The following academic research article is from:
Stuart Davis (2021): Bullshit Human Rights: Breitbart News’ “Cartel Chronicles” and the Militarized Framing of Humanitarian Crisis on the US-Mexico Border, Continuum, DOI: 10.1080/10304312.2021.1985081
Communication Studies, City University of New York, Baruch College, New York, United States
Drawing on a qualitative content analysis of roughly 700 articles published on the Breitbart News ‘Cartel Chronicles’ site between 2015 and 2021, this article analyzes the ways conservative citizen journalism projects strategically mobilize key tropes from international human rights to justify calls for militarization on the US/ Mexico Border. Specifically, it details how widely accepted human rights frameworks like freedom of the press and protection of the rights of children are used both as evidence of humanitarian breakdown within Mexico and as a condemnation of the Mexican government. I argue that through its selective and motivated employment of human rights, Breitbart is promoting a form of ‘bullshit human rights’, defined as the purposefully misleading mobilization of rights claims deracinated from their context and repurposed without consideration for the truth they hold for the individuals who experience them. The suffering documented by ‘Cartel Chronicles’ serves only as fuel for Breitbart’s larger political project of militarizing the US/Mexico Border without consideration of human costs. Paradoxically, bullshit human rights call for an increase in violence in order to protect against human suffering.
On the surface ‘Cartel Chronicles’, a special section of the Breitbart News website billed as a ‘document of humanitarian crisis on the US–Mexico Border’ (Ortiz and Darby, quoted in Rumpf, 2015), seems free from the xenophobia and white exceptionalism that is often attributed to Breitbart and its intellectual architect Steve Bannon (Amend and Morgan 2017; Kellner, 2016). Launched in February 2015 by Ildefenso Ortiz and Brandon Darby, coeditors of Breitbart’s Texas newsroom, the section presents bilingual stories focused on the deterioration of public security on the Border (usually coming from the Mexican side). Producing roughly 2500 stories in the 5 years after its inception, ‘Cartel Chronicles’ combines narratives provided by anonymous citizen journalists with those by Ortiz, Darby, and other Breitbart reporters. Often accompanied by the message ‘the writers would face certain death at the hands of the Gulf Cartel if a pseudonym were not used’ (Breitbart Texas 2015), the anonymous accounts present graphic depictions of murder and other forms of gruesome violence often against women, children, and journalists. In a complementary fashion, the stories with Breitbart by-lines shape this grisly raw material into a coherent narrative emphasizing two elements: the heavy frequency of human rights abuses (particularly freedom of press violations and violence against children) on the Mexican side of the US Border and the superior capability of security forces in the US to mitigate violence. This narrative consistently frames human rights abuse as the problem and militarization as a logical solution. In the process, it engages in the production of what we will call ‘bullshit human rights’.
Breitbart Texas pitched ‘Cartel Chronicles’ as a collaboration between everyday citizens and Breitbart staff that ‘will put the truth and realities of the region on full display’ (quoted in Rumpf 2015). In this pursuit, the site appears to offer a politically neutral space for individuals living in Northern Mexico to share audiovisual testimony about the impacts of violence on their daily lives. In the words of Ortiz, ‘Cartel Chronicles’ ‘helps give average citizens a voice. [It] can tell the world about how a group of criminals along with corrupt officials have turned a beautiful state into a war zone covered with the blood of thousands of citizens’ (Ortiz, 2017).1 This seeming apoliticism endeared the project to numerous progressive news outlets including National Public Radio, Current Affairs, and The Christian Science Monitor, as well as national dailies like The Washington Post.
On the right, however, the reception differed. An editorial from Bannon accompanying the launch of Cartel Chronicles, the narrative of citizen empowerment is abandoned in favour of a hyperbolic depiction of humanitarian breakdown: ‘The Cartel War that stretches from the jungles of Central America to the inner city of Chicago is reshaping America in ways that ISIS can only dream about! Breitbart Texas is one of the leading news sites in the world for coverage of this war’ (Bannon, quoted in Rumpf, 2015). Dan Cadman of the Centre for Immigration Studies, an organization considered to be the ‘think tank of the anti-immigrant movement’ (Amend and Morgan, 2017) echoes Bannon:: ‘Going directly to the gritty source, “Cartel Chronicles” shows that Mexico is turning into a leftleaning narco-state that occupies nearly 2,000 miles of shared border with the US’ (Cadman 2019).
This dual function of ‘Cartel Chronicles’ as a collection of first-hand narratives capturing the abuse of inalienable human rights and a justification for tightening border securitization points to a fundamental limit of ‘human rights protection’ as a political framework. While champions of international human rights argue that these rights represent a normative set of minimal conditions that apply to any member of the human species, the question of how to achieve and maintain these ‘minimal conditions’ is still open. In this vein, Samuel Moyn argues: ‘The dense reality of human rights culture should force its partisans to face the possibility that its original normative framing was in some way flawed or incomplete’ (Moyn, 2019, 55) Building on the incompleteness of human rights as a political project, this article proposes that using cases rights violations to justify xenophobic violence and militarization provides an exemplary case of bullshit human rights, defined as the practice of stringing together a sequence of disparate rights claims deracinated from their origin in the service of a political agenda that goes against human rights’ foundational goal of preserving human life.
Conceptually, bullshit human rights builds on recent research on the increasing proliferation of ‘bullshit communication’, defined as the denigration of any accepted collective notion of ‘truth’ in society in favour of the indiscriminate circulation of truth claims without a consideration of their veracity (Waisbord 2019; Spicer 2020). Reading ‘Cartel Chronicles’ as a form of bullshit communication, this article has three goals. The primary goal is to add to the growing current of academic literature detailing the employment of human rights language by right-wing activists in pursuit of militaristic, xenophobic, and other politically retrograde projects. The second is to amplify theorizations of human rights as a fundamentally transactional discourse defined by the political agendas of those who employ it (Moyn, 2014, 2019; Bob 2007, 2020). The third and longer-term objective is to open the space for new understandings of how to address the so-called security crisis in Mexico, pushing away from the existential focus on human rights that guides right and left conversations.
Bullshit human rights: the flexibility of rights as a theoretical framework
The central theoretical contention of this article is that Breitbart’s ability to mobilize ‘human rights violations’ as the ground for promoting the continued increase in military intervention on the US–Mexico Border arises out of both the extreme malleability of human rights as a concept and the extreme potency of human rights promotion as justification for violence. The ability of ‘Cartel Chronicles’ to effectively draw upon humanitarianism to justify militarization is directly linked to the adaptability of this concept to a variety of political agendas.
Champions of human rights posit a universal or paradigmatic quality among humans in the form of normative agency, defined as ‘the capacity to choose a plan of life for oneself and pursue it without interference’ (Griffin, 2009, 61). This agency is both transhistorical and transcultural, as emotional appeals to so-called fundamental human rights cut through political or ideological distinctions. Linked elemental way to Karl Popper’s notion of ‘negative utilitarianism’, the belief that all humans deserve to be protected at the bare minimum from trauma, human rights are beholden to Popper’s claim that ‘human suffering makes a direct moral appeal for help’ (Popper, 1952, 10). Hence, across the fields of law, political science, international relations, development, and beyond, ‘human rights’ has become a ubiquitous invocation. This interpretation of human rights as ‘freedom from harm’ has spurred countless military conflicts and humanitarian interventions. Hannah Arendt’s On Revolution (1963), a text delineating the historical stakes of radical new attitudes towards human freedom arising with the American and French Revolutions, captures this fundamental paradox of human rights: the task of protecting and promoting human rights is often accomplished through violent military intervention, committing violence against one group to promote the safety of another. Arendt’s recognition of this paradox within the core of human rights sets the stage for addressing ‘bullshit human rights’. The preservation of human rights creates a justification of violence and war against some to prevent the harm of others.
To unpack the communicative processes that produce this justification, we read humanitarianism through the process of bullshitting. Bullshitting, and by extension bullshit communication is defined as a speech act aimed at indiscriminately spreading unverified claims that the communicator presents as a truthful narrative for understanding the world. For Frankfurt (2005) and others, the foundational element of bullshitting as communicative practice is the production of an environment where the difference between truth and falsehood becomes impossible to ascertain: ‘The bullshitter might not deceive us, or even intend to do so, about the facts or about what he takes the facts to be. What he does necessarily attempt to deceive us about is his enterprise’ (Frankfurt 2005, 54). This indifference to the truth or falsehood of a given statement or position distinguishes bullshitting from lying. Whereas lying arises through wilful misrepresentation, bullshitting is defined by a purposeful disregard of the truth or validity of statements. Though David Graber’s popular concept of ‘bullshit jobs’ (Graber, 2019) interrogates the sociological rather than communicative role of bullshit, it helps our definition by emphasizing the ways those in ‘bullshit jobs’ justify their position by making false claims about its worthiness to society. The difference between a ‘shit job’ and a ‘bullshit job’ is the act of falsification regarding the job’s social necessity.
For bullshit human rights, the goal is not to manufacture and spread false human rights claims. Instead, the goal is to assault the audience with an overabundance of claims–some true, some fabricated, some altered – to a saturation point where other narrative explanations become outside audience’s frame of reference. The hegemony of human rights as a framework for addressing human suffering makes it a powerful rhetorical vehicle for manufacturing bullshit, as Costas Douzanis poignantly recognizes: ‘The rhetoric of human rights seems to have triumphed globally because it can be adopted by the right and the left, the north and the south, the state and the pulpit, the minister and the rebel. This characteristic makes it the only game in town, the only ideology after the end of ideologies’ (Douzinas, 2007, p. 33).
The roots of ‘Cartel Chronicles’: Breitbart News and the production of a parallel news ecosystem
Before analysing the specific human rights tropes and associated ‘facts’ mobilized by ‘Cartel Chronicles’ to support its claim that a bi-national security crisis on the border is developing due to Mexico’s inability to contain human rights abuse within its borders, it is crucial to pinpoint the space within the news media ecosystem Breitbart News occupies. To reiterate the central formula of bullshit communication, a crucial element of bullshit production is having the infrastructure to circulate claims. In the context of an American media space characterized by the increasingly dominant role of social media in newsmaking, the traditional gatekeeping functions of mainstream media are losing provenance (Waisbord 2018). Accordingly, concepts like fact-checking, verification, and collectively generated spheres of legitimate controversy continually erode, opening the floodgates for bullshit to flow.
Launched in 2007 by conservative activist and philanthropist Andrew Breitbart, Breitbart News was designed to provide an online space for conservative voices, filling the role ‘right-wing alternative to The Huffington Post’, as Brietbart himself claimed (quoted in Rainey, 2012). From its inception, the site wedded fiscal conservatism to a moralizing critique of the sexual and cultural relativism of the so-called ‘liberal elite’ (Amend and Morgan 2017). Breitbart News’ strategy of directing its content specifically at a certain constituency embodies narrowcasting strategies pioneered by cable news outlets in the 1980s-1990s tailored to specific audience demographics (Mendelhson and Nadeu, 1996; Sobieraj and Berry 2011). Strategically, narrowcasting outlets draw in audiences through a dual process of ‘channel branding and community building’ (Jones, 2005, 180). Breitbart News intensifies this process by creating an ideologically coherent space for conservatives to access and comment on stories on a variety of topics from opposing immigration to sharing salacious gossip about liberal political elites (Davis 2019). The news-site’s ability to both draw in audiences and mobilize them to engage in political action led Brian Fallon, the press secretary from Hillary Clinton’s failed 2016 campaign, to claim that the ‘Breitbart Effect’ played a decisive role in her loss (Logan 2017). Writing in the wake of the 2016 election, Steve Reese argues that the ‘Breitbart Effect’ is part of a new right-wing media ecosystem centred on a few hyper-partisan outlets: ‘A hyper-partisan counterinstitution has developed its own echo-chamber and parallel universe structured around Fox News and Breitbart’ (Reese, 2019, 203). As this ecosystem becomes more developed the coherence of its messaging also begins to solidify. As Banon himself notes, Breitbart News’ ability not just to mobilize supporters for Trump’s campaign but to also influence the political positions taken by the campaign shows the power of the ideological world the site has created.
The Breitbart ecosystem provides an overarching symbolic framework for framing individual sections of the news site, including ‘Cartel Chronicles’. Situating ‘Cartel Chronicles’ as part of the larger political aim of militarization that Breitbart promotes is crucial precisely because without it the larger political agenda of the project can be overlooked – a mistake made by many commentators and media outlets when attempting to understand ‘Cartel Chronicles’ – particularly those within either mainstream liberal media or large rights organizations.
Research approach: tracking the invocation of human rights violations in ‘Cartel Chronicles’
Introduction to ‘Cartel Chronicles’
Both the topical focus and tone of ‘Cartel Chronicles’ are demonstrably differently from the incendiary ‘culture warrior’ approach generally attributed to Brietbart News. While there are several stories in this section with on-the-ground depictions of American law enforcement as stoic warriors clearly echoing Fox News’ coverage of military operations like Operation Iraqi Freedom, ‘Cartel Chronicles’ does not only celebrate American security forces. Additionally, it does not traffic in the same sort of stereotypes about Latinx immigrants as President Trump (e.g. referring to them as ‘bad hombres’, rapists-inwaiting, etc.) or other figures associated with Breitbart.
Instead of merely reproducing the highly salacious stories associated with Breitbart News, ‘Cartel Chronicles’ combines two types of stories: eye-witness testimonials and contextualizing articles by Breitbart staff. The interplay between these types works to establish the narrative that the security crisis in Mexico is creating a human rights catastrophe pushing against the southern Border – and threatening American public security. The majority of the section’s materials consists of short pieces featuring usually anonymous first-hand narratives and graphic pictures on a number of hot-button human rights issues including the murder of journalists, collateral damage to non-combatants, and the stressful experiences of unaccompanied minors. Generically, these stories seem to align more closely with the kind of testimonial or witness-based discourse more typical of human rights-oriented reporting (Randall 1991) or citizen journalism than the sensationalism usually associated with Breitbart. Utilizing many typical practices of citizen journalism tracked by Melissa Wall (2018) and others including candid, non-professional footage, first-person narrative and the privileging of unadorned reportage over narrative framing, these stories are designed to be non-professional. These short pieces are accompanied by longer narratives offered by Breitbart staff members that serve to contextualize the reporting into broader political arguments or policy positions. This second type of story explicitly links the abuses documented in the shorter anonymous narratives with reports from international human rights, peacekeeping, and freedom of the press organizations like Amnesty International, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Freedom House, and various agencies within the UN. They also build upon these reports to forward policy recommendations.
The ‘fakery’ in Breitbart’s production of a humanitarian crisis is not in the images and narratives disseminated. It comes in the framing of these stories to produce a more or less produce a coherent message: the humanitarian breakdown in Mexico is so drastic that an increase in spending on security measures on the US side (including more funding for Customs and Border Protection (CBP), a Border wall, and surveillance technologies) is the only way to stop the human rights abuses in Mexico from spilling over into America.
To analyse how ‘Cartel Chronicles’ frames its humanitarian critique of security in Mexico, we created a sample of 683 stories out of the 2031 total stories published on ‘Cartel Chronicles’ between March 2015 and March 2021, between roughly the beginning of the site to the beginning of the Biden administration in the United States. During this period ‘Cartel Chronicles’ published stories 3–4 stories daily. The sample for this specific analysis was drawn from a larger quantitative analysis of the coverage of law enforcement and crime by ‘Cartel Chronicles’. Coders created a codebook drawn from the 2031 articles in the designated timeframe. Beyond the thematic issues at discussion here, the codebook also covered demographic issues including what area of Mexico was mentioned in the article, where were sources drawn (i.e. ‘law enforcement official’, ‘named eyewitness’, ‘unnamed eyewitness: position unlisted’, ‘unnamed eyewitness: law enforcement’, etc.), and type of crime or illicit activity being covered (categorized according to type of crime). For purposes of this analysis, we focus on codes linked to through three thematic headings: 1. ‘Freedom of Press Violations’; 2. ‘Violation of the Rights of the Child’; and 3. ‘Humanitarian Crisis in Mexico’. Under these three thematic codes we located 683 stories. These stories formed the basis of the qualitative content analysis that makes up the majority of the original research presented here. Though this specific group of stories makes up a relatively small portion of the larger sample (roughly 34%), they were identified because they explicitly invoke human rights tropes. Each of the three thematic codes will become a section heading in our analysis. The first two sections, ‘Freedom of the Press Violations’ and ‘Violence Against Children’, illustrate how ‘Cartel Chronicles’ collects and reframes empirical evidence of human rights violations in Mexico with reference to international human rights/freedom of the press organizations. The third section, ‘Humanitarian Crisis in Mexico’, will address how the notion of humanitarian breakdown is leveraged by ‘Cartel Chronicles’ in an attempt to prevent a simultaneous delegitimization of the Mexican government’s ability to maintain public safety and glorification of American security forces (primarily CBP). Though all three sections illustrate the exaggeration of the crisis by Breitbart, the ‘Humanitarian Crisis’ section indexes the most explicit attempt to weaponize humanitarianism as a call for military build-up.
Analysis: ‘Cartel Chronicles’ and the production of a humanitarian crisis
The remainder of this article will draw on these three central thematic categories to assess the way ‘Cartel Chronicles’ combines citizen journalism with authored stories that invoke a variety of human rights and press freedom organizations along with key elements arising out of the field of human rights (i.e. ‘rights of the child’). As an instance of bullshit communication, the narrative created is not necessarily false; it is a combination of a vast amount of empirical documentation with framing stories that recontextualize this evidence through the language of human rights in service of a militaristic agenda. The fakery is not in the production of images, per se; it is in the way the images and the symbolic tropes of human rights are used in concert to create a narrative that justifies violence and xenophobia.
‘Freedom of the press violations’
Across the coverage analysed, the most consistently referenced first rights violation documented by ‘Cartel Chronicles’ is freedom of the press. Specifically, 420 stories were linked to the thematic code ‘Freedom of the Press Violations’. Adopting a definition from the major press freedom watchdog groups cited by ‘Cartel Chronicles’ (e.g. CPJ) we coded ‘Freedom of the Press Violations’ in this section as the freedom from threat of violence or censorship by the state. This minimalist understanding of freedom of the press reflects a sense of press freedom defined as ‘the autonomy of journalists from intervention by the state or parastate actors’ (Cammaerts 2020, 401). This definition understands freedom through a negative framework of ‘freedom from . . . ’: journalists’ rights consist of ‘freedom from violence’, ‘freedom from coercion’, and so on. Within this minimalist framing of the freedom of the press, the situational specificity in which press freedoms might be threatened is lost.
With this minimalist definition in mind, we will discuss how press freedom is mobilized in two ways by ‘Cartel Chronicles’: (1) to document the ways that journalists are under threat from censorship from cartels and the Mexican government: and (2) to make explicit connections between freedom of the press violations in Mexico and larger positions stated by a variety of international organizations, including the United Nations Education, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), Freedom House, and the CPJ in order to contextualize the freedom of press abuses it Mexico within a larger network of press freedom advocacy.
Three hundred and sixty-two of the stories coded under ‘Freedom of Press Violations’ are short, anonymous descriptions of the death of individual journalists. Published roughly once a week throughout the sample frame period, these stories serve to create a sense of the ongoing and repetitious nature of violence against journalists through the constant publication. Frequently, these stories are framed as part of a running tabulation of journalists killed in Mexico during a certain time period. Stories with headlines like ‘8 Mexican Journalists Murdered in 5 Months in 2017’ (1 June 2017), ‘Fifth Mexican Journalist Dies in 2019’ (25 March 2019), and ‘Mexican Journalist Murdered in Acapulco – 17th in 2018’ (25 October 2018) occur with more regularity than any other type of story regarding rights violations. These stories contain minimal narrative other than the name of the expired journalist and the location. The repetition of these short stories produces what agenda-setting researchers label a ‘spiking effect’ (Geiß, 2019), the sense of a diffuse consistency that comes from the continued periodic referencing of the issue.
Along with tabulation-oriented stories, the second most frequent type of story regarding freedom of press violations (41 occurrences) are those that document explicit attacks on or threats against journalists from specific groups. Many of these stories focus on cartels acting against journalists or media organizations, as reflected in ‘Cartel Attacks on Local Business Leave Government and Media Silent’ (12 April 2015), ‘Cartel Assassination Against Journalist Silences News Outlet’ (4 April 2017), and ‘Mexico City Cartel Threatens Journalist Exposing their Operations’ (31 August 2017). However, other stories present various levels of government within Mexico as the cause of violence against journalists ranging from local politicians to the president. According to ‘Cartel Chronicles’, one of the central threats to journalist autonomy in Mexico is current president Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO). Eight pieces in 2019–2020 have criticized the president for violating press freedom, emphasizing both comments made critiquing journalists who question his policies and much more serious claims. ‘Mexican Newspaper Gets Bomb Threat for Criticizing AMLO’ (14 May 2020), written by Darby and Ortiz, presents a controversial story wherein an anonymous caller claiming connections to the Sinaloa Cartel threatened to bomb the headquarters of La Reforma in Mexico City after the newspaper criticized the government’s response to the 2020 Coronavirus outbreak. While Breitbart was one of the many outlets to publish a story on this threat, its coverage was unique from others in two regards. First, it adds several elements to its narrative not presented in other accounts, including claiming that the ‘call originated in Baja California, a state whose government is currently ruled by a member of Lopez Obrador’s political party’ (Darby and Ortiz, 2020) and hyperlinking to other ‘Cartel Chronicles’ stories about violence against journalists by cartels. Secondly, it followed the story up with two other stories from summer 2020 about AMLO’s attempt to ban journalists from press briefings and threatening them for negative coverage. Crucially, both stories frame the earlier Reforma story as the creation of ‘cartel members with affiliations to President Lopez Obrador’. Subtly but consistently, the site is linking the Mexican president and drug cartels in a mutually beneficial relationship.
The final category of story included within the thematic code ‘Freedom of the Press Violations’ is the invocation of transnational press freedom or human rights organizations to condemn violence against journalists. These 39 stories present reports on violence against journalists in Mexico from a variety of press freedom groups, including almost every one of the leading organizations ranging including CPJ, the International Federation of Journalists, Article 19 (an influential British press freedom group), and Freedom House. These stories are important for our analysis in a few noteworthy ways. They clearly illustrate that the editors of ‘Cartel Chronicles’ are aware of the larger international discourse on freedom of the press and want to situate their coverage within this conversation. Furthermore, the frequency of this type of story increased significantly when AMLO assumed the presidency in 2018, with 28 occurrences since that point. Finally, each story since 2018 includes both in-text references to AMLO’s problems with journalists and to Breitbart’s running tally of journalists murdered within the year the story is published. This is clearly illustrated in Darby and Ortiz’s coverage of an Article 19 report on freedom of the press in Mexico from 7 September 2019. The story ends with this sentence: ‘As Breitbart Texas reported, there have been 11 cases of murdered journalists in Mexico in 2019 and 13 since Mexico’s President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador took office on December 2018’ (Darby and Ortiz, 2019).
As the 2019 story on the Article 19 report reflects, the three different elements of Breitbart’s framing strategy for freedom of press violations work to reinforce each other: the repetitively documented cases of violence and censorship of journalists in Mexico and on the Border are both framed in terms of a critique of the Mexican government and backed up through citation of international press advocacy groups like CPJ and IFJ. The overarching effect of this strategy is to emphasize the severity of the crisis, to point fingers at certain political figures (specifically the leftist president), and to justify the position vis. a vis. leading international freedom the press organizations.
‘Violation of the rights of the child’
After freedom of the press, the second rights' convention violation most frequently referenced in ‘Cartel Chronicles’ is the rights of the child, with 151 occurrences out of 683 in total. We developed ‘Violation of the Rights of the Child’, the thematic code employed in this section, by adapting a framework drawn from the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). Ratified in 1990, this convention’s aim was to provide a normative set of minimal requirements that member nations would agree to uphold to ensure three minimum requirements for these populations: protection from harmful acts and practices; provision of requirements to fulfil basic needs (education, health care, sanitation, etc.); and participation, or the right to engage actively in decisions affecting their lives (Hammarberg 1990). In its coverage ‘Cartel Chronicles’ focuses primarily on the first two requirements within the convention: ‘protection’ and ‘provision’. Accordingly, ‘protection’ and ‘provision’ became the main sub-codes for this section of the analysis.
Our Coding labelled 127 stories under the ‘protection’ sub-code with three sub-codes reflecting specific types of story dealing with ‘protection’. The first type of story focuses on the failure of the Mexican state to prevent the death of children. During the sample time frame, ‘Cartel Chronicles’ published 93 stories about children dying, including often framing mass killings in terms of the number of children killed. Similarly to the stories tabulating press freedom violations, pieces like ‘Mexican Cartel Gunmen Murder Toddler, Family in Shooting Spree’ (17 April 2017), ‘Cartel Attacks Leave Child Dead, Baby Wounded in Northern Mexico’ (28 June 2019), and ‘Gunmen Kill Mexican Journalist near children on Beach, second in One Week’ (2 August 2019) focus on documenting and compiling the numbers of children dead as a result of cartel and state violence. The 2 August 2019 article, which discusses the murder of the editor of La Verdad de Zihuatanejo on an Acapulco beach while leading a journalist workshop for children, provides a glimpse into the symbolic weight of featuring endangered children to Breitbart editors. The second type of story included under ‘protection’ sub-code focuses on the inability of parents to protect their children from violence. These stories occur 26 times, with 22 focusing on unaccompanied minors apprehended around the Border. Following the pattern of interweaving numerous anonymous reportages with a few framing stories authored by Ortiz or Darby, there are three stories that link reporting on unaccompanied minors with Breitbart’s larger positions regarding stemming undocumented immigration and tightening physical security at the border. The other four stories, including ‘Baby and Drug Peddling Parents Slain in Mexican Narco Turf War Sparks Outrage on Social Media’ (5 February 2016), attempt to link children’s death to reckless behaviour or criminality on the part of their parents. The final type of story included in the ‘protection’ sub-code blames institutions for not protecting children. Seven of the eight stories of this type all appear in January–March 2021 and serve to blame either the Department of Homeland Security under Biden's Presidency or President Biden specifically for the inhumane treatment of children crossing into the US. The remaining story, ‘Migrant Child Dies from Dehydration, Fever, Shock in U.S. Custody as Border Agents Overwhelmed’ (28 December 2018) uses a controversial case from December 2018 of CBP allowing a child to die in custody into an impassioned plea for increased funding for Border security forces.
Under the ‘provision’ sub-code, 19 of the 24 stories centre on the inability of children to attend school. Reflecting on a key element of the UNCRC, these stories focus on the ‘right of the child to education’ (UN Office of the High Commissioner, 1990). An emblematic example of this trope is the story ‘Parents Pull Children from School Amid Border City Shootout’ (9 November 2019). This anonymous story allegedly collects accounts from teachers and parents in Reynosa, Tamaulipas, reporting that gunfighting between cartel factions made it impossible to send children to school. Six other articles reflect the same problematic, presenting evidence that the security crisis breaks up the ability of children to attend school.
Violation of the rights of children plays an integral persuasive role in building the case of humanitarian breakdown in Mexico. As documentary film scholar Elizabeth Cowie has argued, violence against children holds a special appeal in audiences: ‘Identification, empathy, arises rather than simply pity or sympathy, for we become engaged on our own behalf in the injustice, with all the grief and anger we might feel if we had lost what sustains our identity as providers’ (Cowie 1995, 31). Charles Tilly (2004) reiterates this point from a social movement perspective, arguing that children fulfil the key category of ‘worthiness’ important to gaining support from audiences. By focusing on the violation of ‘protection’ and ‘provision’, ‘Cartel Chronicles’ can present a human rights dilemma that is seemingly universally applicable: no one likes to see violence and privation directed against children.
‘The growing humanitarian crisis’
Taken individually, each of the stories produced by ‘Cartel Chronicles’ offers a compelling piece of evidence of rights being violated: every depiction of a newsroom being bombed or a mass grave full of children invokes a human rights claim. Deployed together, these two elements of human rights discourse provide a coherent message: Journalists and children are having their rights violated due to the inability of the Mexican government to uphold the rule of law. Addressing this failure of governance, the final section will analyse articles under the thematic code ‘Growing Humanitarian Crisis’. For ‘Cartel Chronicles’, the central enabling condition for the kinds of humanitarian disasters experienced in contemporary Mexico comes in the failure of municipal, state, and national security forces to both preserve the rule of law against violent threats by opposing forces and fight an endemic cultural embrace of a system of impunity where elected officials could commit any crime without fear of consequence. Therefore, it falls upon the ‘thin green line’ of the USBP and CPB to intervene and protect America (and the political institutions we hold dear) from the crisis spreading at the border. An early ‘Cartels Chronicles’ editorial penned by Darby encapsulates the site’s position on the security situation in Mexico: ‘Considering the Mexican government’s inability to govern its own territory and the willingness of Mexican officials to accept cash bribes, one could question whether their screening process would exclude potentially dangerous individuals. Even in the case of an individual being identified as having a connection to a terrorist organization, a wealthy benefactor or ally of the individual could simply pay off a decision-maker and get the individual through.’ (Darby, cited in Rumpf, 2015). In this statement Darby encapsulates the two central claims waged against the Mexican state by ‘Cartel Chronicles’: a security breakdown caused by the Mexican state’s inability to exercise a monopoly over legitimate violence and endemic corruption that prevents the functioning of the state.
For the purposes of coding, we used Darby’s statement to operationalize ‘Humanitarian Crisis’ into two sub-codes focusing on ‘security breakdown’ and ‘Mexican corruption’. A third sub-code, ‘US public security responses’, collects depictions of American law enforcement's response to the crisis, particularly that of the Border Patrol. These subcodes were relatively even in distribution across 112 stories: 49 coded as ‘security breakdown’, 38 as ‘Mexican corruption’, and 25 as ‘US public security responses’.
The stories coded as ‘security breakdown’ centre on the inability of Mexican law enforcement to defend the civilian population from traffickers, paramilitaries, and undocumented immigrants. ‘Mexican Police Commander Kidnapped, beheaded in Cancun’ (23 September 2019) and ‘Cartel Gunmen Kill Local Police Chief in Mexican Border State’ (25 November 2020) present two examples of stories that describe how the technical superiority of cartels outpace the fighting capabilities of Mexican law enforcement. A video story entitled ‘Mexican Police Flee During Cartel Kidnapping’ (28 September 2016) shares footage of police officers in Mazatlan fleeing the scene as cartel gunmen arrive. The 2018 ‘Migrant Caravan’ launched a series of stories attacking the Mexican federal government for their inability to control the Central American migrants. On 30 October 2018 the website published three distinct yet topically identical articles accusing caravan migrants of constructing and using Molotov cocktails and handguns to assault Mexican federal police on the Guatemala/Mexico Border. The first story sets the tone for the rest: titled ‘Armed Migrants in Caravan Opened Fire on Mexican Cops, Say Authorities’ (30 October 2018), it paints a picture of migrant men armed with Molotov cocktails and handguns were able to overwhelm Mexican border security forces and storm the border fence. Throughout the stories of this sub-code, Mexican security forces are presented as inept, passive, and unable to control conflict.
The ‘corruption’ sub-code covers 38 stories, drawing links between drug traffickers and individuals within different levels of the Mexican government from local politicians to AMLO. Stories like ‘Head of DEA-Vetted Mexican Police Unit Faces New Drug Charge’ (5 January 2020) and ‘EXCLUSIVE: Mexican Border State Police Officer Caught Leading Gulf Cartel’ (24 December 2020) point to individual politicians or members of law enforcement. Others, like ‘Cartel Massacres, Rampant Corruption Taint Mexican Border State Elections’ (23 May 2017), draw on corruption to emphasize the illegitimacy of political processes in Mexico. It is important to note that ‘Cartel Chronicles’ is not fabricating stories about either the security situation or the state of corruption in Mexico. Taken out of context, the description in Breitbart of the Mexican government’s inability to maintain rule of law here resonates with academic research. For example, an expansive content analysis of daily Mexican newspapers by Martinez, Lozano Rendon, and Elizando’s (2012) documents similar concerns about rule of law violations by police and government officials around the US–Mexico Border. A number of other journalists and public intellectuals have made similar arguments regarding the breakdown of the rule of law (i.e. Gonzalez 2019). The problem, and what makes this bullshit human rights, are how these individual criticisms are mobilized.
This leads us to our final sub-code under ‘Humanitarian Crisis’, ‘US public security responses’. While continuously depicting Mexican law enforcement as ineffective against the domestic security crisis, ‘Cartel Chronicles’ depicts American security forces as not only effective in enforcing the rule of law but also exemplifying professionalism when faced with threat. The 25 stories in this sub-code were identified through direct reference to the activities of individual border patrol officers – it does not include references to shifts in Border Patrol policy or speeches by leaders. These stories present rank-and-file CBP agents as upstanding and stoic stalwarts against the tide of violence coming from Mexico. Perhaps the clearest picture from ‘Cartel Chronicles’ of this attitude of stoic decorum among CBP in the face of irrational violence comes in a 2017 testimonial from Robert Arce, a former Phoenix vice and narcotics enforcement officer who would later join Brandon and Ortiz at Breitbart News. Describing the murder of his partner, who had gone undercover with a group of ‘illegal criminals’ who had figured out about his true identity. Though not present at the scene of the crime, Arce provides a powerful third-person account (presumably on behalf of the Phoenix law enforcement community) of the process of “We all believe that Fass decided to go down fighting and did so by retrieving his concealed firearm and shooting one of the criminals. Tragically, when one of the criminals fired his first round at Fass, the round blew off the tip of Fass’s trigger finger and also damaged the trigger making his firearm inoperable. It was only at this point that the criminals executed the totally defenceless Fass (Arce, in Ortiz and Darby, 2017). Unlike the Mexican law enforcement officers, who would either try to benefit from an interaction with criminal elements through graft or flee the scene, CBP officers stand strong – even in the face of their own mortality.
The contrast between the situation in Mexico pushing against the US border and the benevolent, restrained, and noble behaviour of USBP, CBP, and ICE reinforces what Todd Miller provocatively calls the ‘jagged humanitarian benevolence’ of American law enforcement (2014, p. 222). Constitutionality and observance of the rule of law do not provide the standards through which agents govern their behaviour. Instead, there is a moral sense of the difference between lawlessness and lawfulness exercised with capacious digression borne of a deep understanding of right and wrong, lawful and unlawful.
Conclusion: ‘Cartel Chronicles’ circulation of bullshit human rights beyond the screen
Our analysis attempts to show that the invocation of human rights-based critiques of the current security situation in Mexico and on the Border by ‘Cartel Chronicles’ is not merely a way of drumming up pathos in an audience through appealing to Mexico’s violation of the ‘universal rights everyone is born with and possesses regardless of where they live, their gender or race, or their religious, cultural or ethnic background’ (UNPF, 2005) but a specific attempt to construct a narrative framework that first documents human rights violations explicitly in the terms used by rights-oriented organizations and then offers a solution in the shape of increased spending in the United States to expand the capabilities of the Border Patrol to protect the border. Three specific strategies invoke specific transgressions within key areas of human rights advocacy specifically targeting violations of freedom of the press, the rights of the child, and perpetration of humanitarian breakdown. Weaving these three violations into a multifocal critique (and subsequently an attack on the Mexican government and the United Nations), Breitbart attempts to leverage the medium specific attributes of citizen journalism to present a relatively neutral or ‘detached’ perspective towards documenting rights violations. ‘Cartel Chronicles’ weaponizes this supposed objectivity to construct a call for militarization based on human rights foundations. In his work on how social movements attempt to ‘market themselves’ to gain support from international human rights organizations, Clifford Bob (2007) emphasizes the crucial function of the ‘symbolic marketplace’ of human rights that advocacy campaigns navigate in order to try to gain supporters. As a journalism project linked to a larger political agenda, ‘Cartel Chronicles’ is using these news stories as a form of symbolic currency. Returning to the theoretical terrains of human rights and bullshit communication, we can see that ‘Cartel Chronicles’ has adroitly mobilized key human rights frameworks to make a case that Mexico is suffering a deep humanitarian crisis. The bullshit comes in with the selective employment of these tropes: freedom of the press violations are caused by the Mexican government and its collusion with cartels; violence against children is enabled by institutional failure and rampant violence – but only on the Mexican side; and the cowardice and corruption of Mexican law enforcement is radically juxtaposed with the stoicism of CBP.
The reframing process accomplished by ‘Cartel Chronicles’ points to a deeper problem related to the way Breitbart News utilizes human rights to bolster a specific political narrative. There is no denying that ‘Cartel Chronicles’ fills a gap in English-language coverage of Mexico and the US/Mexico Border. Nathan Robinson, founder and editor of the influential left-wing journal Current Affairs, made this exact point in 2018 by arguing that despite its right-wing orientation ‘Cartel Chronicles’ is doing a service to victims by filling a hole in documentation left by lack of mainstream news attention in the United States: ‘The mainstream [American] media’s failure to give daily coverage to violence in Mexico is significant not only because it reveals the extent to which we assign value to human life by whether that life is lived on side A or side B of an arbitrary geographic line. Our lack of journalistic interest also has actual, serious consequences for the people who have to live with this violence’ (Robinson and Rennix 2018). It is impossible to argue against the point that American media outlets (except those located in border cities) have historically failed to cover political and drug-related violence in Mexico (Branton and Dunaway, 2009) or that as human beings Mexican citizens suffering human rights abuses deserve to have their stories told. Nonteheless, it is important to question what editorial beliefs pushed Breitbart to produce this quantity of stories about human rights violations in Mexico.
The final ingredient in Breitbart’s recipe for bullshit human rights is the role of materials published on the site within right-wing policy circles. The impact of the human rightsjustified calls for militarization they circulate goes far beyond individual consumers of the Breitbart page. As referenced in the introduction, some of the largest conservative antimigration organizations draw heavily on ‘Cartel Chronicles’ in order to justify their policy positions and to legitimate their activities. The Centre for Immigration, one of the most vocal supporters of Trump’s attempt to build a Border wall has based its border security policies on the narratives presented in ‘Cartel Chronicles’. The Civitas Institute, a conservative foundation based in North Carolina, has appointed Darby to its board of directors. Lastly, and most tellingly, Breitbart Texas has established a series of connections with the National Border Patrol Council (NBPC), the primary labour union for CBP agents whose leadership has played a pivotal role in legitimizing Trump and advisor Stephen Miller’s draconian immigration policies. Breitbart Texas is an official sponsor of the NBPC’s podcast; the NBPC has paid advertisements on ‘Cartel Chronicles’; and ‘Cartel Chronicles’ hosted a series of segments leading up to the 2020 election documenting the so-called ‘positive impacts’ of the Trump administration’s border security measures on the lives of CBP agents and their families. All of these hyper-partisan actors are fuelled by the materials published on the ‘Cartel Chronicles’ site. Despite the veracity and informational value of individual stories on the page or potential validity of specific critiques of the Mexican government, the overall impact of the site is to fuel an agenda that prioritizes increasing spending on border security, closing paths to migration for destitute populations, and (if they had their way) creating an absolute border between the United States and Mexico. And that makes the human rights claim offered by ‘Cartel Chronicles’ bullshit.
- Though not mentioned in any of the press coverage of the project, a closer analysis of materials published and interviews with founders of Cartel Chronicles indicates that a sizable portion of the unnamed ‘citizen journalists’ who contribute to its site are in fact law enforcement officers including those with Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), employees of private security firms like Omni, and the Mexican military.
No potential conflict of interest was reported by the author(s).
Notes on contributor
Stuart Davis is Assistant Professor of Communication Studies at the City University of New York, Baruch College. He is co-editor of Sanctions as War: Anti-Imperialist Perspectives on American Geoeconomic Strategy“ (Brill/Haymarket, 2022). He also has published roughly 30 journal articles or book chapters in venues including Communication Theory; Communication Monographs; Information, Communication, & Society; International Journal of Communication; International Communication Gazette; Digital Journalism; Journalism Practice; Development in Practice; and South Atlantic Quarterly.
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