the killing of three of the newspaper’s employees and repeated threats after the newspaper reported the finding of a grave containing seven corpses.
In February 2006, the offices of El Mañana newspaper in Nuevo Laredo were attacked by men wielding grenades and assault rifles. A reporter was left paralyzed and the paper later announced that it
would cease producing investigative reports on drug trafficking.
Rodrigo Sonck realized that he had to do something about his coke habit when he took a beating from drug thugs. We caught up with him at an addiction recovery center in Huitzila, in the state of Hidalgo, Mexico, where he had been for a month.
Married with two children, Sonck and around 25 other men live together in the center and adhere to a strict routine of household chores and meetings.
This video accompanies this LATimes report by Ken Ellingwood on the state of drug addiction in Mexico:
“Once mainly a smuggling corridor for drugs heading to the United States, Mexico is grappling with the effects of a fast-rising addiction rate as relatively cheap versions of cocaine and methamphetamine find a market south of the border. Experts say the supply has increased as U.S. enforcement on the border has made it more difficult to move illegal drugs north.
A recent government survey of drug use shows Mexicans are trying drugs, and getting hooked, earlier in life and more frequently. The number of people who said they had tried drugs rose by more than a fourth, to 4.5 million, since the last survey in 2002. More than 460,000 Mexicans are addicted to drugs, a 51% jump from six years ago, according to preliminary results of the survey released last month.”
The Mexican attorney general’s office announced Friday afternoon that it arrested three men in connection with the two grenade explosions in Morelia, Michoacan, last week that killed 8 people and left more than a hundred injured.
According to a statement from Asst. Atty. Gen. Maricela Morales Ibañez, the suspects were arrested in the town of Apatzingan, Michoacan, after an anonymous tip.
Authorities said Julio César Mondragón Morales, Juan Carlos Castro Galeana and Alfredo Rosas Elisea had confessed to having detonated the grenades during Independence Day festivities on Sept. 15. Officials identified the men as members of a brutal drug gang known as the Zetas.
El Universal, reporting from the press conference where the statement was made, said one of the detainees, Rosas Elisea, appeared to have been beaten.
Slumped at an interrogation table, a gang member accused of participating in an attack that killed eight people at an Independence Day celebration described calmly how he was eager to get rid of the grenade he tossed into a crowded plaza.
“I was hiding it in my hands and it made me shudder,” Juan Carlos Castro Galeana told his interrogator. “I was desperate to get rid of it.”
Castro added that he thought the attack, which he said he was ordered to carry out, was meant to “provoke” the government. He appears in a video posted Saturday on the website of El Universal newspaper. The video was obtained from the attorney general’s office, the newspaper said.
The arrests pose as many questions as they provide answers. How do three men throw two grenades? If these guys are soldiers – or the highly trained hit men that Los Zetas are rumoured to be – then why do they look like the average man off the street rather than trained killing machines? Or were they just hired by the Zetas to do their gruesome bidding? And physical bruising visible on some of the suspects suggest that confessions might have been extracted under questionable circumstances.
There is a great Leader in this Sunday’s Observer which makes a point I’ve often debated – how cocaine takers in Britain and the US, which provide the demand for the illegal drug industries in Latin America, tend not to think too hard about the impact their weekend drug habits might be having on other people.
If they did, given the trend for ethical shopping that is sweeping the Western World, demand would surely drop.