"They Are Here;" Now What Will We Do?

A powerful 5-part series on Mexican drug cartels operating in Oregon has opened many eyes, but will it galvanize law enforcement and communities into action to end the infestation that can bring death, violence and terror to the state? [Credit: The Oregonian]As the Oregon legislature appears headed for adjournment, possibly without a grand budget deal, The Oregonian is publishing a multi-part series by investigative reporter Les Zaitz revealing deep inroads into Oregon's drug scene by Mexican cartels.

Too bad legislative attention couldn't have been given this session to the underlying facts Zaitz has uncovered — bombings and shootings linked to the cartels, our own state drug lords, drug dealers in our neighborhoods, deaths from drug overdoses and challenges to law enforcement to bring perpetrators to justice.

"They Are Here," the headline on the lead story of the series published Sunday, is a scary reminder that we could see — or maybe already have seen — first-hand the kind of violence we usually associate with U.S.-Mexico border towns. It also hints at the long, grasping coils of criminal organizations that pursue drug trafficking like a business, hooking customers, bribing local officials and terrifying anyone who gets in their way.

Zaitz has won plaudits for his eye-opening reporting, which come ironically as The Oregonian scales back its profile as a print publication in pursuit of becoming a digital enterprise. Questions arise about whether stories like this will continue to be chased and reported in the new, emerging journalistic landscape.

While that is an important question, the more immediate issue is what response will Oregon law enforcement leaders give to Zaitz's story?

The invidious invasion of drug trafficking on an international scale calls for a robust response, equal to or better than what we have mounted for education reform and health care transformation. Interestingly, the legislature, after a session-long debate, is advancing a public safety bill that its proponents say will level off Oregon prison populations. But what about capturing, convicting and incarcerating some of the drug kingpins and lieutenants Zaitz has helped to identify?

Failure to curb this infestation could negate other worthy efforts by the state, such as ensuring early learning success for more Oregon children or offering in-state college tuition to the sons and daughters of undocumented workers. What good would it do to open the door to future success, but force children to navigate a society filled with predators offering toxic drugs, carrying automatic weapons and having no inhibitions about resorting to violence and coercion?

Sometimes breaking news is inconvenient. Investigative journalism can be more so. Zaitz has done his part, now it is up to the rest of us to make sure his reporting doesn't just win an award, which it surely will, but also galvanizes meaningful action to protect Oregon against this scourge.

Les Zaitz, investigative reporter for The Oregonian, spent more than a year and conducted 250 interviews to prepare his series.