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Is Drug Violence Spillover a Tired Metaphor yet?

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Is the “spillover” metaphor in regards to border violence getting tired? Answer: Yes! Back in April I wrote an article about how the national media was over hyping drug violence spillover into U.S. border towns and scaring the pants off Americans, including my dad who just about flipped when he heard I was driving to El Paso to write the story.

The way the violence had been blown up by the media my dad thought I’d be met with tanks and AK-47s when I entered El Paso’s city limits.

After my piece ran, I received a lot of feedback from border residents who are tired of their communities being described as war zones by the cable media outlets and other national media types. They’re worried that all of the bad press is going to lead to their communities becoming beefed up militarized zones.

I’m not trying to say that there isn’t a horrible wave of senseless and brutal violence happening in Mexico. I hear from friends living in Durango and Monterrey that they have never seen anything like the violence that is occurring at the moment in Mexico.

The problem is that the media in the United States are only telling one side of the story as if it were all Mexico’s problem and that their violence is lapping over our borders and infecting our cities. Who is buying all of these drugs? Who is supplying all of the weapons? Surely, there must also be drug dealers living in the United States who are U.S. citizens? Sito Negron, the editor of the online news journal Newspaper Tree in El Paso, wrote a sharp editorial back in March putting the narco violence into context in the terms of globalization. Negron wrote:

 “The cartels may be made in Mexico, but like the maquila industry, they’re not just Mexican. The capital was delivered through U.S. federal policy, the manufacturing and distribution methods honed in American inner cities where the Drug War has been fought every day for decades, and the parts shipped to Mexico for final assembly. Now it’s being sent back to us.”

I don’t think the word spillover means anything anymore. It’s become a cartoon word too simplistic to sum up a complex problem. 

Brownsville native Cecilia Balli who has written some really excellent pieces on the border in Texas Monthly and Harper’s magazine sent me an example of the latest spillover story this time from the Washington Post. The story came out last week. The Post has sent two of its top reporters Travis Fox and William Booth down to the U.S.-Mexico border to do a series of stories on drug violence and the impact it’s having on Mexican society.  The series is called “Mexico at War” They are fine writers but Balli takes issue with Booth’s story dredging up the old “spillover” theme again in El Paso.  The story called “Mayhem Crosses the Border With Informers” is about two narcos turned informers in El Paso. One kills the other. Here is an excerpt with the favorite buzzword spillover:

“But in El Paso, where local leaders boast how safe their city is and the 12 homicides this year have almost all been solved, the González slaying was as disturbing as it was sensational. For people here, the blood splashed on a pretty American street was a jarring sign that Mexico’s drug violence is spilling across the border into U.S. suburbia.”

Here is what Cecilia wrote about Booth’s piece:

“My problem with the story is that the writer feels compelled to return to that tired metaphor of a “spillover.” That spillover metaphor is my biggest pet-peeve, because it reinforces the idea that the drug business happens only on the other side, rather than recognizing the vast and well-funded infrastructure on this side that makes up the necessary other half of the business. That’s why I liked Tony Payan’s quote about the all the quiet dealings that go in El Paso just beneath the surface of everyday life, and that everyone simply agrees to keep mum about. The more public, spectacular violence takes place in Mexico, but the business itself is on both sides of the border. The metaphor “spillover” doesn’t do justice to that.”

I have to agree with Cecilia. Narco informants have been living in U.S. border cities for decades. While this is an interesting story, definitely newsworthy — especially since a soldier from the U.S. military was involved — it’s not something that hasn’t happened before so it isn’t really spillover and though awful I wouldn’t characterize it as “mayhem” either as the title so boldly states.

I guess I’ve just read too many spillover stories and I’m ready to turn the page.  It’s time to learn something new about the disastrous War on Drugs. Personally, I think the fact that the University of Texas El Paso is going to have a two-day conference this month on our outdated drug policies is something to look forward to. So that we can look at the complexity of the narco violence and the U.S.’ drug problem.

Melissa del Bosque joined The Texas Observer staff in 2008. She specializes in reporting on immigration and the U.S.-Mexico border. Her work has been published in national and international publications including TIME magazine and the Mexico City-based Nexos magazine. Melissa is a 2014-15 Lannan Fellow at The Investigative Fund.