Dear Mr. Sieff

Your recent article in The Washington Post about the Mexican marathon runner Germán Silva was very interesting. The mind and body of runners, especially long-distance runners, always baffles me, a non-runner. 

I am equally baffled by your fear of rural Mexico. I think you need to get out of Mexico City more. I also think your beat covering drug wars and corruption in Mexico is taking a toll on you and warping your view of how Mexicans go about their lives.

You are part of a bigger problem. The Post and The New York Times  for that matter, every other major American media company – need to deeply rethink their coverage of Mexico. They are doing a disservice to their readers and to Mexico. They are basically distorting reality about life in Mexico.  

Think for a moment: if you had been writing about a marathon runner undertaking a journey from, say, Los Angeles to Portland, Maine – about the same distance Silva is running – would you have inserted multiple references to the the possibly of his being killed by a mass shooter, or by a landowner on whose land he accidentally trespassed, or by a county sheriff who decided a running brown-skinned man must be up to no good? 

I maintain you could have written a factual article about Silva with more specific detail about the rural areas he ran through and far less musings about cartels and narcotrafficking. You as a reporter need to come to terms with your own fears about the true risks Silva took running across Mexico and the presumed risks you took by spending a day or two with him. Your editors are equally culpable and need to reassess their own biases and misconceptions about Mexico. 

You state that Silva is trying to “pivot away from the country’s narcos-tequila-beaches caricature.” You then do your damnedest to perpetuate the caricature. 

You write that Silva encountered “checkpoints manned by cartel gunmen.” How many and where and what specific cartels? Those are very important details about the cartel presence in Mexico. Did you ask him if he was sure they were cartel members rather than members of local self-appointed groups who are trying to deter the mafia because their own police forces and elected officials won’t? Both factions, in my experience, set up checkpoints and carry guns. 

You quote Silva saying, “If they know you don’t pose a threat to them, they don’t do anything.” In fact, the cardinal rule in Mexico for coping with the reality of cartels is exactly that. 

You then dismiss his comment – as if he does not know his own country – as “a pitch.” That rang like a cheap shot to me. 

You ask yourself rhetorically about spending time in rural Mexico with Silva, “Was I overestimating the risks?” Yes, you were. 

Earlier in the piece you mention that you train as a runner in Mexico City. The air you breathe in that city is, I believe, the biggest risk you are taking as a Latin America correspondent for the Post.

Let me be clear. Mexico is not rosy. IN NO WAY AM I DISMISSING THE DAMAGE AND HEARTBREAK NARCOTRAFFICKING AND THE WIDESPREAD CORRUPTION OF MAFIA ACTIVITY ARE DOING TO THE CITIZENS OF MEXICO. One group that is taking a mighty toll for this situation is journalists. I don’t need to tell you that Mexico is the deadliest country in the world for journalists. 

But this deplorable reality has to be put into the context of the daily lives of the 131 million people who live in Mexico – just as it does for 332 million Americans who live in the deplorable context of gun-ownership, increasing vigilantism, and rogue policing in the United States. 

David, my husband, and I have lived in Sonora half the year, but for the pandemic interruption, for more than twenty years and we travel widely in Mexico. We are birders and general naturalists, so we are much more often in rural than urban Mexico. We are not afraid. 

David, fearlessly birding in a forest on the west slope of Oaxaca, Mexico.

In Mexico, it is fairly clear who has the guns – the mafia, the police, and the army. I have already stated that this armed conflict – and its crippling of the Fourth Estate, which in turn cripples Mexicans, their culture, and economy – is appalling. But people have to go about their lives, and that is exactly why Silva’s don’t-pose-a-threat rule serves, and it is a rule David and I follow. The same tenet does not apply in the United States. I am always on edge – justifiably, I believe – traveling back and forth across the U.S. to our other home in Minnesota, because the United States is awash in guns. In closed-carry states, I never have an idea who is carrying one. In open-carry states, I am perplexed when I see one. Without my posing a threat, that person could shoot me if he took a notion. Not to mention, there are, I believe, too many angry, disgruntled people – mostly males – in my native country.

Mr. Sieff, you should come out to the campo – or the monte as we call it in Sonora – more. It is drop-dead gorgeous out in the vast rural areas of Mexico and the people are invariably friendly, inviting, curious, polite, laughing – and helpful. I do not have the same feeling about strangers we encounter in the United States. I am a native of Texas. The last couple of times we’ve driven across Texas I can’t even get people in cafes to make eye contact.

I could cite dozens upon dozens of encounters with people in rural Mexico. Here is the most recent. David and I were exploring on a dirt road near Pluma Hidalgo, Oaxaca, in January. We were looking for springs and streams where we might encounter dragonflies. We were in a rent car. Oddly, we encounter a young couple from Germany – clearly unafraid of risking their lives in treacherous Mexico! – in their rent car, only they were stuck. A group of Mexicans had appeared like magic from the forest – Noë Luhan and his family, we soon learned – to help. Before we knew it, and with some embarrassment, we got stuck. Noë and his sisters rounded up members of their extended family and with ropes and muscle they pulled and pushed both cars out of their ruts. 

Noë Luhan pulling our rent car out of a rut, near Pluma Hidalgo, Oaxaca, Mexico.

I know my recounting is anecdotal. Could something go wrong on our rural Mexico outings? Of course. But things could go wrong anywhere, anytime in the world. For peace-loving people who do not invite trouble that is called bad luck. 

When we encounter Americans in Mexico, either visiting the town where we have lived for twenty years or in other parts of touristed Mexico where the biggest threat is possibly stubbing a toe on an uneven sidewalk, David and I await the inevitable question. “Aren’t you afraid to live in Mexico?” We cringe. It is so tiresome and infuriating. Do these people think we are stupid? Do they think we have chosen to live here because we want to be afraid for our lives every day?  

The people asking the question are stupid, and the reason they are is because American reporters keep telling them Mexico is dangerous. 

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