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'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.

Photo: Suspects and weapons are displayed by the Mexican navy on June 9. Credit: Jorge Lopez  / Reuters

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Comments (19)

I don't know how anybody can refute the truth that there is a war going on in Mexico. Since Calderon's inauguration in 2006 there have been at least forty thousand people killed, which is only twelve thousand or so short of the number America lost in Vietnam - a war that lasted well over a decade. Remember, with 110 million estimated Mexicans, the proportion of dead in Mexico in relation to its overall population is much greater. I, too. have traveled in Mexico several times these past few years and the atmosphere is tinged if not charged by the overwhelming sense, among Mexicans, that a catastrophe and a tragedy is taking place in their nation. A war.

There is something to be said for both positions, although I continue to think that the use of the term "siege" paints the Mexican reality in a somewhat unnuanced manner. As a foreigner who has been living in Mexico for more than three years I can attest to the ways in which the situation has deteriorated dramatically and rapidly. But despite the problems the country has been experiencing, there is no sense that the entire population is in a state of siege. Moreover, I feel it is important to put things into perspective. If Mexico is under siege, how would the Los Angeles Times describe what is happening in many other parts of the world? How about the dangers that many communities in Central America are facing? How about the violence in many African countries? Mexico is often spoken of as a failing, if not failed, state, but we are not -and will not be- in such circumstances.

Excellent question, excellent discussion and an excellent series of articles. I regularly post links to LA Times articles on the Americas MexicoBlog. As another U.S. citizen living in Mexico, I agree with Sonja that in many places life is deteriorating, but the whole country is not under siege. So I agree with John that a disservice is done to Mexico when the impression is otherwise and it is scaring away U.S. and Canadian citizens, thereby adding more damage to the livelihood of many Mexicans. (I, too, met many Europeans, especially eastern Europeans, on a recent trip through Chiapas.) I appreciate the response of Geoffrey Mohan and thank him and the Mexico team of journalists for their most valuable work.

You must have your eyes closed to not realize Mexico is a failed State.
No way I would ever vist there now.

Amen, finally. Finally one of LA Times racism inducing troll headlines is talked about.

There are already too many millions of bigots and other misguided Americans who think of nothing positive about Mexico. Naming a journalistic series 'Mexico under siege' is sensationalism, as it implies all of Mexico is so, and plays straight to those whom the sunken LA Times know have an issue with Mexico. "Mexico's drug dilemma" or similar would've been both more descriptive and less inflammatory. "Calderon's war on drug lords". How hard could it be? What's next "The Mexican invasion"?

The LA times have had other troll headlines on Mexicans, such as opinion pieces of how "Mexicans shun the law" or to similar effect, playing Straight to racist stereotypes. What is this? It's a shame, really. Perhaps the LA Times feels at home in doing so, given its racist past. But it sucks, and is stupid, considering the city that it serves.

As a result it seems it has drawn bigoted readers from the whole country who're always ready to comment something derogatory whenever the name "Mexico" is part of an LA Times head line.
I've spoken with many Mexican visitors, and it's obvious that there is a mismatch between American perception and real life in Mexico.
Bet they wouldn't be able to write something positive about Mexico without sounding pretentious. Yet there are many ordinary citizens who're not even journalists, that know better.

The contents of the series is decent, but "Mexico under siege" sounds like a NY Post headline. Not even Iraq is referred to that way, think about it.

"Mexico's homicide rate has fallen steadily from a high in 1997 of 17 per 100,000 people to 14 per 100,000 in 2009, a year marked by an unprecedented spate of drug slayings concentrated in a few states and cities, Public Safety Secretary Genaro Garcia Luna said. The national rate hit a low of 10 per 100,000 people in 2007, according to government figures compiled by the independent Citizens' Institute for Crime Studies.

By comparison, Venezuela, Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala have homicide rates of between 40 and 60 per 100,000 people, according to recent government statistics. Colombia was close behind with a rate of 33 in 2008. Brazil's was 24 in 2006, the last year when national figures were available.

Mexico City's rate was about 9 per 100,000 in 2008, while Washington, D.C. was more than 30 that year."

And places like Puerto Vallarta make a trip to LA look positively dangerous. In addition, most of the Mexican deaths are drug gangs fighting drug gangs. Stay out of Juarez, stay out of the drug trade, and the chances of getting hurt in Mexico are really slim. The US is pretty safe too, but it is more dangerous in your big cities than it is in almost all areas of Mexico.

Just the facts would be boring. Can't blame media writers for trying to spruce things up.

hello. these articles have been fair warning to anyone adventuring to Mexico, and a great service. it disgusts me how people crave the money from tourists so much because of their own failed economy, ... that a perceived unacceptable risk to safety outweighs reasoning. tourism first is determined by projected safety. no one in Mexico can declare because it is safe there today, it will be safe tomorrow. our own government has even fueled the conflict with guns walking fast and furiously into Mexico. until the murders, the hostage taking, and the corruption stops- you may be living under false senses of security. tourists best be warned of the dangers, even if you think they are isolated. cartels could strike at any time, anywhere - and that is the problem.

You are right to call it a war. However, I would take it one step further and call it a Civil War. The cartels seek to essentially control entire stretches of Mexico through controlling the police, judges, military and politicians. Northern Mexico is cartel territory.

Could it be a pretext to "escape" and come to the USA in large numbers, escaping a "war" like Central Americans did in the late 70's/early 80's. Mexicans in the USA didn't like the sudden influx of people they didn't like. So I wonder sometimes... if finally they've matched that in terms of finding an excuse to seek the same motives to emigrating to the USA. I just wonder, knowing from experience how they really are.

John Fries is wrong. He is taking the attitude of "just because I do not see it, it is not happening" which is fallacy. And comparing the idea that there are certain areas of Mexico he would not travel to just as there are certain areas of Los Angeles he would not travel to is plain lunacy. Since 2006, Mexico has had more than twice as many people killed in narco violence than have been killed in Afghanistan since 2001 and no one balks at calling Afghanistan a war. I could have taken John to many places in Iraq in 2006 or 2007 where we could have had a nice sweet tea, smoked the hookah and had some kabob with some wonderful Iraqi's but it would not in any way mean there was no war going on there or that Iraq was not under seige.

Why shouldn't marijuana be legalized? Why shouldn't hard drug addicts have a way to get what they "need" legally, if they agree to not cause any problems in return? The current situation is like 1920's prohibition style violence on steroids, and equally futile. Santos of Columbia and Calderon have both recently gone further than before towards supporting a coordinated worldwide end to marijuana prohibition. The alternative is worldwide war without end, whatever the precise % of Mexico that can be described as under siege at the moment.

I have been living and working in Mexico for the past seven years and travel frequently throughout the country. There are areas I no longer travel to, but in cities like Puebla, Guadalajara, Guanajuato and even Mexico City life goes on pretty normally, although violence does occur. So to use the term MEXICO UNDER SIEGE is a great exageration, since the word siege conveys images of martial law, the ongoing presence of armed forces in the streets, tanks, burning buildings etc. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The violence in drug routes is real, thanks in part to all the high powered weapons that our own government provided through ¨Fast and Furious¨to the sicarios, but it scares people away from peaceful places like Puerto Vallarta, Cancun, Huatulco and so many others, thus hurting the Mexican economy. Personally, I feel safer going through the streets of Mexico City than some streets in Los Angeles.

I lived in Monterrey for 14 years. It's true things have changed for the worse. But I lived in New York City from 1985 till 1992. In the mid 80`s there were an average of 42 gun murders between Friday evening and Sunday night that's 2200. So NYC was more dangerous than Monterrey is.
But it was no big deal because ALL the victims were poor young black men.
In Monterrey it's poor young men -- so now why does every body get all riled up?

The news coverage by the LA Times of Mexico is the best in the United States by a major newspaper. Mexico is one-third the size of the U.S. in territory and population. Much of the news coverage in the U.S. is biased and exploitative with a political agenda. The Mexican people by in large adore America. They have an idealized image of life in the United States. Many Mexicans have family members living in America and many Mexicans have previously lived in the U.S. American citizens are seldom victims of the war on drugs in Mexico. The cartels do not target Americans.

its clearly crimincal activity. 100 million people in mexico, a lot of nice cities its a large country; if the government wants to have less gun violence they can make it happen. the usa is not the worlds free security service. and this type of criminal violence only strengthens the usa position that the border needs to be strongly secured. most likely with air and electronic video. a fence is not praticle but more modern technology would be possible. it was sad to hear that the mexican governement actually encouraged illegals from any country like china and europe also to cross the border illegally, that is why securing the borders is more and more important. not just because of the criminals because mexico is not controling who comes into the country or gun violence.

It is true that a few cities ( more than we all Mexicans would like ) are extremely dangerous, Ciudad Juarez and Reynosa just to name two of them, but it is also true that there are many other places where you can have a normal life. Criminals exist everywhere, you are not safe 100% anywhere in the world, not only Mexico or the USA (remember, America is the whole continent, not just one country). I live half of the time in Los Cabos and the other half in Los Angeles, and it makes me feel sad to see that the news encourage people NOT to travel to Mexico, making it look like the whole country is under siege. Yes, there is a war between drug cartels, with the one and only purpose to control the drugs distribution to the USA territory. The solution might seem very simple, eliminate the consumption and there won't be anyone to sell drugs to, business will be over. The real problem to my point of view is the consumer, not the distributor.

With all due respect to the reader, and as a Mexican citizen, I don't think there's any sensationalism here. The fact that the war is deep in a bloody conflict doesn't mean that every corner of the country is a bloodbath, or that it's comparable to a sieged state. Yes, Mexico still has peaceful, beautiful towns, corners, etc... But the scale and scope of the cartel war that errupted 5 years ago is without precedent, and there are in fact massive cities like Juarez, Monterrey, Acapulco, Chihuahua and Morelia that live in an indescribable state of fear and violence. Take into account these are all major cities. Many roads have been hijacked either by the cartels or the army, both terrible plagues.
So yes, I agree with the reader in that Mexico is not completely destroyed, there is still peace and beauty in many of its parts, but the grasp of the cartels and the accompanying violence is not exxagerated by the press, it is real, savage and massive.

Unless we increase deportations this is our fate.

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