In a front-page editorial, El Diario de Juárez, a newspaper published across the border from El Paso, Texas, asked, "What Do You Want from Us?"
The unusual piece, prompted by the murder of a 21-year-old staff photographer and the shooting of an intern, was directed at the local drug cartel. About 30 journalists have been killed in Mexico since 2006.
Days after the editorial appeared, a new book by Malcolm Beith, "The Last Narco: Inside the Hunt for El Chapo, the World's Most Wanted Drug Lord," stirred up another debate. The author claims that upon the capture of drug-cartel leader Joaquín Guzmán, President Felipe Calderón will have substantially won the drug war in Mexico.
In their own defense, journalists meanwhile are taking up self-protection measures, such as figuring out how to simultaneously publish joint stories so that the news gets out to the public but no one journalist or photographer or newspaper is held responsible for it, sort of forming a news cartel of their own. Meanwhile, Calderón has proposed protecting journalists by making attacks on journalists subject to federal investigation.
All this was happening in the wake of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's claim that the Mexican cartels looked like the Colombian insurgency to her. Mexican officials objected. A Sept. 25 Los Angeles Times story essentially said Clinton's comparison did not hold up. Colombia's narcos are guerrillas, Mexico's are all about the business of drugs, not government -- albeit, both share violence, terror and death in common.
For optimists, one cartel bust and the problem is over. For pessimists, it's like saying Osama Bin Laden's capture would end the war on terrorism. The picture can seem confusing. We feel interested, but disengaged.
What should matter to the U.S. public are the essential facts. We should take them while avoiding getting hysterical, much like Mexican reporters and photographers are having to do.
On our side, hyperbole, loose logic, wild, untrue or exaggerated claims become the flagellants of undisciplined attitudes. Yet public attitudes do matter, even from an armchair perspective.
A more balanced approach helps, like the one given recently by New Mexico's term-limited Governor Bill Richardson, Energy Secretary and U.N. Ambassador during the Clinton Administration. He says five measures are needed for better relations with Latin America. One is a hemispheric accord on crime and violence, working like a domestic and international information network that shares intelligence on the illicit narcotics trade, illegal guns and human trafficking.
Public understanding is also about having skin in the game. Ours is the fact that the United States exports $219 billion of goods to our southern neighbors, three times what it does to China. It's a stimulus program all its own. You would think we would have that tattooed to our brain in these times. And we should fault opinion leaders who fail to mention that illegal gun sales to the cartels and money laundering works directly to undermine our own economic stability, exports and job creation.
Richardson further says President Obama ought to lift the travel ban on Cuba, champion comprehensive immigration legislation (secure the borders, crack down on illegal hiring, start a path to legalization), form a new Alliance of Progress with Latin America, and promote free and fair trade agreements.
Latin America has become too important to the United States not to portray its complexity, prospects and importance properly. However, a gun battle in Zacatecas does not mean 106 million people are all shooting at each other full-time. They have enough to be fearful about without our added unfounded fears ladled on top of theirs.
Getting it right, and in the correct proportions, is important on our side, just as it is to the front-line journalists who already know it's a matter of life and death.
Jose de la Isla writes a weekly commentary for Hispanic Link News Service. Contact mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.