A recent article in USA Today (“Mexico’s Violence Not Widespread,” August 4) could serve as a case study in why Mexican journalists consider their North American counterparts “hopeless” when it comes to accurate reporting on their country.

The article pretends to correct the public misperception that Mexico on a whole is a dangerous and violent place.  On the contrary, the reporter informs us, “official statistics” demonstrate that “much of Mexico has modest murder rates,” that murders have been “dropping steadily” over the last ten years, that President Felipe Calderón is right “to insist that the worst violence is confined to certain regions and is mostly among gang members,” for, says he, Mexico has “areas and states, especially tourist areas, that have murder rates equal to many countries in Europe.”

That Calderón has reasons to discount the violence raging uncontrolled across his land is obvious, but why would an American reporter, and the editors of his paper, so casually take his word for it, as well as accept without question the veracity of Mexican-government statistics?

Charles Bowden, the author of the luminous book Murder City, insists that those statistics are pure fiction.  An example: The Mexican government reports that the population of El Paso’s sister city Ciudad Juárez is between 1.2 and 1.4 million; according to Bowden, it’s closer to two million, but the government deliberately undercounts it to make it appear that its existing civil infrastructure is adequate.  Why would it not also undercount the murder rate?

What’s more, most kidnappings, rapes, and murders in Mexico are never reported because to do so would be not only futile but dangerous.  After all, most of the state police in Mexico work for the cartels—85 percent of them, according to a former state policeman turned sicario interviewed by Bowden.  Also, many of the kidnappings and murders in Mexico are carried out by special police units.  And when the cartels do it themselves, they can count on police not to interfere and never to investigate.  Killers often finish off their wounded victims in hospital emergency rooms.  One gang, known as the Murder Artists, “had three sets of uniforms nicely starched—municipal police, state police, federal police.  Also, they would have cars with the proper police insignia on them depending on whatever area they were operating [in] at the moment.  Ambulances also would be mimicked.”

No one knows the real murder rate in Mexico, but it could be double or even triple the official rate.  And, contrary to Calderón, no one is safe.  Bowden takes pains to show that much of the violence is random, arbitrary, and inexplicable.

The USA Today reporter also cites various Mexican “experts” in support of the Mexican government’s claim that Mexico is becoming a safer, better place.  Mario Arroyo, a researcher at the Citizen’s Institute on Crime Studies, “a Mexico City think tank,” says that “if you look at history, today we have fewer murders, both in raw numbers and rates.”  The cause of this “decline in violence” is “Mexico’s stable economy, helped along by the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement.”  Edna Jaime of Mexico Evaluates, another Mexico City think tank, explains that a 1992 constitutional amendment on land tenure “also helped” reduce violence.  “It was,” Jaime says, “part of becoming a more modern and civilized country.”

Anyone who has read Bowden knows that the cartels are not the only organizations in Mexico to offer people a choice: plata o plomo (silver or lead).  Were these institutes to report honestly on the corruption and violence endemic in their country, they might well meet a fate worse than the drying up of funds.

“There are,” writes Bowden, “two Mexicos.  There is the one reported by the U.S. press,” and there is the real one, “where the line between the government and the drug world has never existed,” “where the war is for drugs [and] the police and the military fight for their share.”