Saturday, 13 April 2013

What's wrong with El Blog del Narco? What is its importance in Mexico?

Truth be told, I've never relied on Blog Del Narco as a primary source! I routinely monitor several of Mexico's national newspapers (El Universal, Milenio) and focus on sources that I personally trust ( Reforma, La Jornada, and Proceso). Furthermore, my personal interests are Sinaloa-centric and I depend on regional papers and magazines (Noroeste, Rio Doce and El Debate) .

More recently, Twitter feeds and Facebook groups such Carmen Aristigui's and those of journalists and columnists have been invaluable sources.

And of course, several international English language sources sit on my personal "must review list". This list includes the New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, the Arizona Daily Star (Tucson), the Guardian, the BBC, and Al Jazeerah.

I treat most blogs as "collector sites" with a few exceptions – for instance Bill Conroy's The Narco News Bulletin generates original investigative reports. Most blogs are personal review essays that rehash current news and convenient gateway sites that contain links to primary documents and sources. If a blog mentions an original source of interest, I track down the original and archive it after reading it.

Do I believe that Blog del Narco is original source of news not reported elsewhere? 

No way! Perhaps it once was - but there is not enough original reporting to justify the claim of originality or uniqueness. Given previous threats and acts of violence against bloggers in Tamaulipas, it may well be that El Blog del Narco's correspondents went into a deep retreat and are now silent. But I have always wondered how"in the field" journalists routinely made contact with Blog del Narco without being traceable or discoverable. The possibility of being discovered would discourage anyone from sharing information with Lucy and Blog del Narco. It also seems to me that el Blog del Narco lacks the technology and sophistication to protect trusted sources with secure firewalls and the multiple re-routing of messages via international servers that anonymously bounce emails to delete IP trails.

Perhaps El Blog del Narco did originally post information from local correspondents.  And perhaps those sources also realized that local news could more efficiently and anonymously disseminated using twitter and other short txt and image transmissions. Local sources may have seen less value in sending breaking news to distant sources and less danger with a more direct payoff in tweeting or texting to local followers.  Without a steady stream of local correspondents, El Blog del Narco would not be capable of delivering news except as a "gateway" model relaying reports from regional and local periodicals.

So why hasn't Lucy la bloguera acknowledged original sources and includes links to that source? If local correspondents were in a danger zone, there clearly is a justification for not providing any identification or links traceable back to those reporting directly from danger areas. But what justification is there for not including links when information has already been appeared in print and where the reporter or correspondent has already been identified? I can't speak for her personal reasons for not including those links, but I can suggest at least three good reasons why it might be reasonable to leave out identification from posts.

First, there a very real climate of fear surrounding the publication of any narco-news and direct threats to publishers (mainstream and informal) are well documented. When a threat is generalized and vague it must taken seriously in Mexico. Warnings and threats are not always blatant in-your-face encounters, but frequently rely on implied danger and harmful consequences. In northwest Mexico, even the slang code word to warn of impending danger, - "agua", is as vague and indirect as most threats.  Implied threats can carry more weight and be even more frightening than direct confrontations. But clearly, the warnings also take concrete form - News outlets have been routinely bombed, reporters have disappeared, reporters are murdered, and direct warnings are regularly conveyed to anyone who posts reports about crime and corruption that criminals and others do not want to see in print. Those threats, whether specific or generalized, can come from anywhere— narcos, politicians, police and the army. We should recognize that Lucy la bloguera is operating in a climate and a context where everyone does think twice about what they say in public, and they are even more cautious about what they put into words. Trained journalists understand this code and recognize the danger, and they are always aware of how far they can go in reporting a story. Basically, the argument here is that el Blog del Narco appears in a climate of clear and imminent threat and the code for reporting crime and violence is ambiguous and amorphous as a stream of water or a murky pond.

Second,  there is concrete evidence that the larger cartels are really monitoring the news and the internet! They ARE monitoring what appears in print and online. I've been told directly about phone calls from narcos made directly to the authors of an article that appeared in obscure blogs warning them to be careful. The number of hits that el Blog del Narco receives makes Lucy a very likely target for warnings and threats. And of course, it is also 100% likely that she has received stories and information directly from one DTO or another. We may find it difficult to believe that this level of monitoring or direct pressure happens, but the reality is that it does. It is true that the fact of monitoring by narcos doesn't directly answer the question of why el Blog del Narco doesn't cite sources, but it does illustrate clearly that journalists and bloggers in Mexico are operating under a different set of conditions than we do on our side of the Rio Bravo and the Mexican border. We are happy when our blogs and notices are watched, and we don't worry that they might be watched by people who are capable of hurting us or a family.

The third reason that el Blog del Narco might have left out links is much more mundane. Originally, I posted information to this blog site by scanning articles daily and posting a short description of the news a link back to the original source. I also classified articles into categories such as Human Rights Violations, Corruption, Los Zetas etc. I can personally testify to the fact that undertaking to collect so many regional reports and news items and converting them to formats to post is both time consuming and tedious. And I can testify that there is a lot of work involved in tracking links and making certain they are correct and are working. Adding the references and the links to the items was the most time consuming and problematic part of those posts. Most charitably, I might be willing to accept that Lucy and el Blog del Narco didn't allocate the time to take that final step of verifying links— but I do admit that this is not a convincing argument in her defense. I think that the first two reasons I suggested are much more convincing reasons for doing things on the fly.

Does el Blog del Narco serve a purpose? 

I personally give it 2 thumbs up in this regard! Few have the luxury of time and personal training to scan many sources and develop informed judgments about which sources are reliable. But the broad narrative of violence in Mexico does require telling and it does demand a broad voice that speaks to all of the violence across the nation. El Blog del Narco does serves an important purpose as the national town crier. In many ways, El Blog del Narco disseminates news akin to the way that corridos and narco-corridos pass along information and details to the Mexican everyman.

Should Blog del Narco acknowledge its sources?

Definitely — but I also think that it is unreasonable to demand that the editor apply the same standards that we on this side of the border use to judge academics and trained journalists . A broad disclaimer and acknowledgement that Blog del Narco borrows material would go a long way to providing it with more credibility! But this would only be a token acknowledgement, and the fact is that anyone who routinely scans Mexican news reports already recognizes that reports in El Blog del Narco are from elsewhere.

Is Blog del Narco unique in Mexico in borrowing and sharing news reports? 

Far from it! On one hand, many Mexican news outlets routinely reprint and report other sources and reprint columnists who have published in other papers and magazines. Of course they also acknowledge the authorship, even if they rarely provide links to original sources. And unlike el Blog del Narco, I also assume that they pay a fee or have a shared arrangement. We should also remember that politicos in Mexico have historically interfered with journalistic integrity and disrupted the reliability of news by releasing reports and press releases that ares blatantly propagandistic or contain baldfaced lies. They applied coercion by using strategies such as blocking newsprint delivery or they simply paid a co-opted journalist to write only favorable story. Few people seem to remember that once upon a time La Jornada distinguished the real news by printing it in  normal font while publishing all questionable reports  (government releases) in italics. And of course, they have even resorted to buying up or destroying all copies of papers that contain unfavorable stories: there was an example of this yesterday in Chiapas ( “Compra masiva” de ejemplares de diarios de Chiapas que critican al gobernador")

Rocha: Proceso 1902-
Zanahoria Garrote
Given this cultural context and history of journalism in Mexico, El Blog del Narco must be seen as just one of many "news" outlet/sources that is operating under subterranean values that condone questionable practices and carelessness through fear or by custom. 

Should we really be bothered over the allegations that Blog del Narco does not use original material and that it does not acknowledge this practise? 

I personally don't think so, but I do acknowledge that it's not my material that is being used and reprinted. I have personally had material used without acknowledgement and for profit by unscrupulous journalists who "borrowed it". That's why this blog site has faded away - but unlike El Blog del Narco, my musings and research were used by individuals who hoped to gain a substantial profit. In the case of Blog del Narco, I can't see how someone has profited (...yet?). 

One thing that strikes me in this emerging controversy is how journalists within Mexico (see the Al Jazeerah broadcast are not as vocal nor concerned about charges of plagiarism as are bloggers on the other side of the Rio Bravo. In the Al Jazeerah broadcast Lydia Cacho recognizes that El Blog del Narco does not represent "true journalism", but she also argues that El Blog del Narco plays a very important role in raising general knowledge about narco violence, corruption and abuses of human rights within Mexico.

 The fact is that most complaints directed toward El Blog del Narco are coming from outside of Mexico and fewer voices are heard from within Mexico. It seems to me that at least some of the discomfort about Lucy la bloguera y su plagio is one more example of foraneos imposing a narrative onto a Mexican issue. And problematically, that conversion of the narrative twists the focus of attention away from the real problems faced by Mexicans.

For more information about the criticisms of El Blog del Narco: see

In my other (academic) life, I do not tolerate plagiarism. I have taken steps that had severe negative consequences for students and colleagues who engaged in academic dishonesty. If I were reviewing the work of El Blog del Narco in a professional capacity, I would have submitted every edition of Blog del Narco to "" and refused to publish any issue that demonstrated unacknowledged citation. I would have gone further and forwarded the details to academic integrity committees for sanctioning. But in the case of El Blog del Narco, we also need to acknowledge that it appears in a nation where news is routinely and blatantly manipulated in perverted Gramscian demonstrations of arrogant power.

Hopefully, narco violence in Mexico will one day diminish to a point where every citizen will also have the luxury and time to debate good manners, the ethics of acknowledging others, and the need to respect those who risked danger to produce their stories. But Mexico is not there! 

I do believe that the concerns about the authenticity and legitimacy of El Blog del Narco are more important outside of Mexico. I also believe that this asymmetric outrage has not been fully recognized during this rush to point fingers, vocally pursue allegations of plagiarism and counteract claims of la boguera Lucy.  This asymmetric outrage and indignation is another example of how we anglo-northamericans (I hesitate to use the word gringo since I am Canadian) appropriate the reality of other lives and convert it into our own issue..

Believe me, I am far-removed from cultural sociology and my academic training led me to trust empirical and quantitative methods rather than cultural critique and deconstruction of narratives. But, it seems to me that this vocal outrage against Blog del Narco is an example of our appropriation of a Mexican issue and our conversion of the narrative into one that matters more to us than it does to a Mexican.

We have frequently appropriated the Mexican experience and recast it through a WASPish[1] lens. There is a terrific book by William Francis Deverell documenting how Mexican experiences and cultural traditions in Los Angeles were reconstructed into an anglicized narrative to convert the region into a culturally acceptable  southwestern uniqueness that had more appeal to American nativists than it did to Mexicans. (Deverell, W. F. (2004).Whitewashed adobe : the rise of Los Angeles and the remaking of its Mexicanpast. Berkeley, University of California Press.).  We've long borrowed "select" Mexican cultural traditions and recast them as an anglo narrative: Cinco de Mayo is probably the best example of a hybridized cultural event that expresses Anglo visions more intently than it does Mexican history, and the Day of the Dead celebrations are another example of changing the Mexican experience into a specific Anglo vision of Mexico by filtering out the Mexican elements that don't appeal to us.

What does this argument of cultural appropriation have to do with complaints about Blog del Narco?

For all its imperfections, el Blog del Narco represents a voice that must be heard! There is a power in the message of El Blog del Narco that cannot be denied and that should not be quieted. It reaches an audience that has not been touched by traditional journalistic outlets! Who are we to warn Mexicans that they must tell a story according to our rules of journalism and our academic ethics? Doing so will leave the story untold, and that's what the government of Enrique Peña Nieto wants to happen.

RECOMMENDED: A report released by the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (WAN-IFRA) and the International Press Institute (IPI) following their February joint press-freedom mission to Mexico states that the new Mexican federal government must work to fully implement recent institutional measures designed to improve journalist safety. LINK TO ENGLISH LANGUAGE PDF OF REPORT IS


[1] I am thinking that I will begin to use Jared Diamond's term WEIRD – Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic in the future. It's from his new book "the World UntilYesterday" and does seem to better describe the cultural clashes that are at play here. 

No comments: