Originally Published in Washington Examiner on November 7, 2022
As dangerous as the war is for journalists in 2022 in Ukraine, where eight have been killed, the danger closer to home is more severe.
In Mexico, 13 journalists have been confirmed killed, and an additional 15 are missing or have been abducted so far this year. Mexico also topped the world list in journalist deaths in 2021 and 2020, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
What is particularly troubling for global democracy is that in many instances the cartels committed these crimes to suppress free speech as part of their steady takeover of Mexico. The prospects of the cartels engineering a de facto coup along the porous border with the United States and creating a failed Mexican state at America’s doorstep under the cover of media darkness is a risk too serious for the people and elected officials to ignore.
Beginning in 2006, attacks against journalists and media workers in Mexico seemed to coincide regularly with the Mexican government’s efforts to combat the growing territorial reach of the drug cartels. However, the murders have only accelerated since Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador took office in December 2018, with over 50 journalists having been killed since then. This astonishing number can be attributed to the paltry and insufficient “hugs not bullets” approach toward cartels enacted by Lopez Obrador, emboldening the cartels to engage in deadly turf battles across Mexico.
Given the rise in wealth and power of the cartels, which has been fueled by the massive profits from the drug trade and human trafficking into America, these transnational criminal organizations have no regard for the rule of law. The Biden administration’s open border policies, which during the last two years have permitted approximately 5,000,000 illegal immigrants to cross the southern border unlawfully, have also been extremely lucrative from the cartels’ perspective.
The cartels’ strength enables them to bribe corrupt Mexican government law enforcement, judiciary, and political officials at all levels of government. Mexico “is sinking ever deeper into a spiral of violence and impunity. Collusion between officials and organized crime poses a grave threat to journalists’ safety and cripples the judicial system at all levels. Journalists who cover sensitive political stories or crime, especially at the local level, are warned, threatened, and then often gunned down in cold blood,” according to Reporters Without Borders. Because the violence has ravaged journalists and approximately 90% of the incidents go unsolved or with impunity, there is an intimidation factor that can dissuade other journalists from covering the destructive transactions of the cartels and corruption within the government.
That is what the cartels want: a chaotic situation in which they can continue to make $14 million a day in human trafficking and scores more in the illicit drug trade, with no one to shine the light on their inhumane activity or hold them accountable. The Mexican government falls short of that, as does the Biden administration. Large swaths of Mexico’s territory and economy are now under the control of the cartels, as is the U.S.-Mexico border.
The cartels have the combination of logistics management found in corporate entities and the weapons and firepower found in some militaries. While the drug trade has long been the lifeblood of the cartels, they have diversified to have their tentacles in virtually every sector of the Mexican economy, from avocado farms to nightclubs. The cartels have diversified into other crimes such as theft from oil pipelines and cargo shipments, siphoning away billions from Mexican government revenue. In some industries, the cartels have taken complete control — including enforcing regulatory compliance as Mexico’s government agencies fail to do so from a lack of resources, corruption, or acquiescence to the cartels’ power.
What can be done to counter the cartels’ relentless takeover of Mexico and their attacks on journalists? Given the cartels’ wealth and power, it might be a monumental task. Mexico’s approach to “hug” the problem away certainly has failed. Ignoring the problem exists, like much of American media and politicians do, won’t work either. Greater transparency and coverage by the U.S. and international media of the problem will not magically shield journalists and others from the serious physical risks they take exposing the Mexican drug cartels’ horrors and corruption in Mexico. But shining the light on the horrors of these transnational criminal networks should aid in reducing the power the cartels otherwise have in the darkness.
The media should report on how the cartels are enriched by illegal immigration across the porous border of the U.S. and how American “sanctuary cities” that operate detached from U.S. federal immigration laws are exploited by the cartels’ human trafficking and drug operations. A failed Mexican state, one that is under the heels of the cartels, would erode the safety of U.S. communities and families, so addressing it should be a top priority for U.S. leaders and the media.
Alex Zemek is a senior fellow for the America First Policy Institute’s Center for Homeland Security and Immigration and was the acting assistant secretary for counterterrorism and threat prevention at the Department of Homeland Security.