Gibler, a San Francisco-based journalist, reports from the front lines of the drug war in To Die in Mexico. He risked his own life to bring readers the stories of communities struggling to survive in a land terrorized by violence and where the authorities are complicit in—and profiting from—the chaos.
Given how many journalists have been threatened, tortured, and killed, how did you, an American reporter, get “inside” this dangerous war?
I had that very conversation with a group of awesome Mexican journalists at a bar in Mexico City in 2008. I had been following the insane violence related to the so-called “drug war” since late 2006, and the English language coverage was still assuming that the bloodshed was just a sad fact in a cops-and-robbers narrative. So I asked this table of intrepid Mexican journalists, “How can a foreigner write about this well when Mexican journalists like yourselves are struggling so?” And then it hit me: “I should write about you and your lives and view this madness through the lens of the reporters who have to cover it every single day.” By then I had been living in Mexico for a few years and cultivated deep friendships with Mexican journalists while reporting together on intense events like the Oaxaca teachers uprising in 2006. One of these good friends was later kidnapped by the Gulf Cartel in Reynosa. He told me his story on the condition that I would not use his name or describe him physically. Other friends started to recommend colleagues of theirs across the country whose work they most respected. That is how I got in touch with the reporters I spent time with in Sinaloa, Nuevo Leon, and Ciudad Juárez. A major challenge for me was to view and write about the execution scenes in a way that did not sensationalize the violence, to try and see the impacts of death upon all the life that remains. As Javier Valdez recommends, to not only count the dead, but tell the stories, playing on the two meanings of the verb “contar” in Spanish.
You point out that what U.S. officials and press neglect to mention is that it’s an open secret that the Mexican army and federales often are the drug traffickers. What other American misconceptions exist about the "drug war”?
Perhaps the main thing worth noting about Mexican army and police involvement in the drug trade is that the U.S. government continues to fund both the Mexican army and police to fight the drug war. Obviously, that is a bad idea. But that also leads to a major misconception in America, which is that Mexico is the corrupt country and the U.S. is the clean country. Illegal drugs are a huge transnational industry. Once the drugs cross the border they don’t magically distribute themselves or simply teleport to users. There is as equally a complex distribution network in the America as there is a trafficking network in Mexico. And those networks require police protection and officials on the take. Drugs are big business, which, sadly, is why there is no political will in either country to fight the destructive health and community impacts of drug consumption.
You’re attentive to how differently Americans and Mexicans view death. How do you think these cultural attitudes play out in the context of the “drug war”?
In the U.S., death is mainly represented in the media and the film industry as an enemy or an evil to be fought and conquered. Thus death is something always on the outside of life and opposed to good. This perspective might influence the American perspective of the drug war as being something that always takes place on the other side of borders—in Colombia, in Mexico, in “bad parts of town.” In Mexico, death is represented as an integral part of life. But this view adds to the tragedy of the drugland murders: they are unnecessary deaths. In Mexico, the murder is only ever half, or just a part, of the story. The impunity with which all the murders take place and the state’s tacit seal of approval are the necessary counterpart to the same story. And this sense of injustice provokes outrage—as we are seeing now with the marches against the drug war planned for May 8th in Mexico City.
What are you working on now?
I will continue to follow this issue; sadly what is at stake is too important to ignore. I also plan to report on indigenous and campesino communities in southern Mexico beginning to organize against region-wide government campaigns to bring foreign heap-leach gold and silver mines to the area.
What do you hope your readers will take away from To Die in Mexico? Did ideas come to mind in terms of how the U.S. government should approach the ongoing problem and what might be changed or looked toward next in collaborating with Mexico?
I hope readers will take away a sense of rage at all the unnecessary murder and pain unleashed in the name of a U.S. policy that has failed for decades by any and every measure. I think that some form of legalization program must be pursued to stop all the violence. Resources could then be spent on harm reduction, public health, and education initiatives. We would still have a lot of work to do of course, but perhaps we could get to work without fears of death squads.
How do we not stand by and watch it happen?
That is the question. If any short answer can be useful, I think it would be this: whatever we do we can’t do it alone, or expect politicians to do it for us. We need to organize amongst our friends and networks, in our schools, work places, and communities.