Lights, Cameras, Mayhem!

The national media invades El Paso—and gets the story wrong.


On March 25, CNN’s Anderson Cooper 360° rolled into El Paso to report on Mexican drug-cartel violence. Cooper was one more in a recent wave of national news heavy hitters to parachute in, scare the pants off millions of viewers, then jet off to the next headline destination.

Dressed in military green, Cooper furrowed his brow and squinted solemnly into the camera as the lights of the international border checkpoint glimmered behind him. Guest Fred Burton, identified as a terrorism and security expert with Stratfor Global Intelligence, was beamed in from a studio in Austin to paint a menacing picture of Mexican cartels invading U.S. city streets. “It’s just a matter of time before it really spills over into the United States unless we shore up the border as best we can,” Burton warned.

By God, they’re coming to your neighborhood! Looking at another live feed from El Paso, listening to the breathless reports of violence and “expert” analysis about “spillover,” viewers could only assume that the city in which Cooper stood was under imminent assault.

That’s the reality these days for El Pasoans. Or rather, it’s the twisted perception created by border-warrior politicians and national news media, and foisted on Juarez’s relatively peaceful sister city. For El Pasoans and residents of nearby border towns, it might all be a mere oddity-maybe even worth a chuckle-if it didn’t mean the construction of 18-foot border walls, blustery talk about National Guard troop surges, and new resources for the disastrous war on drugs. While “troop surge,” “border wall,” and “drug war” might sound irresistibly sexy to politicians and pundits, it’s border residents who have to live with the fences and tanks and consequences.

The truth differs wildly from the perception. Certainly, El Paso’s symbiotic relationship with Juarez has been disrupted by the explosion of drug violence south of the border, which began to tick up in January 2008. But it’s not the kind of disruption brought to you by CNN, Fox, and the rest of the media pack.

The real impact of the ongoing tragedy in Juarez is felt by El Pasoans in more indirect and personal ways. While the brutality across the river has not caused a wave of kidnappings and murders in El Paso, folks do feel its effects every day. Families are divided. El Pasoans can no longer visit their friends, relatives, doctors or dentists in Juarez. Businesses on both sides suffer. The stories are legion: The high-school student who can’t visit her beloved, 105-year-old grandmother because her parents don’t want to risk her safety. The young Juarez woman who worries that her El Paso friends and relatives won’t be able to attend her wedding. And the many families mourning loved ones lost on the other side of the Rio Grande.

All too often the nightly news portrays Juarez and El Paso as one and the same, with the U.S. city symbolizing the perils of that new buzzword: spillover. Night after night, TV spin-meisters, retired generals, terror analysts and politicians rage on about spillover violence. They call Mexico a “failed state” and argue for militarizing the border. No wonder Americans are scared. No wonder El Pasoans feel doubly besieged.

Lights, Cameras, Mayhem

Consider this gem from former counterterrorism czar Richard Clarke, now a consultant for ABC News, commenting on Juarez: “There is in fact an insurgency on both sides of the American-Mexican border, and it’s stepped up a lot in the last several years because the Bush administration ignored it and put its focus on Iraq.”

After weeks of hearing the war drums beat louder and louder, Sito Negron, editor of El Paso’s online daily news journal, Newspaper Tree, recently decided he’d had enough. An insurgency on both sides? he thought, listening to Clarke’s prime-time pronouncement. Are you kidding me?

According to the FBI, more than 1,600 people were killed by cartel violence in Juarez in 2008. El Paso, a city of 755,000, recorded just 18 murders last year. Laredo had 11; Brownsville and McAllen had three and nine, respectively. By comparison, Washington, D.C., with a population smaller than El Paso’s, had 186 homicides in 2008.

A native El Pasoan, Negron was fed up with national media feeding the frenzy to militarize his hometown. He published an opinion piece on Newspaper Tree titled, “Who are you idiots, and why are you on national television talking about the border? An open letter to U.S. media”:

Get this straight. The violence is not “spilling over the border” into the U.S. No, every time you say that, whether you mean to or not, you’re conjuring up images of crazed Mexicans crossing the border to burn Columbus, and you have it backwards. It spilled over from the U.S. into Mexico and Latin America long ago. … [F]or the past 20 years, we’ve been slowly turning the border into a militarized zone, so let’s not say there isn’t violence associated with both sides of the drug trade and the Drug War. We could say that we’re now sharing the violence to a higher degree, an important distinction from the simple-minded terminology of “spilling over.”

“I’m happy that the border is an important place,” Negron said a few days after writing the piece. “But I’m not happy about the context in which they place it. I’m generally a little more mainstream, but I got a bit loose with the editorial because I was ticked off.”

Other El Pasoans share his pique. Negron’s piece generated several dozen comments, mostly along this line: “[C]ongratulations on hitting the nail on the head. I am so tired of hearing so-called pundits speak about the border without being here and experiencing it for themselves.”

Negron cops to his own role in whipping up the frenzy. In January he penned an article for Texas Monthly called “Baghdad, Mexico,” comparing the carnage in Juarez to the insurgent violence in Iraq. He wishes he hadn’t made the comparison, he says, because it helped fan the blaze of overheated news coverage.

“I regret using the word ‘Baghdad’ because people from elsewhere who don’t know much about the border or Mexico see that word and think, ‘We better send the military down there,'” Negron says. “The border becomes a backdrop for the nation’s fears and anxieties instead of a place where real people live.”

In late March, constituents criticized El Paso Mayor John Cook for missing a civic forum on the city’s east side. Cook couldn’t make it because he was being interviewed by BBC anchor Katty Kay. The BBC, Kay said, had information that drug violence had spilled into El Paso.

Cook was eager to set the record straight. He’s had plenty of practice lately, with national and international media frequently asking him about the situation in Juarez and in his own city. “I’ll speak with them and tell them there hasn’t been any spillover of violence into El Paso,” he says, “and then they will turn around and report that there is. Mostly I feel like I’ve wasted my time.”

He’s not the only border mayor who feels that frustration. In March, McAllen Mayor Richard Cortez got into an on-air tussle with CNN anchor Don Lemon. With archival footage of masked soldiers and body bags in Sinaloa, Mexico-960 miles from McAllen-rolling in the background, Lemon informed Cortez what was happening in his city.

“I think it’s pretty close to a crisis, wouldn’t you agree?” Lemon asked.

“The crisis is in Mexico,” Cortez replied. “It has not spilled over, Don, to mine-to our city.”

“Yes, I know you say that. I know you say that it hasn’t,” Lemon said. “Since you’re the mayor of the city, you have to put the best foot forward. I know your city is affected, but you have to put a good face on it.”

Anderson Cooper sizes up the border.

“I’m not putting my head in the sand,” Cortez insisted. “I’m just reporting to you as accurately as I can what has happened.”

It’s not that border mayors like Cook and Cortez aren’t deeply concerned. Even before the violence began to spike in Juarez last year, they had been asking Congress for more checkpoints to search for guns and cash heading south, and for more customs officials at U.S. ports of entry to stop drugs heading north. The U.S. Government Accountability Office found that ports of entry need an additional $4.8 billion in infrastructure and 4,000 more agents to handle the flow of cars and trade. Border mayors and residents are all for that. They just don’t want their towns to be militarized. Skewed reports of spillover, they fear, are making that inevitable.

When folks around El Paso and McAllen hear rhetoric about sending troops to the border, they can’t help remembering what happened in Redford, four hours east of El Paso, in 1997. With drug trafficking having been declared a “threat to national security,” thousands of soldiers were dispatched to the border. Residents’ worst fears were realized when 18-year-old Esequiel Hernandez was shot and killed by a Marine while tending his family’s herd of goats 100 yards from his home. Hernandez was the first American killed by U.S. military forces on native soil since the Kent State massacre in 1970. The Marine who shot him was not charged with murder, though the federal government eventually paid the Hernandez family $1.9 million to settle a wrongful death claim.

Shortly after Hernandez’s death, military operations along the border were suspended. Almost a decade later, from June 2006 to July 2008, 6,000 National Guardsmen were sent to the border as part of Operation Jump Start. This time they were assisting Border Patrol officers with technical, logistical, and administrative work to free up the patrol to focus on detaining more illegal immigrants. Eagle Pass Mayor Chad Foster says the National Guard troops in his area spent most of those two years parked outside the city in Humvees, dressed in camo fatigues. “I came back from a trip and thought, ‘My God, what happened while I was away?'” he recalls. This time, at least, there were no murders-just a couple of bored soldiers who got into trouble for shooting off rounds on the outskirts of town one night.

Tired of living under virtual house arrest, mayors, county judges and business leaders formed the Texas Border Coalition in 2006, the first year of Operation Jump Start. The coalition has tried ever since to educate state and federal policymakers about what U.S. border towns are really experiencing and what they really need. They’ve spent a lot of time pleading their case in Washington. It’s been uphill all the way.

The coalition fought the 18-foot steel wall through their communities. Growing desperate as the wall went up, they hired the well-known lobbying firm Via Novo, run by former Bush staffers Matthew Dowd and Tucker Askew, to try to get Congress’ ear. “I don’t know if we wasted our time and money,” Cook says. “They built the damn thing anyway.”

Now the coalition is trying to fend off calls for another National Guard “surge” along the border. It’s not easy, with fear-mongering about drug violence, spillover, and terror threats again reaching fever pitch. In a March 7 article in The Hill, a daily newspaper about congressional politics, Republican Congressman Trent Franks of Arizona served up a vintage sampling of runaway rhetoric about Mexican drug cartels. “When you have … gangs and they have loose ties with al- Qaida, and then you have Iran not too far away from building a nuclear capability, nuclear terrorism may not be far off.”

In February, Gov. Rick Perry flew to Washington to request that 1,000 National Guardsmen (along with six helicopters with infrared radar) be sent to the Texas-Mexico border. In a subsequent congressional hearing, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said she looked forward to speaking with Perry. It wasn’t all bad news for the Border Coalition, as Napolitano added, “We do not want to militarize the border.”

One problem, Cook says, is that Washington politicians and national media “don’t know how Mexico positively impacts our region”-including the billions in legal trade across the border. “Typically what happens in Washington is that they listen to you, and it sounds like you are getting through to them. Then you leave, and they do whatever it is they planned to do anyway.”

El Paso TV reporter Martin Bartlett gets his three minutes on CNN.

Distorted perceptions of border communities can also stifle local debate. In January, El Paso City Council member Beto O’Rourke found himself in a media storm after he added an amendment to a resolution expressing solidarity with the besieged citizens of Juarez. The resolution had some “good, common sense policy recommendations about interdicting more guns heading south,” O’Rourke says. But he felt it needed to say more about the underlying causes of the violence. So he added language, approved unanimously by the council, calling for an “honest, open debate on ending the prohibition of narcotics.”

“I couldn’t in good conscience vote for something that wouldn’t be meaningful,” O’Rourke says. “We needed to also focus on the demand side of the problem.”

The day after the resolution passed, national headlines screeched: “City Council Wants to Legalize Drugs.” For the next two weeks, O’Rourke fielded media calls from all over. He found himself patiently explaining to reporter after reporter, “No, I am not a drug pusher,” and “Yes, I think the war on drugs is a failure.”

At the height of the brouhaha, O’Rourke got a call from Congressman Silvestre Reyes, a Democrat who has represented El Paso for 12 years. Mayor Cook, a believer in current U.S. drug policy, had already vetoed the council resolution. O’Rourke says he had the six votes needed to override the veto, and he was planning to bring up the amendment again at the next council meeting.

“The congressman told me in no uncertain terms, ‘Stop what you are doing,’ ” O’Rourke says. “If you continue with this, you are going to jeopardize funding that I could otherwise secure for this region.'”

Reyes and five state representatives also sent stern letters to the council members demanding that they drop the debate. Their message had its desired effect. After a spirited defense of his amendment, O’Rourke lost by two votes.

Reyes did not respond to requests for comment from the Observer. Back in January, however, he told the Huffington Post what had riled him up. Members of Congress had approached Reyes, chair of the House Intelligence Committee, after seeing the reports about El Paso wanting to legalize drugs. “The publicity that was generated last week,” Reyes told the HuffPo, “made it seem that the resolution was calling on Congress to legalize drugs.” Reyes noted that he knew that was not the council’s intent. But, he said, “that was the perception up here, and a number of members [of Congress] bought it to my attention and asked me directly, ‘What gives with your city council? Why are you wanting to legalize drugs?'”

A few weeks after the flap, O’Rourke sits at a table in his office, which overlooks downtown El Paso and Juarez, recounting his conversation with Reyes. The Mexican city of 1.5 million spreads south as far as the eye can see. “He told me, ‘My colleagues say that you want to legalize drugs.’ I said, ‘Congressman, you should tell them that’s not what we are saying.’ But he says, ‘Well, that is the perception.'”

O’Rourke sits back in his chair. “Well,” he recalls telling Reyes, “then you need to do a better job of presenting our perspective here about what’s really going on.”

The same disconnect between reality and perception, O’Rourke says, has derailed meaningful debate about immigration reform. “For the
past two years, we’ve been told that Mexicans are smuggl
ng terrorists, taking our jobs, and selling us drugs, and that we are being invaded,” O’Rourke says. “And it worked. It totally freaked people out, and they reacted emotionally to an issue that I think could be solved rationally.”

If O’Rourke’s amendment had passed, he says, El Paso City Council members “could have gone to McAllen, Laredo, or San Diego and said, ‘Let’s join in common cause and petition the federal government to really look at the demand side of our drug problem.'”

He won’t stop trying. O’Rourke wants to organize a national conference in El Paso on U.S. drug policy. “We are ground zero in the drug war-this is it,” O’Rourke says. “We are disproportionately affected by any U.S. policy that deals with Mexico, whether it’s immigration or, in this case, drug policy. We should be the ones framing this and informing the policymakers at the national level-not Lou Dobbs or people in D.C. or other parts of the country. Because the reality is that Mexico scares them, the border scares them, and military interdiction seems to make perfect sense to them.”

Long after the latest news invasion pulls out of El Paso, folks along the border will still be dealing with a broken immigration system and the misguided policies spawned by political opportunism and media myths.

“Anderson Cooper is a nice guy,” says Sito Negron of Newspaper Tree, “but I realized in speaking with him that he doesn’t know a whole lot about the border. It’s not a critique of him, but he doesn’t spend a lot of time here.”

Who does spend a lot of time here, besides the local media? “Nobody does,” Negron says. There are a few exceptions, he says, counting them off quickly: Sam Quinones does some border work for The Los Angeles Times. The Dallas Morning News has Alfredo Corchado, a former El Pasoan, reporting from Mexico City. John Burnett reports from the border for National Public Radio. The rest of the media parachutes in when a story like the violence in Juarez heats up.

Local reporters and officials occasionally have a chance to give a national audience a window into what’s actually happening. But the story they have to tell is complicated and nuanced. It can’t compete, in the American imagination, with daily tirades from the likes of CNN’s Dobbs and Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly. Dobbs has been especially avid and persistent in calling for armed troops on the border. In a recent newscast, he had this advice for President Barack Obama: “Bring home the troops from Okinawa, Afghanistan, Iraq … and bring them here to secure our border and stop the flow of illegal immigrants, drugs and terrorists.”

Martin Bartlett, an El Paso TV reporter, recently was invited to talk on CNN about violence in Juarez. Bartlett has been reporting from Juarez for more than a year. During his interview, CNN anchor Kyra Phillips stood in front of a giant projection of the Mexican flag with the words “Mexican Violence” and the image of an AK-47 splashed across it. Phillips informed Bartlett that the military troop buildup had been successful in Juarez. Didn’t it make sense to have a troop buildup on the U.S. side as well?

“Actually, folks here are unwilling to see U.S. troops along the border,” Bartlett told her. “They are disinterested in the full militarization of the border.”

Bartlett didn’t have time during his three minutes to explain the history of militarization on the border, or elaborate on why residents don’t want National Guard troops in their towns. He did say that law-enforcement officials had seen some “spillover” on the U.S. side, which he described as an increase in petty crime linked to drug activity. He didn’t explain what he meant by “petty crime.” But it was enough for CNN to run with the headline, “Mexican drug war spills over.”

Javier Sambrano, the public information officer for the El Paso Police Department, says there has been no increase in petty crime over the last year. “We haven’t seen anything out of the ordinary, and there hasn’t been any change in the crime stats,” Sambrano says. The biggest side effect from violence in Juarez, Sambrano says, has been a handful of Mexican nationals transported to El Paso’s Thomason Hospital with gunshot wounds.

In a July El Paso Times story, Thomason Hospital CEO Jim Valenti said 22 victims of cartel violence in Juarez had been admitted to the hospital so far in 2008. Some of them were Juarez police officers who had been involved in gunfights with cartel members. The police department provided security for hospital staff concerned that cartel members might show up at the hospital to execute the officers.

“The issue of spillover is a very sensitive and emotional issue here in El Paso,” says David Cuthbertson, the FBI’s special agent in charge of the local office. Council Member O’Rourke says even residents are confused about what constitutes spillover. “There is also a war of facts and information,” he says. O’Rourke, for one, believes that there are more kidnappings in El Paso than are reported to the FBI or local police. “The real number we don’t know,” he says, “because the kidnappings are resolved with the agreement on the victims’ part that they won’t say anything to the authorities.”

While El Pasoans argue over semantics and statistics, residents in Juarez fight for their lives as innocent bystanders in a battle over who will sell cocaine and marijuana to the world’s biggest drug consumer. The Obama administration appears to be looking at the problem from a fresh perspective, shifting U.S. policy to focus more on the promotion of substance-abuse treatment and prevention, and less on the drug war. During her March visit to Mexico, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that battling cartel violence should be a shared responsibility and emphasized that America needs to curb its demand for illegal drugs. That’s a decidedly different political tack from the Bush years, when all the talk was about bigger walls, increased firepower, and Mexico’s responsibility for the problem. Other high-level administration officials have been dispatched to Mexico with messages similar to Clinton’s, including Homeland Security Secretary Napolitano and Attorney General Eric Holder.

This new approach risks sounding “soft” to Americans fed a steady media diet of border mayhem and spillover. “What we have is a failure to communicate,” Negron says. Americans “don’t have a clue about Mexico, and El Paso becomes the stage for the latest thing that everyone should be afraid of.”

Still, Negron tries to look at the bright side. “At least CNN sent Anderson Cooper to El Paso,” he says, “and not Lou Dobbs.”

Investigative reporting for this article was supported, in part, by a grant from the Open Society Institute.