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.