Journalism lecture in Austin focuses on covering Mexico, drugs and the border

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  • October 8, 2010

By Ian Tennant

With the violence unleashed by drug cartels profoundly impacting Mexico, both foreign and local journalists are trying to figure out how to cover a war of a different kind, according to a panel presented in front of more than 200 people at the University of Texas at Austin on Thursday, Oct. 7.

“Impunity” is the word that characterizes the volatile working conditions in Mexico, said John Burnett, a reporter for NPR and moderator of the panel called “The War Next Door: Reporting Mexico, Drugs and the Border.”

“The cartels have the power of life or death over the people,” he said. “They know they won’t get caught.”

Javier Garza, editor of El Siglo de Torreon, said the impunity drug cartels enjoy means that even if illicit drugs were legalized in the United States, the criminal organizations would simply concentrate on other activities, knowing federal soldiers or local policemen could not stop them.

“They know they have the firepower,” said Garza, a UT-Austin graduate. “They know they can take them (the police or army) on and win.”

Emphasizing that journalists have had to adapt how they gather information, Tracy Wilkinson, Mexico City bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times, said “the violence has drastically altered our map of Mexico.” The veteran correspondent, who has covered wars in Central America, the Balkans, the Middle East and Iraq, said “Baghdad Rules” apply: get in quick, don’t share travel plans, do your reporting efficiently, keep your “antennae” alert, and get out.

“The old rules do not apply. You do not know who the enemy is,” Wilkinson said, referring to the narco killers, corrupt public officials and journalists who may be on the drug cartels’ payroll.

Cecilia Balli, a UT anthropologist who has reported on border issues for Texas Monthly and Harper’s magazine, said the rise of the drug cartels and the staggering level of violence -- which has claimed the lives of 64 journalists in the last decade -- has transformed Mexico “permanently.”

“We are going to have stories to tell for a long time because we still don’t understand the ramifications” of the drug war on Mexico and the United States, Balli said.

For more information about violence against journalism in Mexico, please see this Knight Center map.

The panel was part of the Mary Alice Davis Distinguished Lecture in Journalism, presented by the School of Journalism and the College of Communication at the University of Texas at Austin. Davis, a UT graduate, was a long-time Texas journalist who championed the role of journalism in democracy, and succumbed to cancer in 2004.

Note from the editor: This story was originally published by the Knight Center’s blog Journalism in the Americas, the predecessor of LatAm Journalism Review.