Telling the Whole Truth About the "Drug War"
Thoughts on the Open Letter by El Diario of Juárez to Narco-Traffickers
By Al Giordano
Publisher, Narco News
Not being a narco-trafficker, the recent open letter from the Diario de Juárez wasn’t addressed to me. Still, as a colleague in journalism who has long reported on the drug war, I would like to offer some thoughts, both for the editors that wrote it, and the rest of our colleagues in the media professions and especially for the general public.
Narco News today translates El Diario’s open letter, titled, “What Do You Want from Us?” which is addressed “To the leaders of the different organizations that are fighting for control of Ciudad Juarez.” It comes from a newspaper that has already lost two reporters to assassination and that lives under daily and nightly fear. The first human reactions to such a situation are sympathy and empathy. But in this case, as with most tragedies, caring is not enough.
The newspaper writes:
“All of you are, at this moment, the de facto authorities in this city, because the legally instituted authorities have not been able to do anything to stop our colleagues from continuing to die, although we have repeatedly called for them to act.”
This is interesting because in most of the world the legal private sector of business interests, particularly the corporate media, have become themselves a kind of “de facto authority” over public opinion and all levels of government. Seen in that light, one has to recognize that we in the media are not suddenly passive victims of the drug war that for too long has been ideologically bankrolled by the “reporting” of too many of our colleagues.
That early paragraph in the open letter can only further rarify the dysfunction and risk of violence through its implicit recognition of “instituted authorities,” meaning government and its police and military forces, as somehow being more legitimate than those of organized crime and narco-traffickers.
As we have reported at Narco News for more than a decade, governments and their policies of drug prohibition are not intended to eliminate illegal drug use or commerce, because government officials – including politicians and the banks and other business interests that finance them – are profiteering off the drug war just as much as the so-called (and misnamed) “cartel” leaders.
We will say it again: drug trafficking organizations are not cartels. We try not to use the term in this newspaper and here is why:
Here’s an example of a cartel: OPEC – the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries. It controls the supply of a product – oil – and therefore can set the price. Narco-traffickers – even the most powerful among them – have never enjoyed that kind of control over the supply and price of cocaine, marijuana or any other product. It is much more the actions of governments that determine the price: More enforcement tends to raise the street price of a prohibited product, and less enforcement tends to lower it. That’s basic economics.
The higher the price, the bigger the profits, and a higher price also attracts more competitors trying to do business in that product. Those competing businesses – legal or illegal, that’s what this is, a business – have to establish and protect turf against each other in an unregulated market. The more enforcement, the greater the necessity for drug trafficking organizations to arm up with more lethal weaponry; but that presents no problem, really, because greater enforcement brings them the greater profits (through the artificially increased price of the drugs) so that buying and creating entire arsenals of guns and other weapons simply becomes a percentage of the cost of doing business.
The “drug war” of Mexican President Felipe Calderon may be the most obvious example of how government, police and military officials, themselves involved in the illegal drug trade, use drug laws as a pretext to eliminate the competition to open the markets and the shipping routes to their own favored narco-trafficking organizations: the ones that offer the authorities and their preferred narco-bankers the bigger slice of the profits.
And most of the profits come not from the sale of the drug but from the laundering of the billions of dollars in proceeds by banks and other financial institutions to turn the dirty money into legal capital. That means that the real kingpins of narco-trafficking are not the ones fighting the street wars against each other or against the police and military. They’re not the guys with fancy nicknames like “Lord of the Skies” or the recently arrested “La Barbie.” The real bosses of the illegal drug trade wear suits and ties, give big donations to all the political parties and their candidates, and get invitations to state dinners from Los Pinos to the White House.
Those are the real narco-bosses atop this violent food chain (and when this newspaper and the Mexican daily Por Esto! reported the photos and eye-witness testimonies about one of them back in 2000, we quickly found ourselves defendant in a libel suit filed by the National Bank of Mexico, or BANAMEX; so, yes, we know from long experience what the colleagues at El Diario and others are going through.)
“Follow the money” is often cited as the first axiom of journalism, a phrase made famous in the Hollywood movie about the Watergate scandal and the two Washington Post reporters who uncovered it. Well, if journalists took those words as something more than a cheap self-important slogan, the daily drug war coverage would be about banks and politicians and big-money moves on Wall Street instead of this circus-like “coverage” about so-called “cartels” and their alleged leaders, arrests, seized kilos and street violence, most of which involves no more than taking dictation from prosecutors and government officials, their press releases and anonymous “leaks.”
Think about it: the most powerful drug-running organizations – governments – have set the tone, the language, the sensationalist buzz words and the matrix by which most of the press covers the “drug war.” If you’re a street level drug dealer or a leader of one of the competing illegal drug trafficking organizations, the headlines in most of the media are probably pissing you off daily. The hypocrisy is so great as to be enraging, even if you’re not involved in the drug business but simply hate it when big lies get repeated over and over again, louder with every day’s broadcast, and especially when it causes so much human pain, misery, death and destruction.
While some honest reporters have been assassinated or live under daily threat for their reporting on the drug war, let’s state the dirty little secret of the official “press freedom” organizations that participate in this charade while fueling the false drug war narrative: It is also the case that many of the assassinated “journalists” lost their lives because leaders of one drug organization perceived – many times accurately – that journalist or news organizing as having chosen sides and doing the propaganda work of a competing drug organization. Media outlets that accept “official information” from government agencies about drug “cartels” and their leaders, in the eyes of those illicit businessmen, cease to be civilians and become just as much soldiers in the drug wars as the guys on the street with AK-47s.
The dangerous situation for honest and dishonest reporters, editors and media organizations alike is made worse by another dirty little matter: It is not uncommon – in fact, it is standard operating procedure – for “reporters” and their editors to accept payments and bribes from crime organizations and from government officials to spin their stories in the ways their secret sponsors want. Again, these corrupt “journalists” are no more civilians than the police or military official that accepts payments to enforce the law against one group of people in order to help a competing crime organization. And too many of the “assassinated journalists” in the drug war, in Mexico, in Colombia and elsewhere, lost their lives precisely because they had ceased to be journalists and had become partisans and soldiers of competing narco-trafficking interests.
Even when direct financial payment is not made, every journalist knows that documents and other information are the currency by which we rise or fall in this profession. Government officials have long owned and controlled the reporting of many journalists by spoon-feeding them the documents that will tell a story as they want it to be told.
A case in point: In the 1990s, when the office of Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo wanted to eliminate some competing politicians in his own party, the PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party), they gave a set of documents to then New York Times reporter Sam Dillon – according to the reporting of national columnist Carlos Ramírez – which were then turned into “investigative reports” in the Times and submitted by the newspaper as nominees for the Pulitzer prize in journalism. The reports tagged the competing politicians as narcos, of course.
The documents handed over to the Times – we don’t believe much “investigation” was involved; we view it as more a case of receiving documents and typing them up into Timespeak - told a partly true story about one corrupt politician – then governor of the state of Morelos – while it fabricated a wholly false one about the other, Manlio Fabio Beltrones, today a possible 2012 presidential candidate in Mexico who has obviously weathered the PR storm. After the NY Times played its role as Zedillo’s spectacular hit man, Beltrones lawyered up, sent the documented facts showing the libels committed by Dillon’s story, and the Times filed an unprecedented correction of its own Pulitzer winning story. (The Pulitzer committee, meanwhile, has no process to withdraw an award once given, so Dillon can still crow to whoever is unlucky enough to be seated next him on an airplane about an award that those few who pay attention to these things see as deeply tainted).
But, really, what is the difference between a reporter publishing falsified “news” from official sources meant to take out a hit on competing interests in exchange for a “big scoop” and possible awards and career advancement, and one who accepts a bribe of money? Official and corporate journalism in the twenty-first century has itself become a form of racketeering. Couldn’t it be said that the big media companies are more “News Cartels” than any crime organization ever will be a cartel of anything? And for those who are, again and again, on the receiving end of these informational hits, it is not only enraging, but understandably difficult to see the participating journalists as anything other than legitimate military targets. I’m not defending these acts – I don’t believe in death penalties for any crime – but nor am I, as an authentic journalist, going to play along with the false narrative that all the journalists who have been assassinated in Mexico or elsewhere were slain because they were honestly telling the truth.
There is even a commonly used street term for the bribe received by a journalist from a government official or business interest: El chayote, named for a food (one of those which some call a vegetable and others call a fruit, so I’ll just call it a food). And the corrupt reporters who receive these bribes are nationally known as chayoteros. Like US dollars, chayotes are green and spiny.
In the first years of Narco News, it probably wouldn’t surprise anyone to hear that we were approached a number of times by people we reasonably believed might be intermediaries for different drug trafficking organizations, offering gifts of expensive ads on our pages for unnamed legitimate companies. “We don’t accept advertising,” I replied.
“But don’t you want money?” was the typical response. “Couldn’t you use it to further your cause?”
“Sure, but not that kind of money, because it comes with strings attached.”
I would typically give what I call “the Godfather speech” to these presumed intermediaries. It went like this: “Tell your boss that we appreciate his respect and we mean no disrespect by turning down the offer. Of course we have also heard of the ‘silver or lead’ stories where journalists or public officials are first offered money and next threatened with bullets if we don’t do as asked. If that is the case, just send someone over to kill me, right away, because we’re never going to take advertising or any other money meant to influence our coverage. But also please tell your boss that we think it would be an error to kill us because he now knows we won’t do it for his competitors either. We’re the ones telling the whole truth about government involvement in the drug trade and our editorial policy favors legalization, so that their children and grandchildren can grow up to be congressmen, judges, or even president: just like Rockefellers and Kennedys whose forefathers made their fortunes as alcohol traffickers.”
Pretty quickly word must have got around the narco-trafficking circles and there have been no attempts for many years to try and bribe us or threaten us from those corners. For more than seven years, not one. The real threats have always been from the likes of the bankers we defeated in the New York Supreme Court in 2001, and from government officials.
And, again, we’re not out there peddling the official version of the “drug war” story. And we are not recognizing the legal authorities as somehow “legitimate,” nor allowing our pages to be used to promote their narratives each day about the latest “cartel” or “kingpin” (who, over our ten years of intensely reporting the drug war in Mexico, Colombia and elsewhere, have changed names and faces so many times anyway that we already know that this year’s “kingpin” fed to the press by the “authorities” is next year’s prisoner or cemetery plot or missing person, only to be instantly replaced by the next one, so on and so forth). The only narco-trafficking organizations to have survived these ten years are the governments; the permanent “drug cartels.”
Journalists who report on the “drug war” can plainly see what the game is really about: Raising the price of the drugs to create higher profits, and installing favored crime organizations to control it while eliminating their competitors. And it has the added benefit of fomenting fear, because a public that feels afraid is an easier people to control.
The drug trade is a business, and the fact that it is illegal doesn’t make its underlying dynamics that much different from the businesses of newspapers, television and radio stations, or the rest of the private sector. If a reporter or media organization were to unfairly choose sides between one corporation against another, legal companies always have recourse to take it to court. But what recourse does a prohibited business have to redress its own grievances other than violence?
The drug war violence in Mexico is already so out of control and so dysfunctional that some honest reporters will continue to get caught in the crossfire and pay the ultimate price. That could be you, or me, or anyone else. But it is the dishonest reporters and news organizations, or the haplessly stupid ones, who really place all of us journalists at greater risk. They have caused the widespread public disrespect that exists toward our entire profession.
In that sense, leaders of drug trafficking organizations don’t really see things much different than the average man or woman on the street. You don’t have to love them or endorse their methods or their products to be able to get into their heads and pay attention to events as they probably see them. When they see a journalist doing the bidding for their competitors, often based on spoon fed “information” and leaks from government officials who are protecting their competitors and putting their businesses and lives in jeopardy, how many times can that happen before anyone in that position would start to see those “journalists” as soldiers in the opposing army?
That, in our studied opinion, is the root source of the growing threats against journalists in Mexico, in a climate already rarified by an illegitimate and failed state that has always been hostile to a free press. As a journalist, I would never call the cops or ask governments for protection. To do so would be to offer them a legitimacy they neither have nor deserve. And with all due respect to the colleagues at El Diario, their open letter at multiple points reads like an appeal to the government for help. That’s like seeking the protection of one mafia against another. And only makes it more likely that the competing forces will see them as not neutral in the war.
At Narco News, we’re not neutral either, but we are partisan in a very different way, and have always disclosed it: Our editorial position, stated since day one, opposes the drug war and its foundation of drug prohibition. That’s not exactly a position of guaranteed safety either, but at least if it comes to the point where one or more of us die for doing our jobs, we will have gone down proudly in a worthy struggle, and not for a pendejada of seeking fame and fortune by pulling off informational hits on one group of criminals on behalf of another, and certainly not in service to the biggest, really the only, drug cartels that exist: the governments that propagate these violent acts through a policy called prohibition.
And we cordially invite all our colleagues in the media to begin to see the problem for what it is: one of policy, completely reversible and preventable. And on the day when enough of us in the Fourth Estate cease doing the Official Cartel’s bidding in our reporting, drug prohibition will finally fall, as alcohol prohibition did before it, and peace and tranquility will be restored to our cities and towns. Meanwhile, it becomes harder each day to tell the civilians from the soldiers, as the official charade marches violently on…