México and the media: An unjust portrayal.

Posted on March 1, 2011

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Having been in México for more than 9 weeks, I’ve come to find American press coverage of the drug war infuriatingly misleading. The media is trying awfully hard to convince the American public that México is not only an unsafe place, but one that we should avoid at all costs. Not only do I disagree, I think its disgusting. The drug war aside, mainstream media does enough to cast negative stereotypes over México and its people. Our televisions and newspapers are full of broadcasts and articles over illegal immigration, drug trafficking and brutal murders. We never learn of the rich culture, the annual carnivals that rival those of Brazil and Spain or the multitude of well-preserved indigenous ways of life. This is, of course, because Mayan pueblos and local festivals don’t make for terribly exciting news coverage.

Woman dressed in a traditional Mayan “hipil.”  Photograph courtesy and property of Katie Mitchell.

What bothers me is that instead of taking initiative to educate America about our Southern neighbors, the press goes out of its way to perpetuate an image of poverty, filth and death in México. Yes, there have been American deaths in México, and yes, you must be cautious while traveling. But mustn’t one be cautious when traveling anywhere?

Although I’ve been struggling to come to terms with this issue for quite awhile now, I resolved to write this post after reading an article that particularly irritated me. A update by MSNBC Travel appeared on my Twitter feed this afternoon titled “Students urged to avoid spring break in Mexico” with a link to a related article. The piece referenced the drug-related violence that has escalated since Mexican President Felipe Calderón declared a war on drugs in 2006, as well as the unfortunate death of American citizen David Harley on the border last year. It also cited a written warning from Steven McCraw, director of the Texas Department of Public Safety, to college students considering spring-breaking in México. The warning claims that popular tourist spots such as Acapulco and Cancun pose an grave threat to American citizens, and quotes McCraw saying: “Our safety message is simple: avoid traveling to Mexico during Spring Break and stay alive.”

I could not believe what I was reading. The man might as well have said, “If you go to Mexico, you will be killed.” Its true, there have been over 700 reported civilian deaths in Acapulco’s state of Guerrero since 2006, but I could not locate any information indicating that even one of these people was an American tourist. And Cancun? The entire Caribbean state of Quintana Roo saw 40 malicious deaths between January 2006 and November 2010, 65 less homicides than my own home city of Columbus, Ohio, for the year of 2010 alone. The violence follows the drugs, which are moving North through Western México to the border, almost completely bypassing Cancun and the Riviera Maya. The only reason these murders are even reported as “civilian deaths” is because the high majority of people being killed – cartel members – are technically Mexican civilians! The truth is that, minus a terrible fluke here or there, these gang members are killing off each other.

Panuchos:  Authentic Yucatecan cuisine.  Photograph courtesy and property of Katie Mitchell.

I am not, in any way, suggesting that border areas are safe, or that people should feel comfortable traveling there. I certainly wouldn’t.  México, however, is a massive country, and I take issue with the way the American press over-generalizes what goes on here.

What do you think? I’d be grateful for some input, especially from anyone else who has traveled or lived in México. Am I right to feel that the violence here is significantly misrepresented by the American media?

Comprehensive map of drug-related deaths in Mexico from 2006-2010 by the Wall Street Journal  http://on.wsj.com/hoDsf8

“Students urged to avoid spring break in Mexico” by MSNBC Travel  http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/3032123/ns/travel/

Photographs courtesy of Katie Mitchell.  http://www.kathrynemitchell.wordpress.com

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