Ignoring Threats, An American Reports On His Native Mexico
Alfredo Corchado, the Mexico bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News, has dedicated his life to investigating government corruption, murders and ruthless drug cartels in his native Mexico.
He received death threats multiple times, and doesn't feel safe, but he says he has "learned to embrace the fear." Corchado, an American citizen, has written a memoir about the complicated relationship he has with the country of his birth, entitled, Midnight in Mexico: A Reporter's Journey Through a Country's Descent into Darkness.
Speaking about his book on NPR's Tell Me More, he explains the title by saying that sometimes the darkest moment at night is when you really believe in the promise of a new day.
On his relationship with Mexico
"My dad was a bracero [guest worker], and that's how we crossed into the United States. Because of his work, we were able to get green cards. But we grew up working in the fields, and [my mother] would dangle a radio. When Senator Robert F. Kennedy was killed, she would use these words: 'Some people see the way things are and ask why. Others dream of things that never were and ask why not.' And that kind of became our mantra."
"Your parents have sacrificed so much. You have to try to make something of yourself, something of your life. Maybe to her dismay as a kid, I always knew that someday I would want to go back to Mexico, and kind of reconnect with my roots, with my language, with my country."
On why he wouldn't leave Mexico after a death threat in 2007
"I had just won a big award. Then there were friends coming. We were planning to celebrate. And a trusted U.S. source calls and says, 'They [the Zetas, a drug cartel] plan to do harm to an American journalist. Three names came up. But I think it's you.' I was shocked.
"Suddenly I thought, 'I need some more tequila. I mean, I need to really figure this out. What happened? What went wrong?' I started looking at all my notepads that were there, and trying to figure out which story could have caused this."
"Days before we had just done a story on a peace pact that members of the government and the cartels had been trying to reach. ... And you realize you can say this, you can say that about cartels, but when you really expose the corruption, and you really threaten their pocket book, that's when there's pushback."
"I was born in Mexico, but I'm a U.S. citizen now. I think that gives me a certain degree of protection. That's something I've always believed: that if something happens to an American journalist, there will be consequences."
On Mexicans communicating via threats
"That means that institutions do not work in Mexico. That means that only five percent of all murders, crimes are really ever investigated or people are convicted. It means that you rely a lot more on your own faith or your spiritual person. And when that fails, you know, if you really wanna get a message across, you call someone and you threaten them. And you say, 'I'm gonna do this to you, I'm gonna do that to you. So listen to me.'"
On covering drug violence
"I think for many, many years, I did not want to cover drug traffic. I didn't want to cover anything that had to do with corruption or these issues, you know, because I felt like I was perpetuating that stereotype that you talked about."
"I made a promise to my parents that I would not cover drug traffickers because my father would say, 'They are the only people I know who do not know the meaning of the word 'forgiveness.' They're all into betraying one another.'"
"So years later, I think I've opened my eyes. You have to see the other Mexico. As a journalist covering Mexico, sometimes it's like covering two, three Mexicos. And that is what Mexicans have lived for the last few years. You can't ignore that 100,000 people have been killed or disappeared and the conviction rate is less than five percent."
On whether it's safe for Americans to travel to Mexico
"The cartels have stayed away from tourists, you know. And I think everyone understands that tourism represents big, big dollars for the Mexican government. So up to now, you haven't seen an effort to target Americans. Many beach places, for example, many colonial towns, you know remain pretty healthy. And tourists continue to travel."
On his hopes for Mexico
"If you look at Mexico over the course of my career – 20 years in Mexico – having been born and lived in Mexico as a kid, you see a much more open society. You see a much more, I think, skeptical society. People questioning the government. I see hope in the courage of my own colleagues. You know, there's a new generation of journalists in Mexico who are trying to hold the government accountable."
"You see government officials now actually responding to questions, to tough questions from society, from journalists. I think I've learned that the change is not gonna happen overnight, but it's happening little by little, step by step."
CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:
This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee. Michel Martin is away. Now we take a deeper look at the violence in Mexico through the eyes of one journalist. Alfredo Corchado has dedicated his life to investigating government corruption, murders, and the ruthless drug cartels of Mexico, his native Mexico, although he's American. He's even put his life at stake to cover these stories. He's currently Mexico bureau chief for the Dallas Morning News and he's just out with a new memoir titled "Midnight in Mexico: A Reporter's Journey Through a Country's Descent into Darkness." He joins us now to tell us about it. Welcome back.
ALFREDO CORCHADO: Celeste, great to be here. Thank you.
HEADLEE: I want to start with the title because it seems to have been a topic of conversation, not necessarily generally, but among your family and personally. And I know you said that your mother was disappointed that you had chosen that title. I wonder, was there a different title you began with?
CORCHADO: It was always "Midnight in Mexico." Actually, the original title was "Midnight in Tenochtitlan," which is the Aztec capital. But the publisher obviously didn't buy that. The agent thought it was a terrible idea. But I don't know that, so much, my mother was disappointed. I think she was surprised because she thought, don't you want to write about Mexico's possibility? How does "Midnight in Mexico" come into play? And I kept saying, you know, sometimes amidst the darkest moment at night, it's when you really believe in a new day, or at least in the promise of a new day. And I think once she understood that, she embraced the idea, embraced the title. But you're right, I mean, I think everywhere I've been to, I've talked to - that's one of the big questions, why "Midnight in Mexico"?
HEADLEE: Well, it's really interesting to me because clearly, not just for you, but for your mother as well and many others, there's this complicated relationship with Mexico, this deep passionate love. At the same time, you know, the scene of her trundling you guys all onto the bus and adamant about leaving Mexico, that it was not a good place anymore and a fresh start. You had to leave behind your toys, everything had to be fresh in the United States. But at the same time, here she is saying, why would you want to write about anything other than Mexico's possibilities? There's no simple relationship with this country.
CORCHADO: There is none. I mean, my mother has always reminded us how much she sacrificed everything she loved about her homeland, having been born there. And she's always felt that Mexico was her burden, not ours. That we had to find a way to cut the cord, if you will, and embrace our new life. I remember, as kids we worked in the fields in California.
HEADLEE: Your dad was a bracero.
CORCHADO: My dad was a bracero guestworker. And that's really how we crossed into the United States. Because of his work, we were able to get green cards. But we grew up working in the fields and she would dangle a radio - when Senator Robert F. Kennedy was killed, she would use these words, you know, some people see the way things are and ask why, others dream of things and never worry to ask why not. And that kind of became our mantra because she would insist that we listen to that and that we understand how lucky we were to have come to the United States. It didn't mean she didn't love Mexico. I mean, I still think that at night her nostalgia for her old country, Mexico, was really greater than her being in the United States.
You know, I could hear her singing at night and thinking, wow, this is really heartbreaking for her to have done this, to have moved us here, you know. And so I think that that, over the years, carried us. Your parents have sacrificed so much. You have to try to make something of yourself, something of your life. Maybe to her dismay, as a kid I always knew that someday I would want to go back to Mexico and kind of reconnect with my roots, with my language, with my country.
HEADLEE: And that drive to get back to Mexico has, in some ways, endangered your life. I mean, you begin the book basically by talking about a threat against your life. It wasn't the first one. It was perhaps the most serious, at that point. How did you find out that your life might be in danger?
CORCHADO: I had just won a big award and there were friends coming. We were planning to celebrate and a trusted U.S. source calls and says, there is a - they plan to do harm to an American journalist. Three names came up, but I think it's you. I'm in shock. It's my apartment in Mexico City and, you know, you're in this celebratory mood and all of a sudden, you're thinking, are you joking? I mean, what's going on? Why? I mean, I just stood there.
HEADLEE: Yeah, it seems surreal. You're standing there listening to this on the phone and you look through - off the balcony and they're standing there, enjoying a glass of wine and chatting.
CORCHADO: Angelo was there, another colleague was there, and, you know, suddenly I thought, I need some more tequila. I mean, I need to really figure this out. What happened? What went wrong? I started looking at all of my notepads that were there and trying to figure out which story could have caused this. Days before, we had just done a story on the pact - a peace pact that the government or members of the government and the cartels had been trying to reach. And I realize, you know...
HEADLEE: It's a very secret agreement between the two of them.
CORCHADO: Right, and then you realize, you know, you can say this, you can say that about cartels, but when you really expose the corruption and you really threaten their pocketbook, that's when there's a pushback.
HEADLEE: I have to understand, I want to understand, why you wouldn't leave. You kept calling sources. They were all unanimous and said, get out. And instead, you travel to somewhere else and end up lying on a beach. Why? What kept you there while your life could possibly have been in danger?
CORCHADO: I think the sense that you're a U.S. citizen. I mean, again, I was born in Mexico, but I'm a U.S. citizen now. I think that gives me a certain degree of protection. That's something I've always believed, you know, that if something happens to an American journalist, there will be consequences.
HEADLEE: But it might be false sense of protection. I mean, it seemed to me, like many of your sources were saying, that you weren't viewed that way by the cartels.
CORCHADO: At the time, at the beginning, it's intelligence that comes and I took it very seriously. I mean, it's a U.S. trusted source - a U.S. investigator. That made me take that seriously. And I thought, well, if it's that serious and if they can go after me, will they go after Angela? Angela Kocherga is also a colleague of mine, a journalist colleague. I was concerned about her. I was concerned about my family in Mexico. I mean, you know, where do you draw the line?
So my immediate response was, let's see if this is raw intelligence. Let's see if there's something that we can verify. I think I ended up staying, like, a week just talking to as many people as you can. I mean, as a journalist covering drug traffickers, you have to talk and talk and talk to as many people as you can from both sides of the border, from both governments. The whole time, I was always in contact with some of the key U.S. sources. Finally, after a week, I did leave. And from that point on, my life really changed drastically, as far as the way I covered Mexico. And at one point, I even left Mexico for a while.
HEADLEE: Before we talk about how your life changed - 'cause that's getting closer to, you know, the end of the book - let's talk about the beginning and the sources of what seems like your despair, in some ways, for Mexico. Yes, there's hope, but there's also this sense of real anguish over what happened. And I wonder what the source of that is? Does it begin with government corruption or does it begin with the drug cartels?
CORCHADO: I think it begins with me. I think coming to Mexico and, you know, looking back at that week when I was running around, I was mad at myself for being so American and for being so idealistic, if you will. I mean, I began my career on the U.S.-Mexico border, covering what I felt like was a people's revolution, people taking over bridges, international bridges, in El Paso Juarez. And I thought, wow, this movement is going to grow and grow. And I saw it grow and, suddenly, you have the first opposition government in 2000...
HEADLEE: When the PRI lost.
CORCHADO: When the PRI loses. Yeah. After 71 years, the PRI loses. The National Action Party comes in, the Opposition Party. Vicente Fox becomes president and I thought, this is the turning point. Mexico will change. I mean, what happened? It really, I think, in the end, you see it now, the power went from the central government to the states'...
HEADLEE: To the states.
CORCHADO: ...Government. So all of a sudden, it became a power grab and the cartels were, you know, at the right moment. For years they had been shielded from - or they were corrupted alongside the official government, the regime. So, suddenly, they're loose and the monster comes out.
HEADLEE: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with Alfredo Corchado about his new memoir "Midnight in Mexico: A Reporter's Journey Through a Country's Descent into Darkness." Your driver becomes one of the big characters in your memoir and you relay many of the conversations that you've had. And there's some interesting things that he says about Mexico in general. He says that threats are the way Mexicans communicate. What does that mean?
CORCHADO: That means that institutions do not work in Mexico. That means that only 5 percent of all murders, crimes, are really ever investigated or people are convicted. It means that you rely a lot more on your own faith or you're a spiritual person. And when that fails, you know, if you really want to get a message across, you call someone and you threaten them and you say, I'm going to do this you, I'm going to do that you, so listen to me. So when...
HEADLEE: But that's become part of the, actually, the - I mean, he's talking about threatening his daughter's boyfriend, right? I mean, that's become part of everyday life.
CORCHADO: Become everyday life for a lot of sectors of society, especially, I think, those sectors where they really have no trust. They have no - they just feel like the government is not there to help them, that they have to build their own solidarity among themselves.
HEADLEE: Is this true, generally, of Mexico? I mean, has this sort of violence spread through the whole country or is this reserved to border towns, in Ciudad Juarez, and places that we expect to find this?
CORCHADO: It's a moving target and I got to tell you, when this started, when I started covering this and I - you know, sort of, the mask went off and I realized, oh, my God, this is serious. I would come back to Mexico City and people say, don't worry about it, this is just the border, this is just places along the Texas border, California, New Mexico, Arizona. It's not going to touch us. It's difficult for me to say this, but I think violence - the violence in Mexico has brought many sectors of society closer because it impacted everyone. That doesn't mean that Mexico is awash in violence, but it means that it can happen to many, many communities because of conditions. Again, no strong institutions, poverty, and people just, you know, looking for a way out, looking for opportunities.
HEADLEE: I want to mention the Los Angeles Times carried a review of your book. They were very critical. They say, and I'm quoting here, that you, in the book, are perpetuating easy stereotypes. They referenced the Mexico City driver that I talked about and quoted him. You said, this is Mexico, everybody's corrupt. The driver himself was once arrested for having fake registration stickers on his license plate and he says, no, no, no, the government guy must have tricked me. What's your response to this idea that your book perpetuates easy stereotypes about Mexico?
CORCHADO: I mean, I would say that for the longest time, I went there trying to cover the other Mexico, to see the other side of Mexico. There's a saying in Mexico, "quieres del padres sol conunero (ph)," you want to, kind of, live in denial. And I think I was one of them. I think for many, many years, I did not want to cover drug trafficking. I didn't want to cover anything that has to do with corruption or these issues, you know, because I felt like I was perpetuating the - that stereotype that you talked about.
When I started my career, when I decided to go back to Mexico, I made a promise to my parents that I would not cover drug traffickers because my father would say, they are the only people I know who do not know the word - the meaning of the word forgiveness. They're all into betraying one another. So years later, I think I've opened my eyes. You have to see the other Mexico. As a journalist covering Mexico, sometimes it's like really covering two or three Mexicos and that is part of what Mexicans have lived for the last few years. You can't ignore that a hundred thousand people have either been killed or disappeared, and that the conviction rate, again, is less than 5 percent.
HEADLEE: A hundred thousand people is more, as you mentioned, more than all the American fatalities in the Vietnam War. I mean, it's staggering.
HEADLEE: Let's go back then to how your life has changed since the event that begins your book. You decided to leave Mexico, and then what happened? Your relationship with Mexico changed.
CORCHADO: I felt like many Mexicans. That - it was this moment when I just thought, I'm leaving Mexico. I'm fleeing Mexico. My mother was right. This was her burden, not mine. I left, went on a fellowship in the United States. But I think the more I try to flee, the more I tried to get away, the more I wanted to understand what went wrong, what happened. And so, eventually, I returned to Mexico and then we had a bureau of 12 people. I'm now the only person, a sign of the times, of the economic times, but also the industry. So I am now the only person in Mexico covering for the Dallas Morning News.
HEADLEE: Do you feel safe?
CORCHADO: I don't feel safe all of the time, but I think I've learned to embrace the fear. You know, you look at those moments, you think, you know, what were you thinking about? Now I've learned to kind of take a step away, embrace the fear, because understanding, embracing fear also makes you appreciate life. And it makes you understand the consequences of what you do and the reporting that you do and you think twice about certain stories now.
HEADLEE: So where does the hope come from? I don't see the glimmer here.
CORCHADO: I see the hope in - if you look at the last six months of the last six years, yes, you think, you know, where is the hope? But if you look at Mexico over the course of my career, 20 years in Mexico, having been born and lived in Mexico as a kid, you see a much more open society. You see a much more, I think, skeptical society, people questioning the government.
I see hope in the courage of my own colleagues. You know, there's a new generation of journalists in Mexico who are trying to hold the government accountable. That's something you didn't really see when I arrived, you know, many, many years ago. You see government officials now actually responding to questions, those tough questions from society, from journalists, you know. I think I've learned that the change is not going to happen overnight, but it's happening little by little, step-by-step.
HEADLEE: Is it safe for Americans to travel to Mexico?
CORCHADO: There are many sections, regions in Mexico that I think are perfectly safe. I mean, I always tell people, try to use a little more common sense, don't travel at night. But in general, the cartels have stayed away from tourists, you know. And I think everyone understands that tourism represents big, big dollars for the Mexican government. So up 'till now, you haven't really seen an effort to target Americans. Many beach places, for example, many colonial towns, you know, remain pretty healthy and tourists continue to travel there.
HEADLEE: The reluctance of the drug cartels to mess with Americans implies that, to some extent, the American government has power or clout with the drug cartels, or could possibly do something about what's going on. Is that true?
CORCHADO: Absolutely. I mean, you have institutions that work in the United States. Maybe they're not perfect, but, you know, they function. I think the last thing a cartel really wants to do is be extradited to the United States. I think they know that there are are consequences. I mean, we just did a story recently at the Morning News where a woman - her husband has all of these tattoos and it says, "amor por Mexico" - love for Mexico and she says, you know, wow, you really love Mexico. And he goes, yes, I do. And she says, you know, why, because Mexico "nao castiga seu gente" - Mexico does not know how to punish people who kill their own people. And he responded by beating her up. She's now seeking political asylum in this country. And listening to her story, she says, you know, if Mexico could find a way to punish people, we wouldn't have this. You have different rules, different ways of doing things on this side of the border.
HEADLEE: Alfredo Corchado, the Mexico bureau chief for the Dallas Morning News. Author of the new memoir "Midnight in Mexico: A Reporter's Journey Through a Country's Descent into Darkness." He joined us here in our Washington, D.C. studios. Thank you so much.
CORCHADO: Thanks, Celeste. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.