The Media and the Battle Against the ‘Narco’ in Mexico

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The power of the media has been recognised by politicians, international relations scholars and communicologists. In this sense, some analysts, such as Douglass Cater, consider it the ‘fourth branch of government’. Moreover, journalists such as Federick Kempe have regarded themselves as ‘the most powerful men in the world’, as – they argued – they have the power to influence people in the best interests of everybody (Altschull, 1995). Nevertheless, to what extent is this true? Does the media have the power to influence people? Even more, to change government policies? A lot of analyses have been made to answer these questions and, for instance, the studies of Campbell (2010), Altschull (1995) and Parenti (1986) have concluded that the news media actually have the power to direct people’s attention to certain issues; therefore, it is capable of shaping our opinions about them. In this vein, one of the salient issues of Mexican politics is the ‘battle’ between Mexico’s government and the so called ‘narco-terrorism’.

In March 2006, Mexico’s President Felipe Calderon started the ‘war against narco-traffic’. Since then, the number of military, local and federal police agents in those geographic areas where drug cartels were, and are, clearly present has been increasing considerably. From 2006 to 2010, the number of soldiers involved has been raised from 37,000 to almost 50,000 (Milenio, 2010). Furthermore, more than ten of the most important cartel’s leaders have been captured or killed. In 2009, Arturo Beltran-Leyva was killed by the special forces of the Mexican Army. In 2010, Ignacio Coronel Villareal (from the Cartel of Sinaloa) and Edgar Valdez Villareal were apprehended by the Mexican Army and Mexico’s Federal Police, while Antonio Ezequiel Cardenas and Nazario Moreno (from the ‘La Familia’ cartel of Michoacan) were killed in a clash with the federal security forces. These, according to different US Security Agencies, such as the FBI, represent clear victories of Mexico’s government over the ‘narco’. Nevertheless, the continuous message from the media (national and international) is that Mexico’s government is losing the battle.

Due to the current fight against narco-traffic, the international and national media reports constantly refer to Mexico as the most dangerous place in Latin America. For instance, the BBC (2009) argued that ‘Ciudad Juarez is a battle ground’ and that Mexico ‘can turn into a failing state’. And The Economist (2009) published that Mexico is more dangerous than Pakistan. However, as it is internationally recognised, Mexico is neither the most dangerous place in America nor the country with the highest rate of homicides per year. As noticed by Fermín Marmol (El universal, 2010), a Venezuelan security analyst has shown that in 2010 in Venezuela there were 52 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants, while in Mexico there were only eight. Similarly, other analysts ensure that, for example, El Salvador or Colombia are actually more insecure countries than Mexico (Publimetro, 2009; Vision of Humanity, 2010). Despite sufficient evidence, reality matters less than the image created by the media through public opinion. For that reason, people’s perception towards Mexico continues to be negative. Moreover, the permanent news about new, arguably legitimate, ‘narco messages’ and the inaccurate information about the number of deaths caused by the ‘battle against terrorism’ generates a sentiment of panic among the civilian population in Mexico. At the same time, this diminishes the trust in the armed forces. As a result, the effectiveness of the security policies can be jeopardised.

Considering this, and recognising the effect of the media over society and the battle against narco-traffic; in the last week, on 25 March 2011, the directors and presidents of the most important Mexican news companies signed an agreement to avoid the usage of information that interferes in the fight against crime, to properly sizing information, and to avoid turning into unwitting mouthpieces of criminals. This represents one firm step towards a better, clearer, and more socially useful media. This does not mean, however, that the media has to censor its information, or that it has to inform only about the government’s successes. Doing that would mean recoil to the old times of media control and misinformation. However, it does mean that, instead of – inadvertently – functioning as a communication tool and a way to terrify by the drug cartels, it should work as an information tool for the society, providing accurate, proved, and useful information for the population. Now the challenge is to maintain the compromise towards the agreement and attract more news-media agencies to it.

Article by Jose Angel Garcia.
Edited by Marc Geddes

Further Information

Altschull, J. (1995), Agents of Power, USA: Longman.
BBC (2009), Inside Mexico’s most dangerous city, March, 23, 2009, available at http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/americas/7959247.stm
Campbell, W. (2010), Ten of the greatest misreported stories in American Journalism, California: University of California Press.
Economist, The (2009), Is Mexico more dangerous tan Pakistan?, 14th April, 2009, available at http://www.economist.com/blogs/gulliver/2009/04/violence_discouraging_business
El Universal (2010), Fermín Marmón asegura que Venezuela es el país más violento de América, 20 April, 2010, available at http://www.eluniversal.com/2010/04/20/pol_ava_fermin-marmol-garcia_20A3767851.shtml
Milenio (2010), Creció 25% numero de soldados en esa guerra, June 30, 2010, available at http://impreso.milenio.com/node/8792332
Parenti, M. (1986) Inventing Reality, The Politics of the Mass Media, New York: St. Martin’s Press.
Publimetro (2009), Hay Paises mas violentos que México: Calderon, 28 December, 2009, available at http://www.publimetro.com.mx/noticias/hay-paises-mas-violentos-que-mexico-calderon/mikC!hiIT4jl3cJ4ts/
Vision of Humanity (2010), Global Peace Index, available at http://www.visionofhumanity.org/gpi-data/#/2010/scor