Mexican Media Blitz: Just How Bad Is the Country’s Drug War?


Less than a week ago, USA Today published an article about the proliferation of Mexican drug-cartel videos on YouTube, claiming that, like Jihadis and insurgents before them, narcocorridos now use the popular website to promote their cause. (Cartel leaders openly ran an ad campaign last year to recruit military deserters, so it’s not as if they’re shy about showing off.)

This was just the latest in a series of troubling dispatches from Mexico’s drug war. In the past couple of months alone, the media has flocked to stories about the flow of guns across borders, violence seeping into small Southwestern towns, and most recently, the ascent of cultured young drug barons as the new Mexican elite. All this coverage raises the question: Have things changed so much in Mexico as to warrant all the newfound media blitz?

In a way, the answer is yes. Over the past year, the country’s rise in drug-related violence has become not only a national crisis, but a politically loaded issue, calling into question the US’ current relationship with Mexico and casting shadows on President Felipe Calderón‘s ability to deal with the deteriorating situation. In 2008, cartels killed nearly 6,300 people, and only eight weeks into 2009, the number had already climbed to 1,000.

Concerns about the country mounted in earnest last year, when the US Defense Department released a Joint Forces Command Report (pdf) naming Mexico and Pakistan as two states likely to “bear consideration for a rapid and sudden collapse.” That bold statement generated a “Mexico as possible failed state” meme that quickly gained currency in the media. But many foreign-policy experts (and the Mexican government itself, of course) objected, arguing that, while cartel culture may be pervasive, the government is still very much in control.

Indeed, it’s wise to look at the situation in its proper context. One of the better cases for what’s happened in Mexico comes from the New America Foundation’s Jorge Castañeda, who points out that things haven’t changed dramatically in recent years; it’s simply that President Calderón decided to orient his administration around the drug wars without a suitable means to fight them. Like George W. Bush in Iraq, Castañeda argues, Calderón is now in the position of having to perpetuate a failing war with no easy resolution in sight. On the positive side, the cartels are not “embedded” in Mexico the way insurgencies usually are. They don’t have popular support, aren’t looking to overthrow the government, and, ultimately, are mostly concerned with doing what they’ve always done: selling drugs. With that in mind, perhaps conversations about Mexico can move away from whether or not it’s about to collapse, and toward a more constructive model of addressing the actual issues at hand.

For more comprehensive coverage of the events, check out the LA Times‘ superb “Mexico Under Siege” series.

Image: Reuters/Daniel Aguilar