Free Range

Censorship by Bullet: What happens in Mexico…

November 2010

These days Mexicans contemplate a sinister Zen koan: If a person is beheaded and no one reports it, does it really happen?

Mexico is now the most dangerous country in the Western hemisphere for news professionals. Because fewer than 1 in 10 crimes against journalists is successfully prosecuted, the country now ranks ninth in the world in terms of impunity.  Last month, novelists, poets, and reporters from the U.S. and Mexico gathered in New York City to call attention to the plight of Mexican journalists who increasingly are choosing silence over death. The event—“State of Emergency: Censorship by Bullet”—was  hosted by the Committee to Protect Journalists, the PEN American Center, and PEN Mexico, with sponsorship from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

Over 30 journalists and media professionals have been murdered or gone missing since President Calderon took office in December 2006. That’s according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.  The Government doesn’t seem to keep statistics. According to the National Human Rights Commission, a public institution independent from the Government, 64 journalists have been killed since 2000.

Who is behind the violence? Drug traffickers or narcotraficantes mainly, but the police, the military, and public officials collude out of greed and fear.  In many cities, drug traffickers are the de facto government, and narcocorridos, Mexico’s equivalent of gangsta rap, is the soundtrack for weddings, funerals, and sweet 15 parties. Under narco rule, street vendors and taxi drivers are forced to spy on their fellow citizens, and journalists are threatened or bribed into becoming P.R. agents for the warring gangs, disseminating approved “news” and suppressing the real.  Like people the world over, Mexicans rely on the news to reflect and reflect upon their reality—the same way babies depend on their mothers’ face to mirror emotion.  Today, it’s fair to say, Mexico is a motherless child.

Are there any solutions to the crisis in Mexico? One recommendation has been to make crimes against freedom of expression a federal offense, but if, as one prominent Mexican reporter at the New York event remarked, the government can’t even keep count of the victims, how is it going to catch and prosecute the perpetrators of these crimes? Sometimes it seems like Mexico is a Bermuda Triangle for the truth. It’s no wonder Mexicans are cynical. When the big problems are so intractable, people have no recourse but to focus on the trivial, putting down whomever they can, including themselves. Mexico’s PEN president, Jennifer Clement, underscored this tendency in her closing remarks at the “Censorship by Bullet” event. She described posts on a narco blog ( ) in response to the graffiti: “We don’t kill journalists.”

They were not about the message itself or the violence against journalists but were 390 vitriolic and sarcastic comments about the abominable spelling and poor syntax of this graffiti. One blogger said…. even our narcos are Third World.

The War on Drugs vs. the Drug Wars

There are always two sides to a story just as the same river can have two different names, depending on which side of it you live. The big guy calls it the big river and the smaller guy calls it the tough one, the wild one, the brave one.  While the Mexicans who live near that river, in cities along the border, have been among the worst affected by the drug violence, few places are immune. In the last four years, over 30,000 Mexicans have died in drug-related violence. In light of these numbers, some would say that journalists have gotten off easy. And if their murders haven’t been properly investigated, neither have those of the thousands of other Mexicans targeted by the narcos or caught in the cross-fire.

While the drug wars rage in Mexico, we continue to wage our decades-old war on drugs. The U.S. insists that the problem of drug use can be solved by shutting off the flow of drugs from Mexico, and Mexicans argue that the violence can be quelled by shutting off the supply of guns from the U.S.

If governments had Facebook pages, the relationship status for Mexico and the U.S. would be “it’s complicated.”  But our two countries have more in common than we want to admit; we’re not separated by the Rio Grande (AKA Río Bravo), but joined by that famous river in Egypt, denial.  What can no longer be denied is that U.S. guns, capital, and our insatiable hunger for getting high are fueling the drug wars in Mexico, where rival cartels compete for a slice of the American pie. Ah, free enterprise! But can any country be free without a free press?

Freedom is just another word

PEN (“Poets, Essayists and Novelists”) International has been fighting for freedom of expression since 1921, and Mexico was among the first countries to join the human rights organization. It is a country that has always held writers in high esteem: the poet Sor Juana Inés de La Cruz appears on Mexico’s currency, and Octavio Paz, when alive, played pundit on the evening news. These days, the written words that speak loudest in Mexico aren’t in books or in newspapers, but in notes pinned to bodies and carved into the flesh of the narcos’ victims.

As a writer and member of PEN Mexico, I am proud of the work PEN has done on behalf of its members like Nobel Peace Prize winner, Liu Xiaobo, and others. But my title—chair of the Writers in Prison Committee—carries with it a painful irony: there is hope for writers behind bars. We know where they are, and we have a chance at liberating them. We can write letters, send out email blasts, tweet and text, and the newspapers, radio and TV stations, and bloggers will amplify what we do, holding up a mirror to government actions for all the world to see. But you can’t be freed if you’re dead.

So how do we protest the deaths of Mexican journalists and bring the killers to justice when no one in Mexico dares tell the story?  In the Arabian Nights, Scheherazade saves herself from the murderous sultan by telling him stories all night-long for a thousand and one nights.  In Mexico, it seems, there is no appeasing the murderous sultan. The storytellers have all been silenced, and now it is up to all of us to tell the thousand and one tales of the dead and disappeared.  And like Scheherazade, we must tell them as if our life depends on it, because what happens in Mexico doesn’t stay in Mexico.


Leader of the Pack: Tips from the Dog Whisperer…for Parents

March 2007

I have a Jack Russell Terrorist—I mean Terrier—so I’ve been watching Dog Whisperer on DVD. I’m halfway through the first season and Cesar Millan, the star of the show, is reminding me yet again that I’ve got to be “top dog” if I want my pet to behave. I’ve got to become—vroom, vroom—leader of the pack. Like nearly every dog-owner who appears on the show, I treat my dog like he’s my baby. And I’m someone who should know the difference—I’m the mother of a human child and co-author of the parenting book, Trees Make the Best Mobiles: Simple Ways to Raise your Child in a Complex World. My book is about caring for children, even infants, with respect so I was a little surprised when a few episodes back it dawned on me:  I should be telling the moms and dads attending my parenting classes “treat your toddler like a terrier.”

I’ve been noticing that a lot of parents deal with their progeny as if they were beleaguered cabinet members trying to advise a small but irascible president-for-life. The poor parents prostrate themselves, offer a plethora of choices and end each sentence—even strong counsel like “don’t bite your cousin Melanie”—with “okay?” Modern-day Scheherazades, these parents are prepared to read their children a thousand and one stories  to stave off a tantrum or delay the dreaded bedtime (dreaded  by whom? you might ask). At the playground I recently witnessed one mother with an arsenal of snacks in her backpack follow her hungry child around, asking, “Would you like some organic rice crackers?  Apple slices?  How about a cheese stick? Or maybe some edamame…?” It’s no wonder the toddlers have to stage a coup and install a military dictatorship. Some one has to take charge.

Sometimes, it seems like the ruling junta in this country are TV’s arbiters of taste and “fixers,” several of whom happen to be from across the pond or south of the border. With them we become what Cesar calls “calm submissive,” even as they evaluate and reprimand us in front of millions.  We have weepy epiphanies and are saved (often from further embarrassment) by brusque game show hosts, callous judges and sensible nannies from England, and by a guy from a hard scrabble farm in Mexico who patiently reminds us that dogs aren’t people…just as children aren’t adults. If we’re clueless about limits and limit-setting, maybe it’s because we were raised believing that everything is possible, that we can move anywhere and remake ourselves again and again—as long as we’re far from family and in close contact with our life coach. Perhaps what we find so appealing about these “experts” from cultures with deeper roots and a greater attachment to tradition is they ask us to grow up and act like the adults we are. Our children would like to see us do this too.

So what does it take to become leader of the pack? Sadly, more than a motorcycle jacket and an MP3 of the Shangri-Las.

First, according to Cesar, you have to master “the walk.” If your dog is out front, walking you, then he’s the leader. Instead, using a short leash (a cord will do—pack leaders don’t need “bling”), teach him to trot alongside. Or better yet, have him follow in your footsteps like a disciple, a word that shares its root with discipline.

When your disciple is a seven month old baby, you put a hat on him in February—even if “he doesn’t like it”—because you are, as our President likes to call it, “the decider.” For parents, walking the walk means modeling the behavior you want to see from your child. Snarling “be nice” from across the sandbox with your hackles up isn’t going to teach your child good manners, much less instill gentleness. Besides, neither kids nor dogs learn anything from being shouted at. The latter respond to this display of “excited, unbalanced” energy by getting agitated or frightened. Similarly, when you lose your temper and end up screaming at your child, she may worry: Who’s in control if you’re out of it? If you want to teach your child the difficult trick of being human, you have to project calm, assertive energy.

One of the things that struck Cesar when he first arrived in this country was the “strange, very unnatural energy” of gringo dogs.  Some of our kids exhibit that same nervous, over-stimulated energy—especially the ones who spend a lot of time indoors, chained to their screens. What distinguishes a leader, whether biped or quadruped, is her ability to regulate the pack’s energy.  You don’t have to bend spoons with your mind. You just need to focus, but—here’s the rub—not 24/7 on your child, because hovering isn’t leading. Going to any length to “nurture” your child is like being dragged down the street by your unruly retriever, the flexi-leash lengthening to meet his impulses and desires. While our offspring and pets appear content to dominate us, with parents and dog-owners turning their world upside down to accommodate their charges, it’s stressful, scary even, for a young child to be constantly barraged with choices. Edamame, anyone?

Dog-owners are famous for ascribing human emotions to their pets, and as parents we can be just as confused, getting our needs and hopes hopelessly tangled up with those of our offspring. No wonder we’re over-invested and bring the wrong kind of energy to our job as pack leaders. And no wonder we’re so desperate for expert advice. As for me, I’ve finally got the whole knotty mess sorted out. Thanks to Cesar, it’s now clear who’s the boss in my household. Come by and see for yourself. I’ll be the one in front of the T.V., ears pricked, waiting for the next episode of Dog Whisperer. Just don’t touch the Mexican guy on the screen. I’m liable to growl.




Comments are closed.