Movies, TV shows, and songs have a warped way of portraying the violent conflict.
At daybreak on June 3rd, border patrol agents in the Vekol Valley south of Phoenix followed a set of tire tracks that veered off Interstate 8 and into the rugged desert. A burnt sport-utility vehicle smoldered on the horizon. Inside they discovered five bodies charred so badly it was impossible to determine their age, gender, or ethnicity.
"It looks like a cartel hit," Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu told reporters shortly after, calling a drug connection "very likely" in this region known for trafficking. "It happens all the time in Mexico: Our fear and concern is that this violence is spilling deep into the heart of Arizona."
Media nationwide picked up the story, including CNN, Fox, and CBS, adding another grisly tableau to a border narrative that's turned increasingly violent since Mexican President Felipe Calderón escalated the drug war in 2006. Since then, narco violence in Mexico has become so pervasive that officials round estimates to the nearest ten thousand: more than 50,000 deaths in less than six years.
Yet according to a Pew study of international news coverage between January 2009 and September 2011, just 0.6 percent of U.S. news stories were about the drug war, placing it 12th against all international stories in that period. The debate over immigration got twice the attention. Meanwhile, cartel violence seems to be everywhere in pop culture. Mexican cartels feature prominently in network crime dramas like CSI and NCIS, cable hits like Weeds and Sons of Anarchy, and most notably, AMC's critically acclaimed Breaking Bad, which follows an Albuquerque high school chemistry teacher turned meth cook who outguns and outdeals cartel operators south of the border. Latin drug lords continue to make good popcorn fare, too. One of this summer's most hyped films is Oliver Stone's Savages, in which Taylor Kitsch (a.k.a. Tim Riggins) goes for revenge against a gang led by Salma Hayek, whose work in the cartel-shootout genre dates back to 1995's Desperado.
If U.S. audiences don't care for much border violence in the news, apparently they're glad to see it stylized on the screen, preferably with great-looking actors and a pop-Latin soundtrack. Portraying Mexico as a lawless Wild West is one of Hollywood's most reliable tropes, and the filthy rich, self-made Latino drug lord is such a marketable stereotype that it's inspired entire Grand Theft Auto franchises and a mobile Scarface game that allows players to relive Tony Montana's most violent scenes on the iPad.
For years now, audiences have been bombarded with cartel stereotypes, and let's not forget that those audiences include law enforcement, government officials, and the press. So can we blame Sheriff Barbeu for dreaming up scenarios that could link that burnt-out SUV to Mexican cartels? "This could have been a drug deal gone bad," he told reporters, "or done for revenge or retaliation."
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Hold up there, Sheriff. Days after the car was discovered, police in Tempe connected the five bodies to the missing Butwin family of Tempe, AZ and began investigating the case as a murder-suicide. Investigators believe that the father, James Butwin, diagnosed with a brain tumor and facing financial difficulties, murdered his wife and three children in their home, drove them out into the desert, and torched the vehicle. What was once an ominous, anonymous sign of drug violence hitting too close to home was transformed overnight into a shocking family tragedy that left a community reeling.
The hasty conclusions in Arizona underscore how the spectacle of ultraviolence has the potential to obscure facts. The language in the headlines alone—"Mexican drug war," "Mexican cartels," "Border violence"—distort reality by emphasizing the bloodshed south of the border while downplaying the United States' role as the world's largest market for illicit drugs and source of the majority of firearms recovered from crime scenes in Mexico. Corruption among Mexican government and law enforcement is frequently cited as the top reason why cartels are able to move their product so freely, yet little attention is paid to the corrupt U.S. officials and border agents who have been investigated and arrested for assisting traffickers. The very origins of Los Zetas, the most notoriously brutal cartel operating in Mexico today, are rooted in the United States. Founding members of the organization were Mexican Army defectors who had received special forces training in the United States at the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, known formerly as the School of the Americas. The press is right to be reporting on the relentless loss of life and the threat to public safety on both sides of the border, yet the steady stream of uncontextualized bloodshed does little to help people understand the complexity of the situation.
The problems of portraying the drug war aren't unique to the United States. In Mexico, both journalists and entertainers have faced criticism for their coverage of drug violence. Government officials have accused reporters of glorifying kingpins and furthering their terror agenda by broadcasting the warning messages left behind at crime scenes. Cartels have killed dozens of journalists and threatened to silence others for spreading word of arrests and killings that make certain organizations look strong or weak. Last year, more than 700 of Mexico's news organizations agreed to a 10-point accord to protect their journalists and avoid glorifying crime bosses.