‘Mexico under siege’: Sensational, or a stark truth?

Since June 2008, The Times has been reporting on the drug-related violence on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border.

The series is labeled “Mexico Under Siege” and has included more than 300 articles to date. The most recent article, on vigilantes targeting the drug cartels, was published Thursday. But reader John Fries of Long Beach finds the label misleading. He wrote:

Now yet another article under the headline or title ‘Mexico Under Siege.’ As a frequent traveler to Mexico, most recently three weeks driving in Yucatan, I object to the insinuation contained in this title.  Yes, there are some parts of Mexico I would not travel to, just as there are some parts of Los Angeles I don’t drive through on surface streets.

To imply that all of Mexico, and all tourists traveling in Mexico, face daily and constant danger is false, misleading and does a disservice both to Mexico and to our fellow citizens possibly interested in visiting our neighbor. It’s no wonder that recently I meet more Europeans than Americans when I travel.

I urge The Times to reconsider the way it presents these articles. I am not asking for self-censorship, but rather honest reporting that does not sensationalize nor over-emphasize the actual risk of violence, especially to tourists, very few of whom are ever impacted. Lose the sensationalistic ‘Mexico Under Siege.’

Geoffrey Mohan, the editor who oversaw the project when it began, responds:

Our philosophy was to begin covering the killings down there as a real war, instead of publishing piecemeal, incremental crime stories. At the time, the statistics we gathered were staggering: several thousand deaths just in the year since President Felipe Calderon “declared war” on drug mafias.

At first, I questioned the central metaphor of a “siege.” I hesitated to isolate just “Mexico” as well. At the time, there were only a few places where a siege mentality prevailed –- governments paralyzed by threats from drug traffickers, police corps corrupted or cowed by the same.

So, we were careful to write stories about the U.S. responsibility, and even wrote out of Canada. We also were cautious in every story to isolate the areas where the violence was occurring, and took quite a few opportunities to write about how normal life was in other areas, Baja and the Yucatan among them.

But I have to say history absolves us, to quote Fidel Castro for a moment. Since the series was launched in June 2008, the violence has spread to areas that never had such a problem, and many more civilians are either being caught up in the violence or living under direct threat or control of traffickers.

All the placid tourist trips into back roads of Yucatan or Baja do little to dispel that truth. Those areas are exceptions solely because they no longer lie in the trade routes (the Caribbean and Pacific routes have shifted). But drug violence is no longer a “fringe” or “border” state problem in Mexico: Interior states that never experienced this level of violence before include much of central Mexico, from Michoacan up through Nuevo Leon. Violence has entrenched itself in Veracruz state, on the east coast. It’s no longer just Sinaloa/Durango/Chihuahua and border states. It’s pandemic.

This article was originally published on LATimes.com on Oct. 2o, 2011.


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