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IA-Forum Interview: Steve Fainaru

International Affairs Forum: What made you pursue the Mexican drug smuggling issue as a topic?

Steve Fainaru: It was a topic that was generated from within the paper, specifically the Post Foreign Desk. I think there was a feeling inside the paper that the drug war in Mexico had entered a new dimension beyond what we’ve seen the last few years. [President] Calderon’s decision to essentially militarize the drug war, turning it into a national security issue and bypassing the police, who are normally in charge of those issues, was a big step.

And then, of course, the violence was getting worse and worse, seemingly as a result of this decision. And so, we decided at the newspaper that we wanted to look at it further; then, the question became ‘how did we do that and what would we focus on’ and ‘how was it going to be different than previous coverage of an issue that’s been plaguing both countries for decades’.

IA-Forum: How much time do you spend in Mexico while gathering information for the stories?

Fainaru: I was going back and forth between California and Mexico. There wasn’t any sort of set schedule. But generally I’d go down a couple times a month and spend about a week researching whatever story we were working on.

IA-Forum: How much of the story do you think really occurs on the U.S. side of the border?

Fainaru: A lot of it does, an enormous amount. The more you get into it, the more that you realize as much as it’s a criminal and national security issue, it’s very much an economic issue. And, of course, the consumption demand side of that equation is nearly all happening in the United States, that’s where the market is. So a huge part of it is happening in the United States.

We focused at least one of our stories on that issue -- how are the cartels operating in the States and how the logistics networks work. So, partly because I worked for the Foreign Desk and I was working with a colleague who’s the Mexico City Bureau Chief, we decided from the outset that we wanted to focus on the supply side of the equation and how the Calderon government was dealing with the problem, and what the ramifications were.

IA-Forum: In a situation where there is so much deception and corruption, how do you verify your information?

Fainaru: It’s not easy. You basically have to talk to as many people as possible, and even then, you know that you’re circling around information. There’s not a lot of drug traffickers who are eager to be interviewed by the Washington Post. So we’re going in to these areas and we’re interviewing people in either law enforcement or civil society who are dealing with these problems one way or another and trying to gather information that way.

With that said, I think a lot of reporting is that way. When I was in Iraq, I had no opportunities to talk to the insurgents, so, almost by definition, you’re only getting part of the story. But that said, I still think you can write substantive and meaningful stories about what’s going on. You just might not be able to get into the heads of the people who are actually committing the crime.

IA-Forum: What were the two or three biggest concerns or obstacles in working these stories?

Fainaru: One of my biggest concerns from the outset was to not repeat the kind of coverage that had been done by many people over the last several years. I think these issues that are not going away, not just drug trafficking but immigration issues for instance, no one’s going to end drug trafficking. The drug war, it’s not like the war in Iraq, it’s not going to end.

So, there’s a constant drumbeat of coverage that kind of ebbs and flows that comes out of Mexico. My concern from the beginning was trying to look at it in a different way, trying to tell people something that they didn’t know. That was something that guided our coverage from the beginning.

I think the other one is obvious – it can be dangerous. There were certain places where, I wouldn’t say there were places where we couldn’t go, because unlike Iraq, I could drive around on my own. I could rent a car, just drive somewhere, and start talking to people. In Iraq, you couldn’t do that without bodyguards and in many places, even with bodyguards, you couldn’t go near a place. This is totally different, but there was that element of who can you talk to, who can you trust, how far could you go, how long did you stay. All of those were concerns that we dealt with pretty regularly when we got outside of Mexico City.

IA-Forum: Since it’s tied into economic and political issues, how far do you follow the story, and how do you decide what’s the central focus of the story?

Fainaru: Well, we try to figure that out at the beginning. We wanted to have something that would guide the coverage thematically rather than saying, “OK, let’s do a bunch of stories on the drug war”. It became very obvious to us from the beginning that what was fundamentally different about what’s going on now in Mexico had to do with the Calderon government’s use of the military to fight the traffickers.

That, in a really substantive way, had fundamentally changed the dynamic. In every place we went where the military was involved in the fight, we were seeing a lot of violence. We were seeing changes in institutions. We were seeing people grappling with the ramifications of having this much violence in your community. And then, of course the military itself was dealing with issues about how far to go in terms of prosecuting the drug war. I mean, it’s a totally different scene to have the military arresting people and then trying to prosecute them, than it is when it’s the police.

So everything sort of grew out of that, and that decision by Calderon to use the military, and we just took it from there, and looked at all the different aspects of what was essentially a policy decision.

IA-Forum: Now, some sources report that some in the Mexican drug war are on one side during the day and on the other at night: army in the day, smugglers by night. Did you find a lot of that?

Fainaru: Well, what we found is that, as I think it’s well known, there’s just enormous levels of corruption in all these places. I’ve been covering this issue since the early ‘90s, so I thought I had a pretty good feel for it. But I was pretty blown away by the magnitude of it now. The drug traffickers, they really are the controlling authority in many places in Mexico. They’re not operating through a government authority, but they control security operations. They control the media in many places. They have seemingly unlimited access to the influence of government officials, and so the military, of course, is not impervious to that. The problem is that the more involved that the military gets with fighting the drug traffickers, the more susceptible they are to corruption.

IA-Forum: How do Mexican journalists cover these stories and stay safe?

Fainaru: It’s incredibly difficult and it’s a huge, huge problem. You know the traffickers treat the media the same way they treat everybody. If you don’t play ball with them, they begin to pressure you or kill you. It’s a much different situation for them and for us. We can drop in for a few days, interview a bunch of people and then go home.

In my case, Bill [the Mexican City Bureau Chief] would go back to Mexico City and in my case I would go back to the United States. We met a lot of people who were covering the drug war and of course they don’t have that luxury. If you’re in Guerrero and you’re writing stories about the drug war in Chilpancingo in the middle of, not only the military’s efforts to take on the cartels, but the cartels own battles against each other to control territory, you’re just incredibly vulnerable.

They have so much money to corrupt. They have people everywhere. They have unlimited powers acquiring intelligence. It’s something that hundreds of Mexican journalists live with, and I don’t think you can really overstate what a difficult position that is, and it’s incredibly dangerous.

I think Mexico is the most dangerous place for a journalist to work in the world now. You had situations where drug traffickers were literally walking into people’s offices and shooting them dead. That’s just unthinkable for us.

You can imagine the impact that that has on the communities where people are seeking out protection and information. We heard stories where the drug traffickers would engage in gun battles in the center of a city right next to the newspaper offices and the newspapers themselves would be unable to even write about it for fear of being killed.

I think it points out the more insidious part of what’s going on which is that these institutions are being totally corrupted and undermined. That’s not to say that the journalists are corrupt, but if you’re not free to write what’s going on in your community, basically the institution itself has been rendered ineffective. And that’s going on not only with media, but also with the city and state government.

IA-Forum: The violence in these drug stories is really quite graphic. How do you and your editors handle the graphic evidence?

Fainaru: In terms of a place like Juarez, since we’re writing it, it’s not as much of an issue for traditional photographers, and it’s an issue not just with Mexico, but it’s been an issue in Afghanistan and Iraq – how graphic can you be, how descriptive can you be, what photos can run and what can’t. I always feel that if we’re dedicating ourselves to trying to describe what’s going on, that we should be as honest and transparent and explicit, frankly, as we can. But obviously it’s a family newspaper, so that has to be balanced with what’s acceptable for people to pick up in a morning newspaper or read online. It’s an interesting question and it’s something that everybody deals with when you are dealing with these levels of violence.

IA-Forum: Do you take a photographer with you at times?

Fainaru: Yeah, we have a photographer who was on a story. We had a videographer who also participated in several stories.

IA-Forum: Let me ask you a broader question. U.S. newspapers have been steadily dropping their foreign correspondents and coverage of international stories and it seems to narrow down to a few select issues picked up sometimes from the wires like AP and Reuters. Meanwhile, the internet provides many websites now to cover foreign affairs. What impact do you think it has when newspapers shrink their own coverage of international stories?

Fainaru: It’s a huge, huge problem. I saw it in Iraq where you had maybe a couple dozen journalists in the country, a country the size of California. It really became striking to me when I would go out to different places in Iraq and stumble into what seemed to me to be a huge uncovered story.

It would be the weirdest thing. You’d go somewhere and there’d be no other journalist around and something would happen and my reaction would be, ‘this is a huge story” followed by the realization that if I hadn’t been there to witness it or hear about it, it would never have been covered. That’s true generally speaking, but I mean it’s especially true in a situation like this.

I was based in Mexico for the Boston Globe in the mid-90s and the press corps in the mid-90s in Mexico City, the U.S. press corps was huge. Basically every regional and national newspaper had at least one correspondent if not more in Mexico City. Now all those papers that had correspondents down there don’t even have foreign coverage any more, or many of them.

It means fewer stories. I always felt that for all the criticism about the media coverage of the war in Iraq, there just weren’t enough people to cover what was going on and that was by far the biggest failing.

So, if you can imagine on a story like Iraq, something like Mexico or Haiti which has been ignored for several years now, it takes an apocalyptic earthquake to get people down there now.

IA-Forum: Thank you, Steve.

Steve Fainaru is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist with The Washington Post. He is also the author of Big Boy Rules: America’s Mercenaries Fighting in Iraq.

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