A survey of mainstream media reporting on U.S. military aid, the “drug war,” and human rights in Mexico.
Since 1994, more than 2,000 people have been killed or disappeared in Mexico.1 The victims have included journalists, human rights advocates, religious workers, and indigenous peasants. In 1997 the Mexican government’s own human rights commission received well over 8,000 allegations of human rights violations.2
Independent Mexican human rights organizations report even higher totals and note that between January and June of 1998, there were at least 124 politically-motivated murders in Mexico, 49 of them in the southern state of Chiapas.3 At the same time, U.S. overt military aid to Mexico grew from a 1993 total of less than $20 million4 to a high of more than $137 million in 1997 (the last year for which figures are available). Of the 1997 aid, $40 million was labeled as “drug war” funding. 5
Military training has similarly increased: In 1997, Mexican soldiers received more training and assistance from the U.S. School of the Americas and other U.S. military training academies than did soldiers from any other Latin American country.6
Concerned about this alarming set of interrelated trends and feeling a sick sense of deja vu–reports on U.S. complicity in the atrocities committed during the 1980s rebellions and civil wars in Central America have appeared in the mainstream media only recently–the Media Alliance Latin America/Caribbean Basin Committee began informally monitoring U.S. media coverage of Mexico about a year ago to determine whether these issues were being covered in the press.
Following the December 1997 Acteal massacre, in which 45 unarmed indigenous people were murdered by paramilitary forces, we saw occasional media reports that touched on U.S. connections to the Mexican military under the guise of the “war on drugs.” In a Feb. 26, 1998 story in the Washington Post, for example, Douglas Farah and Dana Priest scrutinize the abundant U.S. military aid to Mexico, ostensibly aimed at creating a counter-narcotics force. They report that the United States provided the Mexican military with 73 Huey UH-1H helicopters and four C-26 airplanes for surveillance, and trained more than 1,000 Mexican officers in helicopter assault tactics, explosives, rural and urban warfare, and intelligence gathering and planning–training “similar to the counterinsurgency methods imparted in training of Latin American officers during the Cold War,” Farah and Priest note. The story also questions whether the anti-narcotics force was effective in reducing drug trafficking–or even really intended to be.
Eager to see if the press would advance this story and put new events in the context of apparently related trends, the committee embarked on a more thorough survey of Mexico coverage.
We analyzed all stories on Mexico (except those related to sports and travel) published in May and June of 1998 in two major local papers–the San Francisco Chronicle and San Jose Mercury News–as well as coverage of Mexico in The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Christian Science Monitor, Wall Street Journal, and Miami Herald. (A small, but smart and thorough Oakland-based operation called Information Services Latin America provided us with the clippings from the national newspapers.)
Out of 125 stories surveyed, the vast majority focus on a single event or problem and provide little background information to put the stories into context for readers. None of the stories explore the complex relationship between U.S. military aid, the drug war, Mexican militarization in the countryside, and human rights abuses. In fact, only two stories even discuss U.S. military aid.
|Photo ©1994 Mercedes Romero
Even the best articles in the study–those that address at least two related trends and bring in some background information—fail to clarify potential connections, or address obvious questions. For instance, the idea that the Mexican military could be an effective anti-drug force should be suspicious on its face, given the widely reported involvement of military officers in drug trafficking, but no story challenges it.
One of the most thorough articles appearing during the study period, a June 12 Chronicle report that discusses fighting in three villages in Chiapas, cites human rights observers’ accusations that the Mexican government is carrying out “a war of attrition” against villages that support the Zapatistas. Wiebke Lohman © 1997 According to the article, “Peasants have accused soldiers of trampling their crops, eating their chickens . . . polluting their water supplies, stealing their farm tools, ruining rustic health clinics, and stealing hard-won luxuries such as radios, televisions, mattresses, and typewriters from their homes.” Farther down in the story, reporter Trina Kleist notes that the military has been using an increasing array of weaponry in the region since the Acteal massacre. The military hardware she lists includes American-made equipment.
Accusations of human rights abuses on one hand, U.S. military equipment appearing at the site of these abuses on the other. The article doesn’t hammer the connection home, but a reader could put two and two together. That unfortunately was not true of most of the other articles we examined. Typically, reporters did not even bring in background material that had run in their own papers.
|Photo ©1994 Mercedes Romero.
Even the Washington Post, in its stories on the drug war, corruption within the Mexican Army, and the human rights abuses in Chiapas, fails to make connections between what was happening at the moment and what its February article revealed about U.S. involvement. For example, a June 9 Post article by Serge F. Kovaleski reports on a clash between an army patrol and a group of fighters in Guerrero affiliated with the Popular Revolutionary Army, a rebel group that formed about a year after the Zapatista uprising. While the article, headlined “Mexican Government Hardens Position Toward Country’s Rebels,” reports that four military helicopters showered a school with bullets and explosives resulting in 11 deaths, it never mentions the sale of U.S. helicopters to Mexico or the training in helicopter assault tactics described in the earlier Post story. In fact, it doesn’t mention U.S. aid at all.
A June 8 Los Angeles Times article on the same attack against rebels in Guerrero exemplifies how reporters’ choice of sources and failure to ask critical questions can completely change readers’ perceptions of a news event. The LA Times article is based almost entirely on a communiqué from the Mexican military. The only other source in the story–quoted once–is a local government official. That article states, “Marxist guerrillas opened fire on an army anti-drug patrol.” This account–provided by the Mexican military–is quite different from the Washinton Post’s description of the incident which had government troops shooting at and dropping explosives on rebels in a school. Perhaps if the LA Times reporter had interviewed and included other sources in the story, a different picture of what happened might have emerged. The interesting thing about this article is that the Mexican military itself brings up the topic of the drug war. The military communiqué claims that the army patrol was traveling in that area of Guerrero as part of the “Permanent Campaign Against Narcotics.” The Mexican military kills 11 rebels in the course of its war on drugs. The U.S. funds Mexico’s drug war to the tune of millions of dollars. But the LA Times fails to analyze the U.S. role–or even to mention it.
|Photo ©1997 Wiebke Lohman|
An Associated Press article published June 4 in the Mercury News reports that 1,000 troops swarmed into a small town in Chiapas, firing tear gas, breaking down doors, and ultimately arresting 167 “rebel sympathizers.” Headlined “Raidbrings Mexican town ‘into conformity,'” the article states, “Some of the officers carried assault rifles, and they broke down doors to drag suspects from their beds in the early-morning raid. Helicopters flew overhead.”
Were these U.S. helicopters? Again, the article doesn’t say. The biggest problem with most of these stories is not what they say, but what they don’t say. Come to them with the background knowledge we had, and you’d know that six U.S-trained Mexican military officers were charged in April 1998 with carrying out torture and murder in Zapopan, Jalisco.7
Information like that would put reports of military officers breaking down doors and dragging suspects from their beds in early-morning raids into a different context–the context of possible human rights abuses. You’d also know that the U.S. Government Accounting Office found that “oversight and accountability of [U.S.] counternarcotics assistance [to Mexico] continues to be a problem and . . . is limited by the end-use monitoring agreement signed by the governments of the United States and Mexico.” The GAO has also reported that in 1994, U.S.-provided helicopters were used to transport Mexican military personnel to the [Chiapas] conflict, in violation of the transfer agreement.8
After completing this media monitoring project, our feeling of deja vu is stronger than ever. The Media Alliance Latin America Committee, if you can believe it, has been around for 17 years. In the early ’80s, when civil wars were taking place across Central America, we called for the editorial boards at newspapers including the San Francisco Chronicle, San Francisco Examiner, and San Jose Mercury News to dig deeper and inform the public about what was really going on in the region–not just what government spokespeople said was going on–and the many ways in which these events were linked to the United States.Occasionally we saw a glimmer of hope as those newspapers attempted to unveil the atrocities taking place in Central America under the direction of U.S.-backed governments. But the deeper coverage never lasted and was never as thorough and effective as we wanted it to be.
Only progressive magazines, such as The Nation, were consistently doing investigative reporting on what was going on in Central America. Academics and some congressional members were also aware and suspicious. And we heard directly from witnesses about Central American military forces’ scorched-earth campaigns–razing of entire villages and murdering of innocent civilians.
|Photo ©1994 Mercedes Romero
It wasn’t until the early ’90s, though, that mainstream newspapers (finally) began revealing that the United States had a hand in these wars. A very bloody hand, in fact.
Based on investigations by international human rights organizations, the U.S. Congress, and Truth Commissions in Latin America, and revelations by the CIA, we know that the United States was responsible for providing military training to dictators, supplying weapons, and participating in blatant human rights abuses.
So here we are in the late ’90s, and it’s happening again–not in Guatemala, El Salvador, or Nicaragua, but in Mexico.
Evidence of human rights abuses abounds. Almost daily releases from Mexican human rights organizations such as Fray Bartholome de las Casas in San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas and the Jesuit-sponsored Center for Human Rights Miguel Agustín Pro Juárez, A.C. contain a frightening litany of death threats, kidnappings, disappearances, and murders.
Media coverage of human rights abuses in Southern Mexico is the exception rather than the rule. On May 7, The New York Times did run an article based on the Amnesty International report “Mexico: Disappearances, a Black Hole in the Protection of Human Rights,” which describes the participation of police officers and soldiers in the “disappearances” of detainees. The Times story points out that most of the disappearances are taking place “during anti-guerrilla or anti-drug operations” and includes Amnesty’s recommendation that the Mexican government condemn the abuses. But there is no mention in the article of Amnesty’s conclusion that the “provision of training and the acquisition of new and more sophisticated equipment by Mexico’s military for the purpose of anti-narcotics programs is also contributing to a policy which appears to undermine the protection of human rights.” Nor does the story mention Amnesty’s earlier call for congressional hearings on monitoring U.S. military aid to Mexico.
Reports by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, and their pleas with the international community to hold the Mexican military accountable for its abuses have received far greater play in Europe. As a result, the European Union has issued repeated calls for investigations, and even briefly delayed implementation of a trade agreement with Mexico. But here in the United States, the silence is sometimes deafening.
The lack of response in the United States can to some degree be attributed to the sheer lack of published information. As our study demonstrates, newspapers are not making connections between human rights abuses, Mexico’s militarization, U.S. military aid, and the war on drugs. The most frustrating thing is that the evidence is there–it’s just a matter of connecting the dots. And once drawn, it’s not a pretty picture.
In trying to change media coverage, meeting with editorial boards is still worth a shot. (Groups that want to do this need to be civil and arrive with well-supported arguments about why coverage should be expanded or changed.) These days, it’s become increasingly difficult to get results from these meetings: Most of the local papers take their foreign stories from news services, and local groups can’t influence wire reporters and editors. Newspapers cry poor, claiming that they don’t have enough money to send reporters out of the country to do investigative pieces, or, if they do, they do it only sporadically. The fact is, they’re simply choosing to spend their money elsewhere. Though there is community support, for example, for a Chronicle bureau in Mexico–we got Isabel Allende and other prominent writers, academics, and experts on Latin America to sign on to a letter requesting it–the paper has elected to establish new East Bay bureaus instead. Other tactics such as writing letters to the editor and op-ed pieces, or even organizing informational pickets in front of newspaper offices when other approaches fail, may get a response, or at least raise public awareness.
In August, as the Latin America Committee was pulling together conclusions from our study, we came across an August 9 LA Times op-ed piece by Andrew Reding, an associate editor with Pacific News Service and a director at the World Policy Institute. In it, Reding argues that the United States shares some responsibility for the growing risk of human rights violations in Mexico because the Pentagon has expanded its military aid to Mexico without effective oversight. He ends by asking Washington to stop supporting the Mexico military until it is reformed and cleared of corruption and human rights abuses.
Scattered voices like Reding’s need to be reinforced, but to get consistent and accurate information on Mexico and the U.S. role there, we need to turn to alternative media (see sidebar on page 6 and below). With the information we gain, we can begin to pressure the mainstream media to start including more of the relevant facts and asking some of the tougher questions. Who is monitoring the use of the hundreds of millions of dollars of military aid flowing into Mexico? What is the effect on the Mexican military of having thousands of its officers trained in the United States? What, in fact, are these officers being trained to do? Does U.S. military and drug war aid increase the incidence of human rights violations? While keeping up the pressure on the media, activists should also focus on taking actions that demand attention.
Organizations such as the Mexico Solidarity Network, the National Commission for Democracy in Mexico, and many small grassroots groups are organizing public events such as the recent one-year commemoration of the Acteal massacre. Caravans of aid to the conflicted areas, letter writing campaigns to Congress, demonstrations, and even occupations of Mexican consulates are bringing the U.S. role in human right abuses in Mexico to light. If the past is any guide, an effective strategy to change U.S. media coverage of Mexico will have to include more than simple media advocacy.
1. U.S. State Department Mexico Country Report on Human Rights Practices for 1995, 1996 & 1997; the semi-annual reports of Fray Bartolome de las Casas Center for Human Rights in Chiapas; the semi-annual reports of the Center for Human Rights Miguel Agustín Pro Juárez, A.C.; Amnesty International’s May 1998 report, Mexico: Disappearances, a Black Hole in the Protection of Human Rights.
2. U.S. State Department Human Rights Practices Report for 1997.
4. The Drug War and Information Warfare, Stefan John Wray, M.A.Thesis, U.T. Austin, August 1997.
5. Center for International Policy (CIP), Washington, D.C., http://www.ciponline.org/facts/mx.htm.
6. Highlights of U.S. Security Assistance to Mexico, a report by the CIP, http://www.ciponline.org/facts/mx.htm#Institutions.
7. La Jornada, June 28, 1998.
8. Drug Control: Status of U.S. International Narcotics Activities, a report by the U.S. General Accounting Office, document # GAO/T-NSIAD-98-116, www.access.gpo.gov/su_docs/aces/aces160.shtml.
Sharon Donovan has been a member of the MA Latin America Committee for 6 years.
Research assistance for this article was provided by Ben Clarke.