REYNOSA, Mexico — The big philosophical question in this gritty border town does not concern trees falling in the forest but bodies falling on the concrete: Does a shootout actually happen if the newspapers print nothing about it, the radio and television stations broadcast nothing, and the authorities never confirm that it occurred?Awhile back, in a post titled "Might 'open sourced' criminal intelligence protect journalists and strike a blow against multinational drug cartels," I suggested a somewhat creative strategy to circumvent this problem, which is worth raising again in light of the continued escalation of violence against reporters in Mexico:
As two powerful groups of drug traffickers engaged in fierce urban combat in Reynosa in recent weeks, the reality that many residents were living and the one that the increasingly timid news media and the image-conscious politicians portrayed were difficult to reconcile. ...
Angry residents who witnessed the carnage began to fill the void, posting raw videos and photos taken with cellphones.
“The pictures do not lie,” said a journalist in McAllen, Tex., who monitors what is happening south of the border online but has stopped venturing there himself. “You can hear the gunshots. You can see the bodies. You know it’s bad.”...
Journalists have long been among the victims, but the attacks on members of the media now under way in Reynosa and elsewhere along a long stretch of border from Nuevo Laredo to Matamoros are at their worst.
Traffickers have gone after the media with a vengeance in these strategic border towns where drugs are smuggled across by the ton. They have shot up newsrooms, kidnapped and killed staff members and called up the media regularly with threats that were not the least bit veiled. Back off, the thugs said. Do not dare print our names. We will kill you the next time you publish a photograph like that.
“They mean what they say,” said one of the many terrified journalists who used to cover the police beat in Reynosa. “I’m censoring myself. There’s no other way to put it. But so is everybody else.”
As an hypothetical thought experiment, what could law enforcement do to help that problem?That was written more than two years ago and the problem since then has dramatically escalated. I harbor no illusions that authorities will overcome their penchant for security through obscurity anytime soon. That would require a cultural change in law enforcement that may be insurmountable.
I'm thinking of a potential media strategy where government systematically exposes what it knows about drug cartel operations in order to a) protect and assist journalists and b) generate additional intelligence and public cooperation. That might create new opportunities in the battle against organized crime, especially compared to the tactic of concealing information from the public, which leaves truth tellers in the media and informants horribly exposed. ...
Here's my question: Why not expose what you know about these folks, and that way more journalists don't get killed doing the job for you? Given the utter failure at arresting and prosecuting multinational drug cartels on a scale that affects supply, what benefit does law enforcement gain from keeping that information a secret?
Even if Mexican or US police can't capture or convict cartel figures for their crimes, you can publicize them, increasingly over time educating the public on their misdeeds and turning them into pariahs instead of some sort of latter day Robin Hoods.
When an informant is killed, tell the media who they were prepared to rat on. When a police officer is murdered, tell the public who they were investigating that got them killed. When arrests are made, don't just give the media names and charges but the narrative as to how they fit into this, that or the other drug trafficking organization's overall operations.
That way, reporters won't have to die telling the public information their government already knows.
There would still be some information that couldn't be revealed because it could only have come from a particular, readily identifiable individual who would be endangered, but the more information generally that's circulating about drug cartels, the more difficult it will become to pinpoint any one source for any particular piece of datum.
Plus, putting information out in the world inevitably means law enforcement would get information back. That's the lesson of the blogosphere compared to the MSM: There's always someone out there with more or different information or views who we may not know about, and we learn more by engaging them in conversation. That's arguably more true about black market criminal activity than it is, even about more commonly debated public policy topics.
Spreading information widely invites an interactive relationship with the public in a way that wasn't possible 10-15 years ago, when limitations on technology dictated more of a one-way exchange. That's been true in the media, and it's an argument, to me, for law enforcement changing its historic information strategies when battling multinational drug cartels.
In the same sense that open source software tends to be more secure than proprietary systems (because more eyes are scanning the code looking for mistakes and problems), "open sourcing" criminal intelligence gathering - or portions of it - might achieve important policy objectives, assisting in winning hearts and minds of the public and empowering the public with knowledge that will help them recognize when they run across information that could help authorities.
If cartel thugs can intimidate the media into not reporting their names or actions, they win a significant victory. Law enforcement in both the US and Mexico could seize that victory from the cartels' grasp and protect journalists in the process, simply by telling us what they know.
But something radical must be done: Mexico is losing its war against the drug cartels. Possibly it already HAS lost; I would not be surprised if they've already passed a tipping point beyond which it's impossible for the government to prevail. If there's any hope of defeating the cartels, however, it must involve winning the hearts and minds of the public. That can't happen if no one's reporting what's going on.