Myths of Mexico: The U.S. Media’s Simplistic Depiction of the “Drug War”

Editor’s Note: Guest blogging at Points today is Michelle García, journalist, film maker, and the co-founder and director of the Border Mobile Journalism Collective, a citizen journalism video project on the U.S.-Mexico border created in collaboration with the National Black Programming Consortium.  She recently completed “Against Mexico— The Making of  Heroes and Enemies,” a documentary film for PBS (view the trailer here), and is at work on a book about masculinity and the U.S. Mexico border.  Her post today originally appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review.

Biography of a "Bandit": Elliott Young's 2004 Study of Garza

IN 1891, MY GREAT-GREAT-UNCLE, CATARINO GARZA, ATTEMPTED TO OVERTHROW the Mexican dictator, Porfirio Díaz, by launching an armed revolution from my family’s south Texas ranch. One year into his campaign, Garza agreed to an interview with The New York Times to explain the reasons behind his insurrection. “The impression prevails that I and my followers are simply an organized band of border ruffians,” Garza told the reporter. “As nothing can be further from the truth, I rely on you to do me justice.”

Journalists of that era who covered the new and largely unknown southern territory drew heavily on U.S. military reports, which viewed Mexico through the prism of expansionism. The United States, eager to protect trade with Mexico and secure its new frontier, came to Diaz’s defense and deployed the Army, the Texas Rangers, and other law enforcement outfits to join Mexican federates in hunting Garza down. And on the front page of the Times, in keeping with the label assigned to Garza by the U.S. and Mexican governments, Garza was branded a “bandit.”

In Garza’s day, American press coverage of Mexico paid scant attention to the fledgling nation’s internal political dynamics or the views of its population at large. More than a century later, this remains too often true, as the story of Mexico in the U.S. press is mostly a one-dimensional account of the horrible “drug war.” I am no apologist for drug cartels, and I don’t place the revolutionaries of old on equal footing with drug kingpins. Rather, I detect enduring assumptions that govern our coverage of Mexico — what’s perceived as good for the U.S. is portrayed as good for Mexico. To wit, if the U.S. interest is clamping down on the supply of drugs reaching American streets and nightclubs, then calling out the military is a wise policy decision for Mexico. Such a simplistic calculus ignores the fact that narco-trafficking is a firmly entrenched and complex organism that exists for a range of economic, social, and political reasons.

Read more