<i>"The Name of Our Country is América" - Simon Bolivar</i> The Narco News Bulletin<br><small>Reporting on the War on Drugs and Democracy from Latin America
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NY Times and Washington Post Reporters Smear Missing Texans as Narcos

“It’s Untrue,” Says the Father of Missing Laredo Woman


By Al Giordano and Bill Conroy
Special to The Narco News Bulletin

January 26, 2005

Last week, two reporters – one from the New York Times, the other from the Washington Post – descended on the border city of Laredo, Texas, on the very same day to interview the very same people… about a story that was already four months old.

Washington Post Foreign Service correspondent Mary Jordan was first to get her story, “Americans Vanish in Mexican Town,” into print, last Saturday. She was followed a day later by New York Times Mexico Bureau Chief Ginger Thompson, who authored “Sleepy Mexican Border Towns Awake to Drug Violence.”

Both stories recount the disappearances of various U.S. citizens, mainly from the city of Laredo, Texas (a “sleepy town” more legally classified as a city of 176,576 residents), who were last seen crossing or across the border in nearby Mexico.

The newspaper reports, in a better world, might have come to the aid of the distraught families to help them find their missing loved ones, or at least, to discover what happened to them. That kind of reporting would embody the kind of public service that journalism ought to champion on behalf of relatively powerless people faced with incredible burdens. Heaven knows there are thousands of desperate families seeking such aid and attention to break the silence in or under which they suffer.

There are, in fact, 97,297 actively missing persons from the United States, according to the most recently available national count (as of 2003) by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. . About 44 percent of them are adults, and 56 percent of them children.

The Lone Star State has a Texas-sized share of those missing persons, according to Susan Burroughs of the Texas Department of Public Safety’s Missing Persons Clearinghouse: 6,927 Texans were actively missing as of December 31, 2004.

So when the families of Brenda Y. Cisneros and other residents of Laredo, Texas who are missing (the families publish a website in their search to find their loved ones – www.laredosmissing.com) heard that two big-shot national newspaper correspondents from the Times and the Post were coming to listen to their stories on the same day last week, they opened their homes and their hearts to those reporters.

Ginger Thompson of the Times and Mary Jordan of the Post proceeded to publish hauntingly identical articles – each sloppily reliant on the unsubstantiated claims of a single source; the U.S. Consul across the bridge in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico – that unfairly linked the cases of the Laredo missing persons to narco-trafficking.

Today, as a result, the families, in addition to continuing the search for their daughters and sons, have to defend their silenced loved ones nationally and internationally from smear campaigns suggesting that the missing, too, are involved with drug traffickers.

The articles clearly did not serve the cause of the families. So who did they serve then? The truth? …the whole truth? …and nothing but the truth? Really?

Or were the articles in the national “newspapers of record” part of an orchestrated media campaign to invent a very different story, in which the reputations of these families and their missing got dragged through the mud as a kind of “collateral damage” in the information war known as the “war on drugs?”

It’s the eve of the 2006 presidential elections in Mexico, amigos. And the United States press corps, repeating the history of the 1988, 1994, and 2000 elections in Mexico, now sets out to find a sexy narco-connection to every story they publish or broadcast about the neighbor country to the south.

As Mexican journalist Carmen Flores of the Mexican daily newspaper chain, El Sol, commented the other day specifically about the Thompson and Jordan articles:

“It took the Post and the Times four years to denounce, once again, the power of narco-trafficking in Mexico, something they did regularly during the presidencies in Mexico in the power of the PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party), above all in the last three administrations of Miguel de la Madrid, Carlos Salinas de Gortari and Ernesto Zedillo. With (current president Vicente) Fox, these two newspapers – just like George W. Bush – had forgotten about Mexican drug trafficking, and the articles they published during the first four years of Foxism were only to applaud the president of the PAN (National Action Party) for his actions against organized crime, without paying any attention to the corruption caused by the narco, and that the power of the capos continued expanding the same as it had in previous years, when they said that Mexico was at the point of becoming a narco-democracy.”

There are certainly drug war stories to be reported and told south of the border (just as there are on the other side of the Rio Bravo). This newspaper, Narco News, tries to look beyond the surface into the depths of such stories. The latest salvos from the Times and the Post, on the other hand, are so superficial as to invite further scrutiny.

The broad-brush claim in both stories – backed solely by unsubstantiated statements by US officials – was that if there are problems on the border, narco-traffickers must be responsible. The narcos are an easy scapegoat. The claim plays to long-established fears in the United States that Mexico is supposedly a more dangerous and criminal land. Mainly, just as the weapons-of-mass-destruction fictions published by the same two newspapers built support for the U.S. invasion of Iraq on false pretenses, Thompson and Jordan are setting the stage for heavy-handed U.S. intervention (including media meddling) in Mexico’s upcoming electoral campaigns. The pretext now, as before, is what Thompson cynically calls “Mexico’s drug war,” which she warns the fearful gringos, “has begun to move north of the border.”

To accomplish this, the reporters ran over the reputations of Brenda Y. Cisneros and others like her: already silenced.

But that’s not all, kind readers: The entire pretense for the stories in both newspapers – that “abductions” of Americans across the Mexican border had to be the work of drug traffickers – is, according to border law enforcement professionals interviewed by Narco News, speculative at best.

According to four such agents and former agents, it is extremely unlikely that narco-traffickers are abducting random (and not wealthy) North Americans – for obvious reasons that any intelligent reporter covering the U.S.-Mexico border, or the drug war, would have grasped and related in her story: reasons that, with the assistance of law enforcement sources, we will explain in this report.

Innocent people have been maligned. It now touches on news consumers and Authentic Journalists alike to take a closer look at the phlegmatic “news product” coughed up by Timeswoman Ginger Thompson and Postwoman Mary Jordan, and to deconstruct their nearly-identical articles to discover the undisclosed agendas, the powerful media manipulators who spoon-feed them, and the motives of special interests to make trashy claims against relatively powerless people, who have now been victimized a second time by these mercenaries of the Fourth Estate.

A Report from the Missing Journalists Bureau

“The two reporters arrived on the same day,” Pablo Cisneros tells Narco News, in his native Spanish. “We told them our story.” He pauses and sighs, his sadness evident: “They decided to print a different one.”

Pablo is the father of Brenda Y. Cisneros, who has been missing since September 17, 2004 – her 23rd birthday – along with her friend Yvette J. Martínez, 27, also from Laredo. The two women crossed the border into Nuevo Laredo more than four months ago to celebrate that birthday and were never seen again.

Ginger Thompson’s easy explanation for these and other disappearances in the region is that “Mexico’s drug war has begun to move north of the border.”

That specious claim came five paragraphs into a story purportedly about missing persons. The sensational phrase – carefully chosen to “sex up” the story and invoke fear among U.S. citizens of the Mexican narco bogeyman – is plopped into the story completely out of context. Thompson offers zero evidence of any “drug war” involvement in the disappearance of the people she profiles. But she goes on and on about it nonetheless:

“In recent months, fighting among Mexico’s most powerful cartels has spawned a wave of violence that at times has turned the streets into battlefields and plazas overtaken by gunmen firing grenades and assault weapons.”

That statement has no known connection to the case of the missing persons of Laredo; still, Thompson prattles on:

“Mexican law enforcement officials report a sharp rise in killings and kidnappings as cartel leaders struggle for control of this coveted corner of the border.”

What Thompson deceptively fails to disclose is that the “killings and kidnappings” by drug traffickers are almost always, according to law enforcers, against each other, not against visiting gringos, and when a U.S. tourist is kidnapped, it’s usually a wealthy person, and the kidnappers almost always contact the family seeking ransom (something that has not happened in the cases of Cisneros or the other Laredo missing persons featured in the articles).

Thompson goes on to say:

“American officials have warned that Mexican drug traffickers with false identification have taken up residence on the United States side of the border.”

But wait: What does the residence of narcos north of the border have to do with supposed “kidnappings” south of the border? The argument is illogical, but by now the unsuspecting reader has been provided with vivid and violent images that strongly suggest it has something to do with the missing persons in the story.

In 1,159 published words, Thompson demonstrates no concrete link between drugs and the disappearances, relying only on some vague claims by gringo officials that are entirely speculative in tone and content.

It’s as if Thompson spliced two separate stories – one on the drug war, the other about missing persons – together, much like the poets William Burroughs and Brion Gyson (both of them on drugs at the time!) cutting up phrases from different texts and pasting them together out of order. But Thompson and her Times editors, instead of labeling her prose as an art project and submitting it to the National Endowment for the Arts for a grant, published the incoherent rant as “news.” (If past is prologue, they’ll probably submit this trash to the Pulitzer Committee.)

Confounding the story still more, Thompson refers to the cases of these missing human beings as “kidnappings,” without a single Laredo family member citing any demand for ransom. These missing people and their families are not wealthy. So why the inference that they were kidnapped? Here’s a big fat clue: Kidnappers do it for money. (And here’s another one: Narcos are in the drug business to make money, too.)

Instead, Thompson cites a single case that took place 166 miles away from Laredo: A Brownsville, Texas, doctor was abducted in the Mexican city of Matamoros last December, and was freed days later after his family paid an $88,000 ransom. Now, that’s a real kidnapping. That’s about a million pesos: a millionaire fortune to almost any Mexican cop or robber, except for the narco-traffickers, for whom it is chump change. And that, too, might have been an interesting story, but it has no relation at all to that of the missing persons from Laredo.

We don’t know what Ginger Thompson is taking as she types about the drug war, but we want some! Look at what she writes next:

“Often, the (unnamed FBI) agent said, the kidnappings are carried out by municipal police officers who are secretly working for the drug traffickers. The officers pull their victims over for routine traffic violations and take them away.”

None of that is about the cases she purports to be reporting about. If Brenda Cisneros and the others were “kidnapped,” where’s the damn ransom note?

The other tenuous “drug war” connection to Thompson’s story came only in the form of an outraged denial by family members of the missing to innuendo spread by some Mexican police agency. In other words, she printed the denial only to squeeze the unsubstantiated accusation – a claim she did not get from any other on-the-record source – into the text of the story:

“Those who have filed missing persons reports said that rather than investigating those responsible for the kidnappings, the Mexican authorities accused the victims of being involved in the drug trade.”

Thompson thus uses the pain of the families (who, after all, are not trained press secretaries like the Embassy flaks from whom she takes dictation) to provide the fodder to turn what should have been a story about missing persons into another cliché-ridden border “narco” story.

Washington Post reporter Mary Jordan, in Laredo on the same day as the Timesperson, did no better in her report. (The Jordan-Thompson tag-team is oh-so-reminiscent of the day that Narco News managing editor Dan Feder caught NY Timesman Juan Forero and LA Timesman T. Christian Miller penning the same story from the same sources in the suburbs of Caracas in 2003.)

So it’s no surprise that Jordan ended up spreading the very same innuendo that Thompson would repeat in the next day’s Times.

The Post led with Brenda Cisneros’ September disappearance, and took only four paragraphs to get to the narco-smear upon the apparent victims:

“One U.S. official said that while some of the missing appear to have been innocent victims, more were probably involved with drug traffickers.”

“It’s untrue,” says Pablo Cisneros, four months into his grief, of the narco stain that Jordan and Thompson heaped upon his daughter and similarly disappeared human beings from Laredo. The idea that drug traffickers or ransom-seekers were behind his daughter’s disappearance is far-fetched to Cisneros, who states the obvious reasons it might have happened, at least to any parent on either side of the border: “If a pretty girl disappears, we all know the reasons that can happen.”

To the father of the missing woman, the narco smear by highly-paid reporters, who ought to know better about the consequences of publishing innuendo about powerless (or missing) persons, only causes his family and him more pain atop the heavy burden they already bear.

The Man Behind the Curtain

Both reporters, in this abuse of common citizens, cited one man, an employee of the U.S. State Department, as their official source: U.S. Consul in Nuevo Laredo, Michael Yoder.

According to the Post version:

Michael Yoder, the U.S. consul here, said one Mexican drug gang called the Zetas, composed of former military commandos who deserted from the Mexican army, has reportedly gone into the business of kidnapping for ransom, and an FBI official said he believed that drug gangs sometimes used kidnappings to raise money after a business setback such as a major drug bust.

Again, if it was ransom that was sought, as Yoder claims, why haven’t the Cisneros’ and other families received a demand from kidnappers?

The apparent victim’s father isn’t the only source that doubts the veracity of the Times and Post stories.

A former DEA agent who is knowledgeable about the border region tells Narco News:

“My sense is that [the kidnapping of Americans] is something the drug traffickers would shy away from. [Their involvement] just doesn’t make sense.”

Add to that the testimony of a current Department of Homeland Security official, also speaking on the condition of anonymity (because, after all, publicly contradicting the innuendo spread from high tiers in the U.S. government bureaucracy is not generally a path to career promotion). He tells Narco News:

“Why would drug traffickers bring attention to themselves, when it will affect profits? Now there is more law enforcement on the border, so why bring that pressure on? It doesn’t seem to make sense.

“Why would drug traffickers sacrifice the money to hire cops to kidnap and murder Americans? What’s the return? ... [In Mexico], kidnapping Americans, most of them John Does, there just isn’t a lot of bang for the buck. Why pay the cops to kill Americans? It has to be more complicated. There’s no profit to be made.”

A third law enforcer with extensive border experience, retired U.S. Customs supervisory special agent Mark Conrad, speculates that there could conceivably be a narco-connection to the disappearances, but in an entirely different way than Thompson, Jordan, and their government spoon-feeders have portrayed.

Conrad notes that killings (or disappearances) of U.S. citizens on the Mexican side of the border would take priority for U.S. law enforcement agencies, forcing Mexican and U.S. law enforcement agencies to divert resources away from counter-narcotics and smuggling investigations in order to investigate the disappearances:

“If people go missing, that takes a higher priority than drugs.”

Maybe for law enforcement missing persons are a higher priority than drugs, but apparently not for Thompson or Jordan or their newspapers.

Thompson and Jordan, their newspapers, and the U.S. government sources that spoon-fed them a shabby but sexy (in a Timesperson’s version of “sex” anyway) story, abused the families and the missing as pawns in another agenda: One that has its sights set not on the cities of Laredo or Nuevo Laredo across the border in Mexico, where the disappearances occurred, but rather on U.S. public opinion on the eve of the 2006 Mexican presidential election.

“Mexico’s drug war” heading north! It’s a simulated “news story.” And it is as seasonal as the arrival of the swallows in San Juan Capistrano, except that it occurs not annually but every six years: To justify U.S. meddling in Mexico’s democratic processes, the nation to the south must be painted in front of U.S. public opinion as a Petri dish for a “drug problem” that, conveniently, every sexenial, is portrayed as a contagion that is about to overwhelm the border and spread northwards.

The Narco Smear Against Mexico

“Mexico’s drug war” (Thompson dixit) mainly involves the trafficking of cocaine, and decades of failed efforts to stop its northward flow.

As Narco News readers know, cocaine is a processed drug that comes only from the coca plant, a bush that does not grow in Mexico. It is Mexico’s unlucky geography that makes this country of 100 million people the straw between the South American coca plant and the gringo’s nose.

From that geographic accident has sprung an entire mythology about mysterious and criminal drug “cartels” that supposedly run the cocaine trade but that are little more than fluid, often temporary, organizations that merely ship the product and bribe the authorities on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border. The majority of profits go to bankers and money launderers that the media considers “respectable” citizens in both countries. The Mexican narco-organizations are little more than Teamsters who get the product from Point A to Point B.

The “war on drugs” is the key with which Washington and Wall Street – the real beneficiaries of a prohibited drug trade – successfully picked the lock of Mexican democracy in 1988, in 1994 and again in 2000… and they will now – with the eager help of “journalists” like Thompson and Jordan, attempt to do so again in 2006.

With Mexico heading into what ought to be its most democratic presidential contest ever (and one in which Mexico City’s center-left and activist governor Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador leads in opinion polls, to the chagrin of Condoleeza Rice and company), expect more of these kinds of “news stories” in which everything Mexican shall now be flavored not with chili, but, rather, with a journalistic salsa called “narco.” (There is also a story to be told, over the next 18 months, about that democratic process. For some early soothsaying about the upcoming presidential election in Mexico, in English, see this latest analysis, hot off the presses, by Alejandro Macias of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs.)

This online newspaper, Narco News, cut its teeth during the 2000 presidential elections in Mexico. Reporting the truth about the bilateral corruption of the drug war got us sued, and vindicated in court. It won for us – and for others by extension – the first-ever First Amendment protections for internet journalists as an unintended result of that attack by the powerful.

Our publication of those stories in 2000 (and in 1999, prior to the first publication of Narco News, in The Boston Phoenix) brought us into direct conflict with Thompson’s predecessor at the Timesthe disgraced Sam Dillon – who fell down in June 2000 and hasn’t gotten up since. And, well, if the big boys and girls at the halls of government, banking, and big media want to go to the same dance in 2005 and 2006, allow us to strike up the band of truthful reporting about this matter once again as reprise.

After all, when Ginger Thompson of the New York Times quotes Mexican newspaper editor Ramón Cantú Deandar, of El Mañana (a daily that lost a reporter, she says, to narco-assassins) as saying about his paper’s drug war coverage, “We censor ourselves,” she has found nothing less than a surrogate spokesman for the same New York Times to explain its own self-censorship when writing about the U.S.-Mexico “drug wars.”

“The drug war is lost,” Cantú told the Times. “We are alone. And I don’t want to put anyone else at risk for a reality that is never going to change.”

Such claims that reality “is never going to change” are standard operating procedure for the Times and other gatekeepers of information. They don’t want it to change.

Drugs as Metaphor

A foundational myth that upholds the “war on drugs” in U.S. public opinion is the idea that “drugs” are coming from “outside” the country, into the United States. Basically, it’s a disease metaphor: that a contagion from “out there” threatens to infect a supposedly healthy organism in the form of a country.

Never mind that the United States is the world’s largest producer of methamphetamine (the illicit drug of choice in much of red-state “Middle America”), “designer drugs” (such as MDMA or “ecstasy”) and marijuana (not to mention the gringo role as the world’s largest exporter of tobacco and pharmaceuticals). The media focus is on cocaine, a drug convenient to the myth because its source plant – the coca bush – cannot grow on continental U.S. soil (although the Coca Cola company is legally permitted to grow it in Hawaii).

All in all, kind readers, have pity on the simulators like Ginger Thompson and Mary Jordan and their editors. It’s hard to sell ink-stained newsprint in the United States, where newspaper circulation numbers continue to plummet. It’s even harder to sell them based on what happens in Mexico or other Latin American lands. The violence between cops and criminals competing for control of specific drug routes and markets is simply of little interest to a population conditioned to be numb to any pain that is not labeled “American.” And many of those who are paying attention across national borders are getting their information via the Internet now.

So, as the 2006 elections in Mexico approach, brace yourselves for more such stories in the U.S. media, seeking any and every angle to portray “Mexico’s drug war” as overflowing the border and oozing north… another damn “weapon of mass destruction” meant to sway public opinion to tolerate actions against democracy in Mexico.

Egads! If Mexico continues marching toward democracy, it might well design its own drug policy more consistent with the desires and aspirations of its own people.

As Mexican drug war investigator Jorge Chabat told Hugh Dellios of the Chicago Tribune this month:

‘This is a good opportunity to rethink the war on drugs… The US government has been telling Mexico for years to arrest the big capos. Well, now Mexico has done that, and you know what? Nothing changes.”

Chabat, like many Mexicans, doesn’t say, “it’s never going to change.” Indeed, he’s one of many advocates for change down here. He’s saying, rather, that nothing changes until the policy is changed. And what U.S. drug warriors fear is that if democracy breaks out in Mexico, sooner or later the country is going to set its own course on drug policy. Thus, to prevent that democratic wave, everyone and anything in Mexico will be accused of involvement with drug trafficking – even the defenseless missing persons from the North – all to justify a bad idea about “prohibiting” drugs, an idea whose time has gone.

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The Narco News Bulletin: Reporting on the Drug War and Democracy from Latin America