Guest Post: Alfredo Corchado
Corchado is the Mexico bureau chief for Dallas Morning News. He’s written extensively on the drug war and recently released his memoir, Midnight in Mexico:A Reporter’s Journey Through a Country’s Descent into Darkness. The paperback version comes out May 27. To learn more about Corchado, visit his website.
Q & A with Alfredo Corchado
In the book you mention that in Mexico “you do what you can, not what you want”. Would you say that this survival tactic is due to the drug war violence or due to centuries of political corruption? both?
Definitely both, although it is Mexico’s centuries’ long struggle with building a country of rule-of-law, more equality and opportunity that in many ways led to the increased drug violence we have seen in recent years. For too long Mexicans, as the only way to survive, have had to flee their homeland, go north because of lack of opportunity, because the youth and its energy was sucked away north. In recent years many stayed behind, or were deported from the United States. That only increased the social pressure in Mexico and in some cases, led to more vulnerable recruits for cartels who prey on poor youth desperate to put food on the table, or drive that shiny new car, or truck. In recent years the saying Prefiero vivir 5 años como rey que 50 años como buey – I rather live 5 years as a king than 50 years as a slave – spread away from places like Sinaloa to other regions like Michoacan, Tamaulipas and Chihuahua.
How have the responses to your book differed between Americans and Mexicans?
Certainly, on the U.S. side while there’s been much curiosity and interest on the drug violence in Mexico, I would say the focus has been more about identity, the universal search for home, where one belongs. It’s the timeless immigrant story that still resonates with Americans. That plus guilt-questions about drug legalization. Is legalization the answer?
In Mexico, the interest is more about drug violence, and obviously the role of the United States. That is quite surprising and in a way a contradiction because I’ve sensed fatigue among Mexicans when it comes to the topic drug violence. It’s an issue that many Mexicans rather not talk about, a time, place and reputation that they rather forget, and yet I’ve been surprised by the number of times I have been asked about Ciudad Juarez, the Zetas in Nuevo Laredo and why Americans are so obsessed with guns, pot and other illicit drugs, and why, how the US media allegedly losses over drug trafficking organizations on the U.S. side. Yes, the drug cartel network is international and the United States has the biggest role, but we don’t see the kind of violence on the U.S. side and so the coverage is different. I do think we as a U.S. media need to do much more, simply by looking at violent crimes committed in the United States and asking the right questions. More often than not we’d see more clearly how U.S. and Mexican drug cartel organizations are that much more intertwined.
In the book you chronicle your search to find out if you are really being targeted by the cartels. Since the book came out, have you received anymore threats?
I’ve had some questionable moments since the book came out, but I haven’t received a specific threat like those I describe in the book. In this book I am as honest as possible because I still believe that truth matters and truth makes a difference and that truth is our best protection, the best weapon against criminal organizations. Truth, however, may not be the best weapon in a country like Mexico where impunity remains the biggest enemy as homicides are rarely solved. It takes a lot of courage for my colleagues in Mexico to report in areas that are essentially taken over by drug traffickers. We stand as one community in solidarity. No color, no story is worth one’s life. I do think journalists with more protection have an added responsibility to tell these stories, but how and whether we tell those stories is based on a very personal decision. I want to believe that in the United States if and when journalists are targets that law enforcement will actually do something, offer protection and that society in general will speak up because a threat against freedom of expression is also a threat against them. I don’t see that in Mexico yet and that makes the job of a journalist there that much more lonelier and dangerous.
Now that the book is set to be adapted into a movie, what do you hope audiences who might not have read the book will take away from the film?
Hope. That’s the takeaway because even in the worst of moments Mexicans have taught me about hope and the importance of holding on to that, a resilient spirit and of believing in that flickering light even in the darkest of nights. Writing this book was like therapy, of learning not to give up. I spent a lot of time in places like Nuevo Laredo and Ciudad Juarez during some very terrible, bloody, uncertain moments, but it was in that fusion and story of two worlds, in my search for home, that I always find the sweet spot of who I am, who we are. And that’s very hopeful. Turning the book into a movie will be a long process, may take several years, so between now and then here’s to more people reading Midnight in Mexico, especially now that the paperback version is coming out, which will make it more accessible and affordable to readers.
In your book you mention a group called La Linea. Can you explain a little bit about your findings about murdered women in Mexico? Do you feel the media coverage has evolved/improved through the years?
It was the issue of murdered women that compelled The Dallas Morning News to assign me the story for as long as it took to get some answers. And during our investigation we discovered, through documents and interviews, old fashion reporting, that there was a group called La Linea which were the enforcers of the Juarez cartel. They were the real power behind the cartel and the power in the city of Juarez itself. We also discovered a U.S. informant who, with the knowledge of U.S. officials, was taking part in crimes across in Ciudad Juarez. That informant also helped provide insights into La Linea and their role in the killings of men and women. At the time I focused mostly on the cases of some 100 women, but the more I looked and the more I dug I came face-to-face with a sad fact, a fact that remains to this day: Just about anyone is vulnerable in Mexico. Women, men of all ages, many of them innocent people who were at the wrong place and time. In a country with weak judicial institutions and even institutions of corruption anyone can be killed and, aside from loved ones, no one really cares. So yes, many women have been killed, and no justice has been served. Unfortunately, an estimated 100,000 people have either been killed or disappeared in the past seven years and there’s little, if any justice. I personally credit the women of Juarez for helping me understand the endemic impunity. It’s these families who remain vigilant, insisting on justice and became an inspiration to many others. It’s a cry that many other groups share, including journalists. Ni uno mas (not one more).
You are critical of Calderon’s presidency. What do you think of Pena Nieto’s take on the drug war? Do you see any hope for real change in Mexico?
The hope in Mexico lies not in the politicians, whether PRI, PAN, or PRD. Hope lies in the people themselves, in civil society. I can understand how things look bleak from abroad, from the United States. But in Mexico I see a people who are gradually changing Mexico. At times they take one foot forward, and three back, but they keep moving, learning not just to blame the powerful, but also to shame them, hold them accountable. Sometimes in Mexico you learn to walk between fear and hope, hope and fear. And you learn to wait and wait some more, but from time to time you glimpse over and see that some things have changed for the better.
It was clear that the EPN administration came in with the task of changing the narrative, focusing on issues beyond violence. And I get that. A lot of us get that because there is another Mexico in the horizon, a more prosperous country, regions that are creating more job opportunities, some even with higher salaries, but that Mexico continues to be overwhelmed by lack of rule-of –law. It’s difficult to change the narrative when you still have regions with no freedom of expressions, where reporters have to ask cartels permission even to print a condolence, where families have no idea what happened to their loved ones, or where justice is a luxury for the wealthy, the influential. A new narrative doesn’t resonate much in a country with so much inequality and injustice.