New digital book shines light on covering drugs in Latin America and the Caribbean

By Ian Tennant

Reporting on the illegal narcotics industry and organized crime in Latin America and the Caribbean is much more difficult, complex and dangerous than it looks like, according to a new digital book in English and Spanish released by the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas, in conjunction with the Open Society Foundations.

The book, "Coverage of Drug Trafficking and Organized Crime in Latin America and the Caribbean," captures the intense and violent working climate journalists face on a day-to-day basis, one that spawns self-censorship and questions of how coverage can better inform the public. It is a result of a gathering of journalists, academics and experts at the 8th Austin Forum on Journalism in the Americas held at the University of Texas at Austin in September 2010. A free copy of the book in PDF format is available in the Knight Center's digital library.

"Coverage of Drug Trafficking and Organized Crime in Latin America and the Caribbean" builds on the vibrant discussion that took place between nearly 50 participants over two days at the Austin Forum and is complemented by articles by experts. Tyler Bridges, an American freelance reporter based in Lima, Peru, kicks off the book with a recap of "key lessons" that emerged at the forum. For instance, drug cartels are operating like Fortune 500 businesses and borders are virtually meaningless, he said. The result is reporters have to think beyond the problems in their own country.

Bridges notes drug lords are targeting countries where government officials are prone to bribes. Journalists, he adds, need to break the routine of reporting on the latest murder and instead shine their lights on related problems like poverty and problems caused by corruption. These journalists also need to acknowledge that aggressive reporting will likely foster government harassment, possibly even putting their lives in more danger.

Next, Professor Bruce Bagley from the Department of International Studies at the University of Miami offers an analysis of the major trends in the evolution of organized crime and illegal drug trafficking in the past 25 years. Among those developments, he says, are that drug consumption has been globalized, there are limited victories or "unintended consequences" of the U.S.-led war on drugs, the production of narcotics has spread "throughout the hemisphere," and organized crime figures have been dispersed into sub-regions and neighboring countries, which he called the "cockroach effects." Other key trends include the lack of political reform, the failure of the United States to control its demand for drugs, the ineffectiveness of international and regional drug-control policies, and finally the growth in the "legalization debate."

Colombian journalist Álvaro Sierra, editor of Semana magazine in Bogotá, Colombia, identifies "strange paradoxes" in news coverage that focuses on what is commonly called "narco-trafficking." He suggests that the drug phenomenon is covered as a local issue when it should be "understood from a global perspective." The focus is on the individual criminals when the more important, and perhaps more complex, story is the international drug networks created by organized crime.

The next chapter captures the "spiral of silence" that has descended on Mexican journalists. In a chilling study, the Mexican Foundation of Investigative Journalism (MEPI in Spanish) reports that as drug-related violence increases in a number of states there is a decrease in coverage of that violence. In order to measure "news black holes" which emerge in Mexico as drug cartels' spread their influence, MEPI analyzed six months of coverage in 11 newspapers published in some of the most violent regions. As result of self-censorship, the study found, stories are not being shared with the public which prevents "Mexico from understanding how far and deeply entrenched drug cartels have become throughout the country."

In the final chapter, Samuel González Ruiz, a criminal justice consultant who works with the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, suggests a "quantitative and qualitative" comparison with other countries that have also experienced the same levels of violence. He argues that this is needed in order to truly understand the violent situations in Mexico and Central America nowadays. The former chief of Mexican prosecutors likens the violence and insecurity in Central America and Mexico to a hurricane because there are many causes and not just one. One result he shared is the "unification of illegal markets and the militarization of criminal organizations."

Professor Rosental Alves, host of the Austin Forum and director of the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas in the School of Journalism at UT Austin, captured a common theme in his prologue: “Drug trafficking and organized crime are a global plague with ramifications that cannot be understood through the traditional, body-count based local coverage. Its coverage poses some of the most difficult challenges journalists face in this hemisphere nowadays.”

The Open Society Foundations said in its prologue that it trusts “that this report will raise the understanding that covering organized crime requires a new approach, new tactics and new strategies. This is a global phenomenon that knows no borders and speaks all languages.”

Coverage of Drug Trafficking and Organized Crime in Latin America and the Caribbean is the eighth free digital book the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas has published. All are available at the Center’s Digital Library. The Open Society Foundations' Media Program and Latin American Program have been helping the Knight Center since 2008 with support for the Austin Forum. Recently they have committed to help the next two conferences, one in September and another in 2012.

This blog is produced at The Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas at the University of Texas at Austin and funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

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.