Sunday, March 14, 2010

New strategies needed to protect journalists in Mexican drug war

The New York Times yesterday ran an article on widespread drug cartel intimidation and assassination of reporters covering Mexico's drug war, which has resulted in many murders and other major, criminal events going uncovered in the MSM ("Fearing drug cartels, reporters in Mexico retreat," March 13). The story opens:
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?

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.”

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 an hypothetical thought experiment, what could law enforcement do to help that problem?

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.
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.

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.


D.A. Confidential said...

As a former newspaper reporter, I abhor the targeting of journalists like this, it truly sickens me. And I'd not read your initial post (two years ago) about "open-sourcing" new coverage.

I think it's a great idea, I really do. The concerns we usually have about government naming villains and describing their activities is twofold: 1. tipping their investigative/prosecutorial hands, and 2. unfairly labeling someone a criminal before a case has been proven. As you point out, those are not real concerns here.
My one worry would be that while it's "the government" doing the naming and shaming, so to speak, that means individuals writing the stories, showing up for work at a specific location. They'd have to be great care not to replace journalist victims with govt. employee victims. And one wonders how long the story-writers would be able to remain anonymous in such a leaky society.

Anonymous said...

Just maybe this is a story nobody really wants covered, perhaps even ... our government. If Americans could get this on their TeeVees they might start asking questions about what is going on and why, and they might come to some rational conclusions. Maybe even something like this: Why won't the government do something about the beast they have created with their "war on drugs"? These cartels could be entirely and permanently defunded and destroyed with a single act of Congress -- repeal of all drug contraband laws. Why not? Somebody might die from drugs? As our young people head for the south coast, it's so comforting to know they can't buy marijuana.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Thanks, DAC. I agree that law enforcement reporters could theoretically be targeted just like journalists, but so far the cartels have avoided killing American cops. Hopefully they'd continue to fear crossing that threshold, though I think we all know the day is coming when the violence in Juarez, Reynosa, etc., makes its way north of the river.

Also, if we're rethinking roles, there's no absolute requirement for a government employee "showing up for work at a specific location" when writing can be done anywhere with web access.

Bottom line: Somebody's got to stand up to these thugs. I understand why the journalists won't, but if the cops won't, either, we may as well just throw up our hands, legalize, and be done with it.

woodbutcher said...

If the police and the army and who knows how many inteligence agencys have not stopped or even slowed down the flow of drugs and violence then a reporter or even 10 reporters will make no diff.The desire to make money and have power or control is completly differant than the desire to escape ones reality for a while. People are always going to want a way to relax or escape daily troubles and stressfull situations and punishing peopel for doing so is pathetic it's like punising a person for eating or breathing The only wy this will ever have a peaceful outcome is through legalization we all know this even the LEO's know this but until black market profits are removed from the buisness nothing will change cops will continue to die politicians will continue to lie and we will all continue to pay for it one way or another

Gritsforbreakfast said...

woodbutcher, realistically the cartels have branched out into so many other areas of smuggling, human trafficking, extortion and other criminal activity that even if the drug profits went away tomorrow, they'd still have to be put down by force. While that might be easier if they didn't have endless resources, there would still have to be a law enforcement response as well as the political one. Federal agents had to pursue US rumrunners for years after Prohibition ended and organized crime gangs were disempowered but not automatically eliminated with its repeal, although we can see in retrospect that was a pivotal turning point.

Anonymous said...

They didnt have to pursue them .. they choose to pursue them. & yes the cartels do have multiple sources of income but i would think that pursuing people involved in the selling of humens would be a little more important to us than going after drug users / dealers the resources saved by eliminating prohibition would free up a lot more time to after peopel who are hurting others instead of trying to protect people from them selves which is pretty much what prohibtion is all about .Well that and giving easy cushy high paying jobs to people who support this madness

Anonymous said...

It just got worse, with the targeting of US foreign service officials and their families yesterday.

You have to wonder how long it will be before US military forces get drawn into direct combat with the cartels.