March 14, 2009

Traversing the border and the media

Last November I received this travel advisory from the U.S. State Department, which was sent out to all students and faculty at San Diego State University. Over the past two years, the drug-related violence in Mexico has received considerable press, and for good reason. It is a real problem, and one that has roots on both sides of the US/Mexico border. I spent almost five months in different parts of Mexico last year, and reports of drug-related violence were all over the news. I still remember, after spending a few weeks in more rural parts of Quintana Roo, when I came back to one of the bigger cities and heard about this news.

The drug-related violence in Mexico is certainly a serious issue. But it's also difficult to gain a well rounded understanding of what is happening and what to think about it. Much of the media coverage here in the U.S. focuses, I think, a little too much on certain aspects while forgetting to put everything into a more well-rounded context. They talk about corruption, murders, and the power of the cartels, but they forget to mention where the guns come from, let alone the fact that the 30 plus billion dollar industry is fueled by illegal drug consumption in the U.S. itself. This recent report (follow the link and click on the audio icon) on These Days at NPR, which was sent to me by one of my professors, actually does a good job of discussing some of the complexities of what is happening.

One aspect that has grabbed my attention--and which was also mentioned in the NPR report--is that tourism zones and public relations are of the utmost priority in many cases. Many news reports mention how the violence and uncertainty in Mexico is affecting tourism. Tourism officials in Baja California are, however, trying to assure visitors that it is perfectly safe to visit their state. Here is one example. And here is one more.

In many ways, this situation is not only a real battle on the ground, so to speak, but also one that is being waged in the media. Take, for example, the way that certain tourism promoters are addressing the problem:

Mindful of Mexico's image troubles, promoters in the Cancun area are turning to a novel tactic: Don't mention what country it's in. Officials say they will downplay Mexico in advertising the beach zone, which has been relatively untouched by the violence.

Their solution? Don't associate with Mexico. Visitors are encouraged to fly right over all of the political and social problems so that they can enjoy the sunshine and tranquility of the famous Cancun beaches in peace. Talk about avoiding the issue. But, of course, political turmoil is the bane of tourism. Edward Bruner, in relation to tourism in Kenya, writes:

The success of the tourism industry depends on stable government and guarantees of personal safety. The industry responds instantaneously to political instability with massive cancellations of organized tours, and the tourists simply book their vacations elsewhere. Thus, there are strong financial incentives for protecting the image that tourism sells (Bruner 2005: 58).

I think this applies directly to what is happening throughout Mexico, where the tourism industry, which in many ways pretends to be apolitical, is severely affected by social and political upheavals. It happens in Oaxaca, Tijuana, Mexico City, and the Yucatan.

Tourism is a strange beast, since it depends so much on media constructions and perceptions of what a place is supposedly about. People are drawn to various parts of Mexico in part because of certain overly romantic characterizations of "indigenous people," "ancient cultures", and wide open white sand beaches. Sometimes the contemporary people who actually live in Mexico today are almost completely elided. They are either invisible, or are expected to play into tourist expectations. Social and political uprisings and disturbances are seen, in some cases, as temporary impediments to tourism and business that will "go away" all in good time. See, for example, a recent statement about Tiger Woods' project by Oscar Escobedo, the current secretary of tourism for Baja California (also mentioned in this post):

“This golf course has the potential of putting Baja California on the map as a worldwide golf destination,” Escobedo said in an interview. “I don't see the current violence having a long-term impact. This is not the first time, nor the last, that Mexico goes through a crisis.”

I have found surprisingly little anthropological literature about this so far, but maybe that means I just need to look harder. I did come across an article by James H. McDonald, which I am in the process of reading. More about that later. In the mean time, here are some of the recent news reports that relate to some of the issues this post discusses...

Arum: Despite drug violence, Tijuana ‘a very safe place’

Tijuana, saying tourists are safe, invites them to participate in 120th birthday

U.S. won't rule out troops at Mexican border

Progress in Mexico drug war is drenched in blood

Clinton to Visit Mexico as Drug War, Economic Crisis Top Agenda

Kidnapped Man's Family Warns: 'Stay Out Of Tijuana'

Tijuana's bloodiest year


Conor said...

Bruner is good stuff.

I enjoy your postings. It keeps me interested without doing any writing myself haha.

Have you read Judd/Fainstein stuff? Its not particularly anthropological but there is some great discussions on tourism policies and effects on cities.

Moisés Santos Mena said...

Ryan, recently I worte:
la actividad turística en Ensenada está en serios problemas. Es el resultado de años de indulgencia, falta de visión a corto, mediano y largo plazo. Por buscar fórmulas mágicas y dinero rápido y fácil. Se ha hipotecado nuestro patrimonio o malbaratado por platos de lentejas. Se ofrece la belleza de nuestro paisaje natural y a la vez se promueven inversiones y obras que los destruyen o lo privatizan hasta el grado de la exclusión y exclusividad. No se han respetado los instrumentos de planificación y hasta los gobiernos municipales, estatales y federales fomentan su vulneración, por lo que empiezan a aparecer aberraciones como instalaciones industriales junto a desarrollos turísticos o construcciones en zonas de riesgo, suelo inestable o alta sismicidad.
Sobre seguridad (o falta de ella), se respira temor, incertidumbre, desconfianza, andamos crispados y de mal humor. Se escuchan anécdotas de secuestros de pequeños y medianos empresarios, de extorsión. Cuesta poner cara amable y sentirse optimista. Se empiezan a desear medidas extremas: pena de muerte, militarización, toque de queda...
En los medios locales se hace énfasis en los costos financieros de la crisis, en la falta de inversión, en la necesidad de creación de empleos y estos criterios se sobreponen a todo, es decir, nada más importa ser discutido o tomado en cuenta si no cae dentro de estos temas...

En lo personal, no hemos sufrido agresiones, asaltos, amenazas, robos o intentos de secuestro, pero sí hemos sufrido por la agresividad y neurosis colectiva. Supongo que cada quien está tratando de salir adelante lo mejor que puede...
Sólo recuerda que esta es una visión muy parcial y que no puede reflejar una realidad bastante compleja y con muchas aristas y ángulos..."

If you can read this one, then you can read in Spanish!!

Moisés Santos Mena said...

Hello Ryan,

I´m sending you this analysis made by Denise Dresser about war on crime in México:


R.A. said...

Thanks Moises. I particularly like this quote:

"At the same time, the U.S. government needs to grasp that this is a war that will never be "won"; that will never end with a certain triumph of the forces of good over the forces of evil, if the demand for drugs here is not stymied. To pretend that it can be won without dealing with drug consumption and demand-driven forces in the United States is to believe that one can stop an earthquake or a hurricane. For every drug-trafficker who is caught, another one will emerge in his place."

The demand for drugs here in the US is most definitely something that needs to be addresses--although many people sidestep or ignore this aspect of the problem.

Thanks for the link.