Benefitting From Fear: The United States Political and Media Portrayal of Spillover Crime on the U.S.-Mexico Border

by Wilson Albright

The United States public perception of the spillover crime along the United States-Mexico border resulting from the Mexican drug cartel is skewed and misinformed. The United States side of the U.S.-Mexico border has been portrayed as an area plagued with crime and violence by many different sources, specifically the media and American politicians seeking political gain. While the Mexican side of the border is clearly a hostile area victim to corrupt law enforcement empowered by the ruthless drug cartels, their American sister cities are, contrary to common belief, some of the safest cities in the entire United States. In this thesis, I combine the statistical realities with theoretical insights to answer the following question: How and why has the American political community and media exaggerated spillover crime and violence from Mexico on the United States border and what does this mean for the United States?

I assert that both the media and political community exaggerate spillover violence on the U.S.-Mexico border to benefit from the fearful public perception it creates. I give a brief description of the issues in Mexico concerning the drug cartel crisis and how the United States and border communities in particular contribute to the situation. Following this situational background, I present the readers with the actual spillover violence and crime statistics, which are significantly lower than national averages. I then compare the national opinion and perception of the situation to that of the border city populations. I then describe my research over media portrayal of spillover violence, followed by an analysis explaining why the media exaggerates the realities. I do the same for the American political community along with an analysis as to why they exaggerate the situation as well. To conclude, I tie all of these different factors together and explain their significance to assert my thesis: that the United States media and political community portray and exaggerate the Mexican drug cartel spillover violence on the United States border to benefit from a fearful public.

Politicians and the media are focusing on the wrong problems and have the American public blind to the reality along the border. The real crime happening in Mexico, which has seen significant increases since 2006, has allowed the media and politicians alike to manufacture a fantasy along the U.S. side of the border. This thesis explores the incentives that reward politicians and the media for exaggerating the severity of spillover crime along the U.S.-border, and in doing so, explores various theories as to why they exploit a fearful public in general. Although I consistently refer specifically to the situation involving the public perception of the border, I maintain a high level of generality when exploring the different schools of thought concerning political and media utilization of fear. The border region is a special place that has been completely misconstrued and incorrectly portrayed as a terrible and lawless area plagued with crime and violence. Problems do exist on the border, and those that exist in Mexico must be dealt with. But because of the incentives in fear mongering, Americans are focusing on the wrong problems and in doing so the wrong solutions. In this thesis I look to examine why and how the media and politicians create fear, what this means for the border, and what this means for democracy. I strive to present a different and largely ignored perspective as to what America can do to improve the prosperity of the border on both sides, while not destroying the unique and important culture that took root in this region.