They Kill Because They Can

‘Drug wars,’ death epidemics and staring into the sun

A commentary

By Scott Thomas Anderson

A special team from the U.S. Marshals Office attempts to take a meth-crazed Sureno gang member into custody in Roseville, California in October of 2013

The capture of Ruben “El Menchito” Gonzalez last week means, on the whole, nothing to the Jalisco New Generation drug cartel. After all, Mexican authorities arrested “El Chapo” Guzman exactly one year ago: Despite the media frenzy and online orgy of click-bait, taking down Guzman didn’t even graze the skin of the Sinaloa drug cartel.

The most difficult thing about reporting on methamphetamine and heroin addiction — and the violence, victimization and disintegration rooted in their essence — is avoiding the use of simplistic, boilerplate narratives as a crutch for lazy journalism.

I’ve been a newspaper crime reporter for nine years. I know that methamphetamine is an absolute human catastrophe. I have a gallery of young, vanished faces in my mind that prove heroin is death incarnate. But documenting these realities in a meaningful way, without adding to a bonfire of sensationalism aglow in the American psyche, is something few reporters have the will or work ethic to do lately.

A meth lab in Northern California outside of Sacramento.

Probably the only task harder is investigating the vicious power structure that binds U.S. drug appetite to the terror and tragedy endured by the Mexican people. It was for this reason I read Alfredo Corchado’s new book, “Midnight in Mexico: A Reporter’s Journey Through A Country’s Descent into Darkness.” Corchado is the Mexican Bureau Chief of the Dallas Morning News and for my money the most knowledgeable reporter anywhere on drug cartels operating south of the border. Equally important, having been born in Mexico before growing up in California and Texas, he shares a duel cultural experience that’s common to many of us, as well as our friends, neighbors and family. He’s a newspaperman who’s emotionally invested in the futures of both Mexico and the U.S. Border States, and it’s that investment that gives his book of factual reporting an acute universal resonance.

“Midnight in Mexico” was especially fascinating to me. In 2010, I was granted a journalism fellowship that allowed me to spend 18 months as an embedded reporter with law enforcement agencies tackling meth-related crime. During those months I interviewed more than 200 meth addicts and low-level dealers. Almost to an individual these personalities knew or believed their supply originated in Mexico. For a crime reporter, “Midnight in Mexico” illuminates a macro view of the micro experience that defines our careers.

Last year, on the same week that El Chapo Guzman was “brought to justice,” Corchado gave a public talk at Sierra College — a higher learning campus within my newspaper beat. I jumped at the chance to hear him. During Corchado’s talk, another journalist asked if he thought media attention on the Sinaloa Cartel, the Juarez Cael and Los Zetas was unfairly portraying Mexico.

“I don’t think it’s been unfair,” Corchado responded. “The new government (in Mexico) wants to pretend nothing happened. But there have now been over 120,000 people murdered or disappeared in Mexico; and only 5 percent of those cases have been cleared or prosecuted. How do you just move past that?”

He added that it seems like the philosophy of many Mexican officials can be summed up by a Spanish expression, which translates roughly as “trying to blot out the sun with your fingertip.”

West Coast law enforcement agencies have been criticized for getting more militarized, but spill-over violence from drug cartels south of the border have forced the issue, police argue.

A running thread of tension in “Midnight in Mexico” involves the death threats that were made against Corchado’s life by the cartels. Somewhere between 45 and 80 Mexican journalists have reportedly been killed or disappeared in recent years. Corchado writes openly in his book that his status as a U.S. citizen might have been the only thing keeping him alive. When a Sierra College student asked if breaking big stories was worth soldiering through the death threats, Corchado rightly brought the conversation back to the state of siege Mexican reporters are constantly faced with.

“No story is worth your life,” Corchado said. “I don’t blame my Mexican counterparts for censoring themselves. Not at all. Because in Mexico, you can kill with impunity …. The way I look at it is, being a U.S. citizen, I’m able to say some of the things they are not able to say.”

Midway though the presentation, another student asked Corchado an astute question.

“Why is the American media obsessed with nonstop reporting on terrorism in the Middle East?” the young man pondered. “Just like how lately all we’ve been hearing about are these problems in Ukraine. It’s on the other side of the world and it’s all we see; but you talk about 120,000 people killed in Mexico and we hear almost nothing about it. And it’s going on in our own backyard?”

Corchado could only lift his shoulders and raise his eyebrows a little and mutter, “You’re preaching to the choir.”

More than a few of the young people at the college noticed how easy it is for American politicians and pundits to demonize Mexico for the narcotics flowing onto our streets without ever addressing the red, white and blue forces fueling the unbelievable demand. To this day I’m asked by readers of my own work what kind of fences, military lines or drone strikes might keep the Mexican cartels from getting drugs into the hands of our inner-city gangs that kill to distribute them, or into bloodstreams of the people who are committing crimes while they unravel into oblivion. My typical response is that the cartels will stop getting meth or heroin across our borders when we stop buying it from them — when we change the ongoing cultures of hopelessness that tempt Americans to pray for physic evaporation.

Debris from a meth lab near Sacramento in California.

And while Corchado agrees that the buyer side of supply-and-demand economics is a huge part of the narco-terrorism engulfing Mexico, even on that point he warns against creating oversimplified narratives. He pointed out that the latest intelligence suggests the cartels are deriving less than 50 percent of their revenues from narcotics trafficking: They’ve branched out into kidnapping, extortion, human trafficking and even billion-dollar food smuggling networks. So why kill so many of Mexico’s police officers, reporters and prosecutors, asked one student. Why kill hundreds of innocent women in Juarez?

“Because you can,” Corchado responded. “They do it because they can.”

By dedicating himself to deeply researched, highly nuanced and well-contextualized journalism, Corchado has shown that the cartels are not truly about drugs, they’re about subverting the rule of law — they’re about sheer, God-like power.

From the West Coast to the East Coast, media companies need a commitment to similar in-depth reporting. We need serious journalism on the purchasing side of the supply-and-demand scale. Readers have to ask themselves where they’re going to turn for their information. Will it be the short, McDonald’s sound bites of local television? Will it be checked-out newspaper personalities who barely re-write police department releases and slap on canned, meaningless quotes to disguise it as original reporting? If that’s the case, we’re not trying to solve the problem. We’re just as guilty as the Mexican government of trying to blot out the sun with our fingertip.

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