When Alfredo Corchado went to cover Mexico for The Dallas Morning News, he was determined not to focus on drugs and crime but rather to cover issues critical to the country's future — immigration, education and the economy.
But it seems the drug cartels had other plans. Corchado has spent years reporting on the savage violence of drug gangs and the corruption and ineptitude that enabled their reign of terror in much of the country, much of which he explores in his new book, Midnight In Mexico: A Reporter's Journey Through A Country's Descent Into Darkness.
The book is part memoir, part recent history of Mexico's struggle for peace amid chaos. Corchado was born in Mexico but grew up mostly in the United States in a family of California farmworkers. He was working in the fields and eventually dropped out of high school. He thought that the fields were where he would spend his life. This began to slowly change one day when a television crew arrived and asked questions.
"I was 13," Corchado recalls to Fresh Air's Dave Davies. "I was trying to look like I was 15. They came up to me and they started asking me all these questions: 'What's it like working in the fields? What's it like not having sanitation?'"
In retrospect, Corchado says he came away from the experience with a new sense of empowerment and awareness that he had a voice and that others might care about what he had to say. Much later when he decided to become a journalist, this moment became one of the many turning points in his life.
He is now the Mexico bureau chief for The Dallas Morning News and has reported for numerous U.S. papers, including The Wall Street Journal.
On meeting a source at a restaurant on the American side of the border
"We had just sat [down]. We were about to order when these guys come in. To me they look like gang members, and one of them takes his hand out — his right hand — and points at me and does what seems to me like he was using a gun: bam bam bam. And I looked at him and I didn't know whether that was a new greeting in Laredo, and I looked at [my source] Ramon and I said, 'What was that about?' And he said, 'Well, that's strange.' The manager then comes up to us and says, 'You guys need to leave now.' Ramon gets really upset about that. He says, 'What's going on?' And [the manager] says, 'You need to leave,' and just by the sound of his voice I thought, 'OK, this is urgent.' "
On investigating the murders of women in Juarez
"I think I found a lot more questions than answers. I mean, yes, there were some indications that some of the women were victims of organized crime. One person I met — a lawyer — kind of helped me understand that there was a group called La Linea and we started using that word even before, I think, the local media or even before anyone else did. A group called La Linea who were part of the Juarez cartel and ... I mean they were so powerful they could just decide what to do, who to do, who to kill, etc. And according to this one theory, they would target certain women of certain age, of certain build, etc., and they would have parties and they would bring the women forcefully and then they would have sex orgies, etc., and after a while they would just discard them."
On the 2006-2012 tenure of President Felipe Calderon
"Here we are again, I mean, Monday morning quarterbacking. And I often ask myself, I mean, 'What happened?' And I think it really shows just how much corruption permeated every institution in Mexico, especially law enforcement. I remember talking to a U.S. source who said, 'You know, you give these guys the intelligence, you give them files of intelligence, and within seconds if not minutes the enemy knows what you're doing. I mean they have all the information,' and I think that was a real chilling example of what went wrong. ... I talked to Mexican officials later and I asked them, you know, 'What happened?' and they tell you, 'We thought we had everything planned and then you march up the hill and you realize you're not on a horse but you're on a donkey; you look around you and the cavalry's going in different directions.' I think that sums up the Calderon years. ... There was no planning, there was no real strategy, there was no real trust within the agencies."
On his uncle's burial in Ciudad Juarez
"I kept listening to the sirens that were outside and all the other people burying loved ones. I couldn't tell whether ... they were victims of violence and so forth, but there was just so much death around you. And one thing that this guy had told me — the guy who had carried my uncle's casket — he said, 'You know, the only business these days, the only business that's growing are funeral homes and people are talking about expanding the cemeteries because we're running out of space.' I think that was one of the saddest things I heard that day."
On covering Mexico
"Yes, there's a lot of cynicism: what we really do; does it really matter? People know about the corruption, but I think when you start putting names, putting faces to what seems at times to be ghosts, I think it really changes the way people think about things. And I think it's also a homage to our profession as journalists. I go from Mexico City where there's, you know, people beginning to make whole government accountable, to a place like ... Laredo where people don't know much about upcoming elections or about what happened or why three or four bodies appear, and you see the difference and I think you understand and respect the value of journalism that much more."