Robert Rivard

Alfredo Corchado was born in Durango, Mexico, and raised as the child of migrant farm workers in California and Texas. He attended the University of Texas at El Paso and became a journalist, eventually rising to the position as the Mexico City bureau chief for the Dallas Morning News, the state’s leading daily. Working as a newspaper correspondent on the Texas-Mexico border and inside Mexico in the 1990s forward meant covering, and surviving, the drug cartels and rising violence in that country.

Alfredo Corchado
Alfredo Corchado

Corchado became an expert on the subject and, eventually, a target, receiving a telephone call one day from a trusted U.S. law enforcement source to quickly flee the country before a drug cartel could carry out a planned assassination of a U.S. journalist in Mexico, an apparent message to foreign journalists all too familiar to the many Mexican journalists killed, tortured or intimidated into silence.

I remember that time very well. An Express-News reporter living on the border received the same warning and had to be moved immediately to an undisclosed location while U.S. authorities monitored cartel intentions.

Mexico watchers have the opportunity to meet Corchado and hear him speak Monday, 6:30 p.m. at the San Antonio Central Library, about his new book, “Midnight in Mexico: A Reporter’s Journey Through a Country’s Descent into Darkness.” Corchado will be joined for a conversation by Benjamin Alire Saenz, the 2013 PEN/Faulkner award for his book, “Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club.” He is the first Latino author to win the coveted literary prize.

The event is open and free to the public. Books will be available for purchase and Corchado will do a signing.

The Rivard Report caught up Corchado last week for this interview:

Rivard Report: The title of your new book, “Mexico at Midnight: A Reporter’s Journey Through a Country’s Descent into Darkness”, suggests that you look at Mexico and see a country in dire straits. True?

Alfredo Corchado: I see a country in the throes of change, and its tragic beauty. At the moment of darkness you see the worst of Mexico: a country where more than 100,000 people have either been killed or disappeared. The brutality and savagery. Yet, I’ve also seen the best of Mexicans, their resilience, their fight and courage as they try to reclaim their homeland, build institutions often from ground up. Sometimes in the darkest moment you also have the greatest hope and belief in the promise of a new day.

Take journalism, for instance. It was once mostly a propaganda arm for the ruling party. Today, reporters routinely question the official line, and try to hold government accountable.

 RR: You’ve been a Mexico watcher all your life as someone born there and then as a journalist living and working there for many years. What happened to all the promise that seemed to unfold in the late 1980s and early 1990s under Pres. Carlos Salinas de Gortari and then Pres. Ernesto Zedillo? State industries and holdings were privatized, markets were opened to outside competition, NAFTA accelerated cross-border trade, an emerging middle class and nascent democracy took root, and then it all seemed to fall prey to larger, darker forces. What happened?

AC: I was one of those Mexicans who returned to Mexico, and after witnessing the economic transformation underway, believed the country would just change automatically. Democracy is messy. For many decades Mexicans lived in denial and tried to look past the weak institutions hobbled by corruption that’s permeated government for generations. When the big political change came in 2000 with the election of the first opposition party in 71 years, a power vacuum emerged and the corruption between government and organized crime was exposed. Suddenly, the power shifted from the central government to the states and organized crime reared its ugliest side. The monsters emerged and chaos ensued.

 RR: Looking back at the six-year term of Pres. Felipe Calderon, a time when more than 100,000 Mexicans are said to have died in the cartel wars and lawlessness that swept though so much of Mexico, what choice did he have other than to declare war on organized crime? What was the outcome of all that violence, for the country, for the cartels?

AC: It’s easy to second guess Calderon, play Monday morning quarterback. But the situation was this: Communities were slowly coming undone. Organized crime had reached such levels that criminals were silencing newspapers, deciding who ran for political office, or not, influenced parents on when their children could go outside or not. I don’t know that the government had any choice but to react. I’m not even talking about the Calderon period, but more the tail end of Zedillo’s and Fox’s terms. By the time Calderon came in, narcos were running amok, firing 50-caliber machine guns, decapitating people, forcing people to flee communities. I’m not so sure he had a choice but to react. This became Calderon’s war, but it should have been Mexico’s war. However, that message was never fully delivered to the Mexican people. Did Calderon use the right strategy, or was it one that he simply improvised as he went along? That’s the debate that’s ongoing in Mexico because the problem of organized crime isn’t going anywhere for now.

RR: What about Mexico’s culture of corruption? There was much talk of Mexico modernizing, joining the group of developed nations, but Mexico seems as riddled with official and institutional corruption now as it was when the PRI had a steel grip on the country. After a period out of office the PRI is back in power. Why did Mexico fail to curb corruption when other countries have been able to do so? Do you hold out any hope that this will change?

AC: Other countries, including the United States, have done so. But it doesn’t happen overnight, particularly when corruption is too often part of the institution. To me the hope lies with the Mexicans themselves. In 20 years of covering Mexico I see a more open, skeptical society. Yes, there are zones of silence where reporters have generally been silenced or censored themselves to stay alive. But in other regions, I also see journalists who are beginning to hold government accountable by testing new transparency laws. I also see courageous journalists who write under the most dire of circumstances, often risking their own lives, to get their story out. Others who can’t write those stories will risk their lives by crossing the border to talk to U.S. reporters to make sure stories are told. These are flickers of light amid the darkness.

 RR: How do you think the average Mexican family feels about their country? Are people hopeful and optimistic or is there a culture of despair and insecurity?

AC: There’s both hope that the few gains they have made in the 12 years of opposition government, more open press, a growing middle class, will continue, but security will continue to undermine the economic promise, and there’s also weariness about whether the PRI will try to return to its old ways, and exert more control over society, the press, etc. That’s perhaps one of the fascinating stories we will report on over the next six years. Sometimes as a correspondent I believe I am covering two Mexicos: the one with the troubled spots where people live in despair, a scared middle class, and then the most prosperous side where Mexicans see a future in their country without having to flee north. Much of their optimism lies, however, in the government being able to bring down the violence, something we really haven’t seen yet. Violence has leveled off, but it’s still there, moving from region to region.

RR: You were tipped off by a U.S. informant in 2007 that the cartels were targeting a journalist and that it might be you. What did you do to stay safe in Mexico? Why haven’t U.S. journalists down there been targeted? It seems that U.S. federal agents eventually became targets and fell victim to cartel gunmen.

AC: Initially I stayed and try to investigate whether the threat was based on raw, or solid information. I feared that by simply fleeing I could put family on both sides of the border in danger. Would they send me a message by going after someone close to me? So I stayed for a few days, maybe a week, and after not being able to verify information, I left, although I would commute back and forth. I was born in Mexico, but am a U.S. citizen now. That blue passport has been my biggest protection. I want to believe that cartels understand that if they go after a U.S. journalist or U.S, federal agent there will be consequences, and there have been examples of that. U.S. correspondents and their editors (particularly you) have also set the bar high by building solidarity with their reporters and making noise when they have to. The Mexican government, the cartels, don’t like noise. That doesn’t mean we as correspondents are immune to being killed, it just means cartels may think twice before acting.

RR: At one point in your book you talk about the warring cartels and corrupt government officials meeting to declare a truce and get back into the business of moving drugs and making money. Why did that cease-fire never take hold? Do you think the new PRI Pres. Enrique Peña Nieto can make peace?

AC: Greed. Profits. Lack of strong referee, and the new generation of cartel leaders who have a penchant to negotiate with guns, and not with words. There have been ongoing efforts to reach peace, and polls that we have done at The Dallas Morning News have shown that Mexicans would like to see a pact between Pena Nieto’s government and narcos, if for any other reason, to bring down the violence. But the cartels have now fragmented into smaller, weaker organizations so who do you negotiate with?

RR: What do you tell Americans who ask you if it’s safe to travel to Mexico? Do you base your response on where they want to go, be it the border, Mexico City or a beach resort?

AC: In some ways yes: Depends on the region. I think in general Mexico remains safe for Americans. I travel widely in Mexico and am usually fine, but I take more precautions. I don’t travel at night anymore and avoid certain areas even for pumping gas. I do my homework and find out which cartel operates where, and that usually gives me a sense of how safe a certain area is and the modus-operandi of the cartel. I think beach towns not only represent some of Mexico’s stunning beauty, but overall are pretty safe. I mean, look, let’s put it in context: I was second-guessing myself recently about whether or not I should travel to Los Angeles because of the massacre in Santa Monica. I ended up going and had a great time.

RR: Do you see Mexico ever returning to “normal,” a place American can casually visit, say, across the border for dinner and drinks? Or is that time gone forever?

AC: Not gone forever. Ciudad Juarez for many years was the murder capital of Mexico, if not the hemisphere, and the city is now bouncing back, albeit slowly. Even the Mercado is showing signs of life again. The last time I was there the bars were packed. Yet, I don’t know that Mexicans want to go back to normal because that would imply returning to agreements between cartels and government and such understandings are only temporary until the monster comes back. The future lies in the ability of Mexicans to form community, build institutions, hold government accountable. While everyone wants the violence to come down, many also want to stop blaming the U.S. and shame their own authorities for their incompetence, their corruption and their indifference.

RR: You’ve lived the immigrant story personally, your family worked as farm workers. Do you see comprehensive immigration reform on the horizon? Are American politicians capable of forging a sensible, lasting policy that respects people and their interests on both sides of the border? What do your parents make of it all, including your years down in Mexico as a reporter right in the thick of trouble?

 AC: My parents are saddened by the fact that Mexicans cannot go back and forth like they once did. Many Mexicans are now stuck in the United States and aren’t able to reconnect with their hometowns and the families they left behind, which mean some fathers and mothers don’t really know their own children. As a child, I didn’t know I even had a father because he was gone so much, working the fields of California, but I knew that at the end of every year a strange man would show up bearing gifts – Tony Lama boots – to make up for time and distance. I finally reunited with my father in California and built bonds between father and son. Many kids today don’t have that option. If you talk to Mexicans they’d like to see the return of circularity, where Mexicans can come back and forth. And I think Americans should listen closely because the birthrate is down from seven children per family to two children; someday the United States may not find enough Mexicans to help with their yards, their roofs, kitchens, and children.

RR: What do you tell U.S. policymakers in your book in terms of what we are doing or should be doing in relation to Mexico, be it military aid, intelligence sharing, border security, the bilateral relation?

AC: I think the last six years was based much on military aid, intelligence sharing, areas that the current government isn’t too crazy about. The Mexican government wasn’t thrilled with the fact that Americans had not just come into the kitchen, if you will, but had also become the chefs. So Mexicans would like to see Americans engaged, but more in helping them build community-police relationships, building judicial institutions, civil society. They want Americans to teach them the dos and don’ts about holding government accountable, learn from their mistakes. Learn how Mexicans can build their own democracy, with their own stamp.

RR: You’ve been connected to Mexico, personally and professionally, all your life. The Dallas Morning News is now the only Texas newspaper with a Mexico City bureau. What’s next in life after the book?

AC: I have no plans other than to continue to work as a journalist for The Dallas Morning News in Mexico and along the Texas-Mexico border. That’s an important story and we’re now the only newspaper in the Southwest writing about it. That’s a big responsibility.

 RR: Where are you living now, and how does your family feel about all those years you took risks to work as a journalist. Have you made any promises to stay out of harm’s way?

AC: I began my career by promising my parents I wouldn’t cover narcos. I obviously broke that rule. You can’t live in denial. My mother prays a lot, but I also think I’m channeling the love, belief and hope she has for her homeland. My father would like for me to return to the United States for good. He’s not the sentimental type. I continue to live in Mexico City, but travel constantly to the border, as part of the morning news coverage.

RR: How is the book tour going? Do you find that people outside the Southwest U.S. care about Mexico or our shared border and history?

AC: Book tour has been exhausting but rewarding. In every city, every event I meet with people who want to either connect, or reconnect with Mexico either because they’re curious, want to travel there, or want to embrace the country of their ancestor’s roots, etc. I think seeing the interest on both sides of the border is a very inspiring and a hopeful thing for Mexicans in the long run. Many are pulling for Mexico to improve and become a more prosperous, and peaceful country.

RR: Any last thoughts before your event at the Central Library Monday evening?

AC: I think it’s always important to reiterate the plight of my colleagues in Mexico. My risks pale in comparison to theirs. We have a responsibility on this side of the border to tell stories about the transnational element of what ails Mexico north of the border. We have to continually connect the dots so that we educate both sides more and get away from the blame game.

Follow Alfredo Corchado on Twitter @acorchado or on Facebook.

Follow Robert Rivard on Twitter @rivardreport or on Facebook.

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Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard, co-founder of the San Antonio Report, is now a freelance journalist.