The Border Violence Myth
If media reports are to be believed, an Armageddon-like rash of drug-related violence--unlike any seen since "Miami Vice years of the 1980s"--has crossed from Mexico into the United States, "just as government officials had feared." Even if you've never used or sold drugs, you're not safe: kidnappers are breaking into the wrong houses and holding innocent civilians for ransom, putting guns in babies' mouths. Severed heads might end up being rolled into dance clubs, beheadings might end up on YouTube. Television segments narrated like war documentaries broadcast dramatic footage of Border Patrol Humvees kicking up dust in the Southwest, Minutemen with binoculars overlooking the border and piles of confiscated drugs. In the national media, it's become a foregone conclusion that Mexican drug violence has penetrated the United States.
But the numbers tell a different story. According to crime statistics for American cities along the US-Mexico border and major US metro areas along drug routes, violent crimes, including robberies, have either decreased in the first part of 2009 or remained relatively stable. This is not to say that the increased violence in Mexico has had no impact in the United States or that no violence in the United States can be traced to the conflict in Mexico. Rather the drive not to get "scooped" by competitors has led media outlets to conclude prematurely--based on hearsay and isolated incidents--that a wave of drug-related violence is upon us.
The increase in drug-related violence in Mexico over the past few years is well established, the result of a crackdown on drug cartels by President Felipe Calderón's administration. By most accounts it began in December 2006 when 6,500 federal troops and police were dispatched to the Mexican state of Michoacán. In a series of gradual steps, this war on drugs broadened: over the past two years, 45,000 troops and 20,000 federal police have been dispatched to different regions of the country, primarily in northern Mexican cities like Tijuana and Ciudad Juárez. Almost 8,000 cartel-related deaths have been reported in Mexico, with a spike in the summer of 2008. The situation, however, had been viewed from a distance in the United States until the media began raising the nightmarish scenario of a spillover across the border.
In January 2009, outlets like the Associated Press, Fox News, the New York Times and MSNBC reported on contingency plans drafted by the Department of Homeland Security to address such a spillover, but the consensus seemed to be then that these measures were a precaution rather than a response to any real threat. A policy paper from the libertarian Cato Institute on the threat posed to the United States by Mexican drug cartels sounded a similar precautionary note.
The AP reported that El Paso Sheriff Richard Wiles said that he didn't "anticipate the city or county being overwhelmed by border violence." North Carolina Representative David Price said, "It appears so far that such violence is not yet systematically 'spilling over' as some have alleged."
In February, however, something tipped, and the question mark in news headlines--"Border Violence Spilling into the US?"--disappeared. Among the earliest reports that potential violence had become actual violence was an AP story that credited unnamed "authorities" with the news. Tellingly, the story did not contain a single direct quote stating either that violence had increased or that it was linked to the drug trade. Rather, it juxtaposed its broad claims against gruesome descriptions of drug violence in Mexico or wildly speculative quotes about what could happen here.
One of its most fearmongering statements came from Rusty Payne, identified as a "Drug Enforcement Administration spokesman in Washington," who said, "'When you are willing to chop heads off, put them in an ice chest and drop them off at a police precinct, or roll a head into a disco, put beheadings on YouTube as a warning,' very little is off limits."
The only relevant statistics included in the piece were the number of "home invasions" in Phoenix for each of the past two years--about 350, "the majority...committed at the behest of the Mexican drug gangs"--and the number of drug-related killings in Mexico over the past year, 5,000. Besides the fact that the steady number of home invasions in Phoenix over the past two years suggests that there had not been a recent increase in violence, the piece also readily concedes that in El Paso, Texas--across the border from Ciudad Juárez, dubbed the epicenter of Mexico's escalating drug war--has remained "one of America's safest cities."
Nevertheless, within weeks the New York Times jumped on the story: "Wave of Drug Violence Is Creeping Into Arizona From Mexico, Officials Say," the paper reported on February 23 in an article by Randal Archibold, concentrating on an increase in the number of residential robberies and kidnappings in Maricopa County, where Phoenix is located. This article and a mere handful of other reports shot through the media pipeline and were widely re-reported at places like CNN, Fox, USA Today and the Huffington Post, as well as in regional papers, a testament to the increasing paucity of firsthand news reporting.
The news reports on the increase in drug-related violence in the United States rely heavily on anecdotes, impressionistic quotes from police or politicians, and bare statistics presented without context. Most of the reporting examined violence in the border states of Arizona and Texas.
Tucson, Arizona, an hour's drive north of the international border, served as the centerpiece for another New York Times report on March 22 ("Mexican Drug Cartel Violence Spills Over, Alarming U.S.," also by Archibold). The story claimed that Tucson "is coping with a wave of drug crime the police suspect is tied to the bloody battles between Mexico's drug cartels and the efforts to stamp them out."
Public information officers who track crime statistics for the city say this is simply not true.
According to Chuck Rydzak, a public information officer with the Tucson Police Department, the number of violent crimes in the city from January to March of 2008--excluding robberies--was 651. For the same period this year, it's 632. The number of robberies is also down, from 333 to 307. The home invasions have also decreased: from thirty-four in the first four months of 2008 to thirty-three for the same period this year. It is also difficult to assert that this is a Mexican problem affecting the United States: only 10 percent of those involved in home invasions thus far this year have been undocumented immigrants. Kidnappings, too, are holding steady: there were twenty-seven in 2008 and seven so far this year.
"The statistics speak for themselves and they are not indicative of a spike in violent crime," said Sgt. Mark Robinson, another public information officer with the Tucson Police Department. "The violence is in Mexico."
Representatives of the police department say they have spent the past few months trying to correct misperceptions stemming from sensational media reports. "[The reports] just cost us a bunch of trouble because of a misinterpretation of what somebody said," Robinson added.