There is zero question that hellish violence is going on along the border, largely on the Mexican side. It has to be reported—and it often is, by enormously courageous reporters. But as the news has been spiking over the last few years and deeply seeping into America, it has become an increasingly easy temptation for fear-mongers to lump very distinct issues and people together. It began, perhaps, with Glenn Beck playing to the cheap seats one night: “This is al Qaeda stuff,” said Beck, a few years ago as much of the country was first becoming attuned to the border realities. He had a rotating set of pictures over his shoulder—images of unidentified bloodied men, maps with ominous arrows charting drug cartel violence, the words “BORDER CRISIS” on the screen.
The breathless “reports” simply keep escalating. Flash forward to today: An online Fox News story on border violence quotes a grand vizier from the Cato Institute saying a “worst-case scenario” will lead to a “sudden surge” of 1 million Mexicans crossing the border and Mexico becoming “the Western hemisphere’s equivalent of Somalia,” and that it all “would clearly require a military response from the United States.”
Our very own state Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, has been busy connecting dots through the media as he tries to raise his national profile. The radio show host posed this question to Fox News for a report on border violence: “Do you strengthen the borders so people cannot get in by the thousands every day, or do you create detention centers where people are held until their status is determined?”
Tying the drug wars to a long-lusted-for, growing web of immigrant detention centers is an insidious piece of old-style Texas political craftsmanship. It’s also part of a great tradition in our state: In the 1970s, the Texas Rangers basically occupied Crystal City. They were ostensibly there to look for drugs and corruption, but their real job was to break the back of the La Raza Unida movement. Gov. Dolph Briscoe said organizers were actually not creating farms but “establishing a little Cuba.”
Now, as then, the fear has gone mainstream. Oscar Garza, a former editor at The Los Angeles Times and Tu Ciudad, points to a story in the New York Times travel section on South Texas bird sanctuaries: “Not long ago, that story would have recommended a visit across the border for lunch or dinner. Instead, there was this: ‘The United States Border Patrol is a constant presence along the river, and in light of the recent drug-related violence on the Mexican side, a welcome, if disquieting sight.’”
Garza says, of course, that the media must respond to the breaking news: “I think the media is in a tough spot right now. … The violence can’t be ignored. There is no vacuum to escape its presence.”
But the fallout can get complicated: “Immigration and the violence … get all rolled up into one point of view,” says Meg Guerra, with the LareDOS newspaper in Laredo. She’s not blind to what’s happening: men with guns at the lunch counter, what sounds like bombs going off south of the river, thudding helicopters hovering over her ranch. But the beleaguered media aren’t reporting “the human side” of the borderlands, she says.
There is little time, money and manpower. It is triage reporting. And the reporters can’t control how the talk shows and spin doctors try to parlay drug war stories into some wicked political advantage. Worse, Guerra wonders if racists reading the border news are increasingly demonizing anyone with Mexican heritage.
Years ago, I was in The Classic Club, a cool blues haven in southern Dallas. The phone rang, and the African-American owner, Earnest Davis, answered and I saw a big weariness wash over him. The presumably Anglo caller was asking if Earnest’s club, his neighborhood, “was safe to visit.” He told the person that not everyone was bad in the southern part of town.
It’s a microcosmic parallel, but jingoistic, damning stereotypes are no doubt being reprised right now, as coverage of the drug wars in Mexico gets abducted by the screaming high priests of the reactionary right.
In the Rio Grande Valley, Alberto Salinas, a longtime faith healer in Edinburg (he channels the spirit of folk saint Niño Fidencio), asked me to relay this message to the politicians and the media: “There are only a handful of bad people ruining it for the rest of us.”