People of Northwest Public Radio
Tue July 9, 2013
Drugs, Chaos And Violence Darken Mexico's 'Midnight'
Originally published on Tue July 9, 2013 11:11 am
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."
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross, who's off this week. When my guest Alfredo Corchado went to cover Mexico for the Dallas Morning News, he was determined not to focus on drugs and crime but to cover issues critical to the country's future: immigration, education and the economy.
But it seems the drug cartels had other plans. Corchado spent years covering the savage violence of drug gangs and the corruption and ineptitude that enabled their reign of terror in much of the country. The story is particularly painful for Corchado, who was born in Mexico but grew up mostly in the U.S. in a family of California farm workers. He has family on both sides of the border now, and his new book is in part a memoir, and in part the story of Mexico's struggle for peace and prosperity in an age of chaos.
It's called "Midnight in Mexico: A Reporter's Journey Through a Country's Descent Into Darkness." Alfredo Corchado, welcome to FRESH AIR. Let's begin with a moment, kind of in the middle of the story, 2005, and you go into a restaurant in Nuevo Laredo, the border town across from Laredo, Texas, with an old friend of yours, Ramon, who runs the newspaper in Nuevo Laredo. Just tell us a little about him, first of all, and what his newspaper's been - has been through dealing with the drug cartels.
ALFREDO CORCHADO: I had known Ramon for a few months, and he was - had been going through I guess nightmarish experiences. His brother had been kidnapped, released by members of organized crime. His editor had been killed. And Ramon needed someone on the U.S. to kind of inform people what was going on, try to keep the story alive because he was in the middle of it's now called a zone of silence.
So in many ways we became fast friends. I was trying to understand northeastern Mexico, what was happening in that region, and he was trying to reach out to an American correspondent.
DAVIES: Now this was a time when there was a lot of violence. This particularly violent group, the Zetas, were operating in that area. And you mention that his brother was kidnapped. That actually brought him into direct contact with some cartels, and they made it clear what they expected him and his newspaper to do. Do you want to tell that story?
CORCHADO: Yeah, I mean, Ramon had lived in that area for many years. I mean, he was born in Laredo and raised in Old Laredo. And the Zetas paramilitary group had taken over the city. And I guess to try to get their message across, they decided to kidnap his brother.
The paper had had a history of being one of the most independent papers in that region, and they were trying to find a way to get the message that there was a new law, if you will, in the city. So they picked up his brother, kidnapped him, and through an intermediary Ramon was able to make contact with the leaders.
They released the brother, and Ramon took this unusual step of saying I want to come back to you. I want to sit down or talk and find out what you have in mind. I mean, what is it that you want? But I want my brother to be with me. So he picks up the brother, they - I think they met sometime around midnight, and the members of organized crime, the Zetas, were very, very clear.
We don't want you to investigate who we are. We don't want you to investigate our activities. We don't want the name Zetas in your stories. And from that moment on, Ramon basically obeyed them. He didn't - I mean, he stuck to what they wanted. And so the paper went through this incredible transformation of being one of the most independent papers in the region to basically being silent.
DAVIES: And this was at a time when you had been writing a lot of stories about the cartels, the drug violence. And you traveled to the region, and you met your friend Ramon not on the Mexican side but on the American side, in the town of Laredo at a restaurant. And tell us what happened.
CORCHADO: Well, you know, at the time it was really getting more and more difficult to meet on the Nuevo Laredo side. People were beginning to find refuge on the U.S. side. And it was a place called (Spanish spoken) in Laredo, Texas. I mean, we had just sat, we were about to order, when these guys come in, and they looked like - to me they looked like gang members.
And one of them takes his hand out, one of his - his right hand and points at me and does the - what seemed me to 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 kind of looked at Ramon. 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, and he says what's going on. He says you need to leave. And just by the sound of his voice, I thought OK, this is urgent. So I said look, let's just grab a burger somewhere else. Let's just leave.
As we were leaving, a waiter comes over with some tequila shots and said these are for you. I said, well, you must have the wrong person. We're about to leave. He says no, they're from this guy at the corner. And the guy at the corner, I mean, I saw someone just walking, and suddenly this person's hand around my shoulder, as though we were old friends.
And he just starts, you know, telling me how great it is that the morning news is interested in covering Laredo and Old Laredo, and isn't it a great town, and, you know, so much activity going on. And, you know, I start kind of thinking well, maybe this guy's with the Chamber of Commerce or City Hall or something.
And he says, you know, you get into problems when you start asking questions about the Zetas, and who they are, and how they operate, and their ties to Texas and so forth. And we had been doing stories, I guess, for weeks at that point, and suddenly it just kind of felt like, you know, this was not a guy from the Chamber of Commerce.
Ramon looks over and, you know, puts his hand on him and says, you know, OK, that's enough, leave him alone. He says words in Spanish, you know, kind of some cuss words. And the guy just keeps insisting. He says I'm just here to deliver a message. This is, you know, this comes from these guys, and you need to lay off, and here's what happens to people who don't listen to the message.
And he describes in horrible detail how they, you know, take you, chop you to pieces, put you - the pieces in acid. And he says, you know, the worst thing is that your mother might never know what happened to you. And the guy was just there for just, you know, a few minutes more and left, and that was it.
DAVIES: The interesting thing about this is that you're coming into Laredo, and they knew who you were, right?
DAVIES: I mean, you weren't wearing a name tag, and they knew Alfredo Corchado and who he was and what he was doing.
CORCHADO: You know, they - what was interesting is that they knew who I had met with that day, and one of them was - had been a federal agent.
DAVIES: And they referred to this in their conversation with you.
DAVIES: So they clearly had been all over you.
CORCHADO: Exactly. They said it doesn't matter who's helping you, who's protecting you. Even that U.S. federal agent won't be able to do anything to help you. And it just kind of sunk, you know. I mean, there - I think the human intelligence that they have, it's amazing. I mean, I just looked at him like wow, we are on the U.S. side of the border, I mean we're in Texas, and I mean - I guess it really makes you understand what transnational criminal groups can do or what they're capable of.
DAVIES: And there were a couple of times, I mean, you did get threatened more than once by the cartels, and there were a couple of times I think you said that you left the country. Did you ever censor yourself at all as a result of any of that?
CORCHADO: Never. I've never censored myself. I think, you know, what's interesting is how the paper has reacted. I mean, the newspaper reacted to protecting and making sure that we continue telling the story. I mean, at some point they put other reporters on particular stories to make sure that the cartels understood this was not personal. This, I mean, we were just doing journalism.
But given what the situation with their Mexican colleagues, I mean, our situation pales in comparison. These guys have no protection. You hear the stories, and the last thing you ever want to do is censor yourself or become silent like they have. So you keep telling the stories because they're stories that have to be told.
It's, you know, it's a historic time in Mexico, it's a transformative time in Mexico, and I think it also speaks to the power of journalism.
DAVIES: And we should note that, what, 70 Mexican journalists have been murdered over the course of all this.
CORCHADO: It depends on the numbers. Sometimes - some people say it's 45. Other people say it's more than 100. But what we can say is there are regions in Mexico where cartels are in control, and they've become zones of silence.
DAVIES: We're speaking with Alfredo Corchado. He is the Mexico bureau chief for the Dallas Morning News, and his new book is called "Midnight in Mexico." We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, our guest is Alfredo Corchado. He is a journalist. He is the Mexico bureau chief for the Dallas Morning News. His new book is called "Midnight in Mexico: A Reporter's Journey Through a Country's Descent Into Darkness."
You know, the book is in part a story of some of the harrowing experiences you have covering the cartels but also sort of a story of Mexico and a prayer for progress. And, you know, there was a big, big change in 2000, when the PRI, the P-R-I, the Institutional Revolutionary Party, which had been in control for decades, was finally overturned, and a new president, Vicente Fox, of a rival party comes to power.
Drug violence grows, rather than lessoning. You know, the endemic corruption still seems to be there. And you describe in 2003 going to investigate some disappearance and murders of young women in Juarez. Tell us a little bit about that trip, that investigation.
CORCHADO: Sure. I mean, I think Juarez really became the key to understanding what was happening to Mexico, if you will. This was 2003, and the paper wanted to kind of get into who was killing so many women in Juarez. I think at the time more than 100 women had been killed over 10 years. There were signs that maybe there was a serial killer involved.
We didn't know. I mean, typical in Mexico, you never really know because there aren't very credible investigations. There's always impunity involved. So for some reason, you know, I look back now, and I kind of laugh because I think the paper really thought I could get to the bottom of this. And they said look, it doesn't matter the time you spent. Just let's try to get some real answers.
And it became very clear to me that with the election of Fox, you had the central power, if you will, suddenly it moves to the state levels. And suddenly these governors become little fiefdom leaders, and you see the mess. I mean, you see the mess evolving before your eyes.
It was interesting covering the women of Juarez because you saw how investigators were just, you know, just doing rookie mistakes with some of the investigations, some of the evidence they collected and so forth. And that's I think when I started thinking this is not going to end well.
DAVIES: So you said you kind of laugh when you think that the newspaper thought you were going to go and solve this investigation, but what did you find? What did you find out about this pattern of these young women being missing and then found murdered?
CORCHADO: 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, you know, that there was a group called La Linea, and we started using that word even before I think the local media or before anyone else did, a group called La Linea who were part of the Juarez cartel.
And they were in effect - I mean, they were so powerful they could just decide what to do, who to do, who to kill, et cetera, and according to this one theory they would target certain women of certain age, of certain build, et cetera. And they would have parties. And they'd bring the women forcefully, and then they'd have sex orgies, et cetera, and after a while they would just discard them.
DAVIES: You're talking about gang rapes, you're not talking about anything consensual.
CORCHADO: Exactly gang rapes, and at the same time, I mean, you had a lot of other cases that seemed to be much more domestic situations. But the frustrating things, you know, going back to Mexican impunity, is that you could never really get to the bottom of, you know, even one murder. I mean, there was always questions about this, questions about that.
And it just, I think it made me understand just how weak the institutions were in Mexico and how, I mean, it's a country with all these great laws on the books but really no rule of law or at least a very weak rule of law.
DAVIES: Throughout all these years, I mean, the cartels get stronger, the violence increases, and then we have a new president in 2006, Felipe Calderon. And you, as you watched him prepare to take office, I mean, you interviewed these guys. You were in Mexico City. You knew them well. And you write that at some point when you saw Calderon looking at the violence and just what a serious threat it proposed, you said you wrote down in your notebook he gets it. What was different?
CORCHADO: I did. I did, I mean, you know, going back to 2005 with Ramon in Old Laredo and seeing these paramilitary leaders take over a town, and you see how these communities were just crumbling slowly, and you kept questioning why isn't Vicente Fox doing more, why isn't the president doing more.
And, you know, there was a time when even President Fox would call the - call our people at the Dallas Morning News and question why we were so determined with this story, why were we so obsessed when really it was just part of the whole democratic thing in Mexico.
So when Felipe Calderon comes in, and he's very clear, and you kind of see this determination in him, I know it was September, a few months before he took office, and I just thought this guy really has the courage to stand up and realize, you know, what the problem is in Mexico, and he's going to do something about it.
I mean, that was the moment, you know. In hindsight you can question a lot of things, and I think, you know, it remains a debate what - whether he used the right strategy. I mean, here we are six years later, more than 100,000 people either killed or disappear. So there's a lot to debate, a lot to question.
DAVIES: Right, so you have here a situation in which the cartels, some of them, had become paramilitary organizations. I mean, they had heavy weaponry, you know, and ballistics vests and helmets in some cases. And so he brings in the military. He's going to match power with power. And he's determined. What happens? Why doesn't it work?
CORCHADO: I think the corruption inside, I mean, I look back now, I mean hindsight, here we are again, you know, Monday morning quarterbacking, and I often ask myself, you know, 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.
You know, I talked to Mexican officials later who I've asked them, you know, what happened. And they tell you we thought we were - 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 there's not, you know, the cavalry's going in different directions. I think that kind of sums up the Calderon years.
DAVIES: You know, that was an evocative quote that you - and it's in the book. What did the guy mean, the cavalry's going in the other direction, we're riding donkeys?
CORCHADO: There was no plan. There was no real strategy. There was no real trust within the agencies. I mean, all of the sudden all these agencies who, at one point, you know, he explained, you know, you have one agency, the federal police, you had the attorney general's office. They were all split. Some of them had taken sides with one cartel over the other.
And suddenly within weeks, if not months, you were trying to force them to take on cartels. The cavalry was not - I mean, they were all going in different directions. I mean, everybody kind of had their own loyalties.
DAVIES: All right, so the intelligence you need, for example, to go and arrest a leader is no good because the leader gets tipped off. And then the people who have to build the cases, the prosecutors, they're on somebody's side. They fall apart. So in effect did things get worse with the offensive?
CORCHADO: You know, I've gone back and forth with officials on both sides of the border. And they say, no, it's easy to criticize Calderon now, but the way the country was moving, you also have the question we were on the verge of becoming a narco-state. Did we do the right thing? I think it'll take years for people to really get an answer on that.
I mean, but then again what do you tell people who lost a loved one or loved ones are disappeared? I mean, it's a tough question for Mexico, and I think the country's trying to go through this soul-searching, if you will. You know, was it worth it? Was it - what happened with Calderon?
And this is really an important time for Mexico to do that because, you know, the PRI is back, the regime that covered Mexico for 71 years. So I think it's really testing Mexicans like never before. And it's testing to see just how far they've come as a civil society. How much can it keep the government accountable?
And the question really is: Will this country really become a better country in the future? Will Mexico really prosper? Will Mexico really become a nation of laws?
DAVIES: Has the violence subsided at all? I mean, have some of the big kingpins been arrested?
CORCHADO: None, none. I mean, that's what's so chilling, and that's what's so troubling today is you have the new administration talk about how things have gotten better. The violence, some say, has gone down, you know, by 14 percent. Yet you talk to independent analysts, and they question whether maybe they're maybe using different criteria.
Some of the same killings are still happening. You find five heads, six heads, seven bodies dangling. It's just not getting the same kind of coverage or the same kind of attention that it did in the last six years. But I think the violence overall is pretty much the same. Does it mean that we, you know, that we shouldn't be covering other stories, like maybe the more prosperous side of Mexico? No, but you can't cancel one story over the other.
DAVIES: Alfredo Corchado will be back in the second half of the show. His book is "Midnight in Mexico: A Reporter's Journey Through a Country's Descent Into Darkness." I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross, who is off this week. We're speaking with journalist Alfredo Corchado. As Mexico bureau chief for the Dallas Morning News, he spent years covering the violence of drug gangs and the efforts of a succession of Mexican presidents to stem the carnage and bring change to the country.
It's a painful story for Corchado, who spent much of his life in the U.S., but has deep emotional and family ties to Mexico. His new book is called "Midnight in Mexico.
I want to talk a little bit about your life. You were born in Mexico. Tell us about the village, what your life was there when you were young.
CORCHADO: I was born in some small little town called San Luis de Cordero Durango; not very far from I guess the biggest city is Gomez Palacio, bordering the state of Chihuahua, northern part of the state. About 2,000 people, roughly. Mostly farmers, people who grow corn. And a lot of the - I think the majority of the men would spend their time in the United States. This was during the program of the Bracero, the guest worker program, so you had men who were only there may be two, three months out of the year, spend most of their time in Texas, Arizona and California. My father spent most of his life in the San Joaquin Valley. But it was a pretty good life because we had continuous money coming from the north. It was a very comfortable life. It was a very good life.
DAVIES: You know, you write that even at that young age you knew you didn't want to go the United States. But your family decided, and partly because there was a tragedy in your family; you had a sister who drowned. But you made your way to the fields of California. You grew up in a trailer there for a lot of years, right? Now were you actually working the fields with their parents? Were you going to school? What was your life like then?
CORCHADO: We lived in the trailer house for a few months and then we left another camping grounds - if you will - owned by ranchers throughout the San Joaquin Valley. And yes, we were working in the fields. I think I was maybe seven - six/seven - when I started working in the fields, Tomatoes, picking oranges. And it, you know, it's not as horrible as it sounds. I mean it's not, you know, child labor. It was actually kind of a fun time because you were around family all the time or you were around friends all the time. And I think at that age when you're trying to make the transition from Mexico to the United States, it was important to feel that kind of support, that kind of help around you. But, yes, I think for at least the first 10, 12 years in California, I mean we worked in the fields, we worked as farm workers. My parents were members of the United Farm Workers, which was the head was Cesar Chavez. So it was that kind of experience, you know, field and then school during the school year.
DAVIES: What kind of a future did you see for yourself?
CORCHADO: The fields. I really thought that, you know, I had made it. I thought, you know, I knew some English. I thought I was in love with the - one of the rancher's daughters. And I thought, you know, this is the easy way out. I will some day be the mero mero, or the supervisor.
CORCHADO: Because all I saw around me were, you know, other Mexican-American kids who ended up in the fields. He didn't matter how educated they were. It didn't matter how smart they were. They usually ended up in the field.
DAVIES: The mero mero, that's an expression meaning what? The big guy, right?
CORCHADO: The big guy. Right.
DAVIES: Right. Right. You're in the fields of California, you know, living with your family, going to public school. You dropped out of high school but you end up as a journalist and a respected one. How did you get there?
CORCHADO: Well, I ended up at El Paso Community College and ended up studying journalism later at the University of Texas at El Paso. And covering Mexico - which is right across El Paso and (unintelligible) Juarez, eventually I end up becoming the bureau chief for the Dallas Morning News based in Mexico City. And part of my job is really covering the whole country, you know, Mexico itself, also the U.S./Mexico border. So there's always a lot of crisscrossing the border. One day you may be in El Paso or you may be in Dallas or Laredo and then suddenly, you're in Mexico, Mexico City, Ciudad Durango, et cetera.
DAVIES: Now I want to clarify one thing about your personal story. You were born in Mexico, spent a lot of time in the States. Are you an American citizen?
CORCHADO: I am an American citizen, yeah, back I think more than 20 years now.
DAVIES: So did you just go through the naturalization process? Yeah.
CORCHADO: Nationalization. I was working at the time at the Wall Street Journal and I told my editor some day I want to work as a foreign correspondent. He said, look, the first thing you got to do is become a U.S. citizen.
DAVIES: Right, which because now you have after that you have a U.S. passport. And it comes up at times when you get into these tough situations in Mexico. You're an American journalist, you know, covering Mexico, but you don't exactly look like an American. I mean did you have the protection that other American journalists have?
CORCHADO: I do and I don't. I mean a source of mine once said - I once asked him, you know, how likely is it that a drug cartel would target an American journalist? And he said - he says look, I have good news and bad news. The good news is that cartels do not want to mess with Americans because it messes - it gets in the way of their billion-dollar industry. Bad news is that you just don't look American. And that really hit me hard. I mean he's right, but it kind of made you question what exactly is an American?
DAVIES: You know, the book is about your life as a journalist, but also about your life. And you, while you're reporting in Mexico and, you know, north of the border, you have family in El Paso, relatives in Mexico and there are a number of moments in which, you know, the terrible violence that the country is experiencing directly impacts friends and family. And I want you to tell me about when your Uncle Delfino dies in Ciudad, Juarez, and the experience of his death and burial when that city was going through such terrible violence.
CORCHADO: You know, Dave, the book in many ways is my effort to try to answer my mother's question, you know, which is, why would you want to go back to Mexico when we did so much to sacrifice to leave Mexico? She sacrificed a lot for the homeland, etcetera. And my Uncle Delfino as a child was really, I mean he was like a father figure to me. I didn't really know I had a father because he was gone to work in California for so much part of the year. So my Uncle Delfino felt that there was another side to Mexico that people didn't understand, you know, the generosity of its people and the potential of the country. And it was something as a child I think really marked me when I left Mexico. It was at his funeral when he - I mean he died of a heart attack. He was getting off the bus and it was horrible, this was during Juarez's most dreadful days. He dies and people kind of looked at another body on the ground and didn't really go there to try to help him. I mean, you know, he was just another body. And he, the day of his burial - I mean first of all, there were so many corpses at the morgue that they couldn't keep him anymore, so they brought him earlier. My uncle's body lay out in the sun, I mean August summer in El Paso, Juarez sun, the worst.
DAVIES: You know, under normal circumstances, the body would've remained at the morgue. It would have been kept refrigerated until the family was ready to assemble the burial. In this case what? They simply bring you the body and say sorry, you're going to have to take it now?
CORCHADO: Sorry, there are too many bodies. You're going to have to take it now. And we're sorry that you're waiting for your loved ones to come back from California and Mexico and Colorado but, you know, this is the new reality in a Juarez. So my cousin did the next best thing, I mean she put a fan over the body, over the coffin, you know, to try to keep it fresh and I showed up and just went up to the coffin and, I mean I still get emotional thinking about it because it was like a conversation with my uncle. You know, Delfino, was this the Mexico you so believed in? And the day of the burial on the way to the church, there was a shooting outside some store right across the church. And the next thing I know I mean, there were military people and there were people with guns, you know, pointing at you and pointing at the whole procession. My instinct was to try to get my camera and I started taking pictures and then somebody with a gun, you know, just pointed it - I mean direct it at you and it was like another day for them.
We continued on to the cemetery. The guy carrying the casket kept looking at his watch and finally comes up to me and says look, we have to leave. I have to leave. There's so much, you know, so many killings in Juarez that they need my services. We have to move, keep moving bodies, et cetera. And I looked at him and I said, you know, in my uncle's honor, can just you stay for a couple of minutes and I'll find a way to get someone else to help us lower the body and bury my uncle? He kept looking at his watch. I finally walked up to him, I said you can leave. Two other people had stepped in and said, you know, we'll help you. So we had family members and bureau guys help us put the body down and we put dirt over him. And, you know, it was a very sad moment, but at the same time we couldn't wait to just leave Juarez, which is very sad because a lot of family had come from California and Colorado and they just couldn't wait to get back to the U.S. side of the border.
DAVIES: So there you were in, you know, surrounded by this military activities and it just didn't feel safe to do what every family does when someone dies, which is to stay and share memories.
CORCHADO: I kept, you know, just listening to the sirens that were outside and all the other people burying loved ones. I mean I couldn't tell whether people were, I mean that were victims of violence and so forth, but there were just so much death around you. And one thing that this guy had told me when I was carrying my uncle's casket, he said, you know, the only business these days, he says the only business that's growing are funeral homes and people are talking about expanding cemeteries because we're running out of space. I think that was one of the saddest things I heard that day.
DAVIES: We're speaking with Alfredo Corchado. His new book is called "Midnight in Mexico." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and our guest is journalist Alfredo Corchado. He is the Mexico bureau chief for the Dallas Morning News. He has a new book called "Midnight in Mexico: A Reporter's Journey Through a Country's Descent Into Darkness."
You know, as somebody who's worked for years as a journalist covering government in the United States, I mean I'm so impressed with what you were doing there in Mexico. But it also made me wonder, you know, there's a tradition of the investigative journalist that, you know, muckraking brings change. You know, you expose environmental pollution or unsanitary, you know, food packaging and that leads to more regulation or inspection. Or you find a local official who is corrupt and they are indicted or they resign and reform results.
I have to say, when I read about some of the experiences in Mexico, the corruption seems so deeply endemic that it almost feels like you risk your life and go to write stories and people read them and say yeah, I already knew that. I already knew that there was no justice, that the authorities are in with the criminals. And I wonder if it ever just feels futile?
CORCHADO: There are times when I ask myself that question a lot. I mean, but I've got to tell you I think sometimes covering Mexico is really like covering two or three countries. I mean there are those regions in Mexico where, you know, there's silence. I mean there's nothing there reported or people depend on social media to get news. But there's also, I think, other parts, like Mexico City, Guadalajara, Monterrey where there's a lot more aggressive investigative journalism. I mean, one of the Pulitzer winners this year is Alejandra Xanic, a freelance reporter in Mexico City who helped The New York Times win another Pulitzer, by helping uncover the whole corruption in Wal-Mart. And it was during her, you know, this investigation that I think a lot of Mexicans, I think it really opened a lot of eyes to people and really make them understand that there is so much more to do.
And that yes, there's a lot of cynicism, a lot of, you know, what we really do, does it really matter? Do people already, you know, people know about the corruption? But I think when you start putting names and you start putting faces I mean to what seems at times to be ghosts, I think it really changes the way people think about things. And I think that it's also homage to our profession as journalists. I go from Mexico City where there's, you know, people beginning to take whole government accountable, to a place in the middle of Laredo where people don't know much about upcoming elections or about what happened, you know, why three or four bodies appear, and you see the difference and you, I think, respect and understand the value of journalism that much more.
DAVIES: How do you feel about Mexico's future?
CORCHADO: I remain hopeful. I mean I really remain hopeful. I think if you look at Mexico in the last six weeks or the last six days or the last six years, you tend to get depressed and that whole dread thing comes in. But when I look at Mexico over the last 20 years and I see a much more open society. I see a press trying to hold government accountable. I see governmental officials, you know, on radio shows, on newspapers, on TV giving their explanations. You see competition with political parties. It gives me hope for the country. I mean, you know, the whole name "Midnight in Mexico," I mean I had to explain that to my mother like, you know, why would you name your book "Midnight in Mexico" when really what you want to do is talk about the possibility? I said Mom, during the darkest moments of the night is when you're looking for that crack of light, you're looking for that...
...in Mexico, when really what you want to do is talk about the possibility. I said, Mom, during the darkest moment of the night is when you're looking for that crack of light. You're looking for that flickering light, and you believe in the promise of a new day. And that's why I remain hopeful about Mexico. I think there are better days that will come.
But here's the deal: You know, is it going to happen in my lifetime? I'm not so sure. But I think things are changing. I think things are moving.
DAVIES: Your family's changed, too. You know, you were born in Mexico, and then of course lived in California working the fields, ended up in El Paso. Now you work for a Dallas newspaper covering Mexico, living mostly in Mexico. And there's a scene where you describe a big family gathering. I guess it's in El Paso. And a lot of members of your extended family are speaking English, and their Spanish isn't so good. Where - what's your identity?
CORCHADO: My identity's like, I think - that's a great question, Dave. I - it's - I have a Mexican heart, but I think I have the American brain. And I think that's how I tried to write this book. You know, you feel with one, and you think with the other. And my family, I think, it's a timeless tradition of the United States, you know, the whole immigrant experience, where suddenly you look around and you listen, and the only Spanish you hear is when your parents speak Spanish. Everyone else has become so assimilated, that English becomes a dominant language.
And I keep reminding them, you know, Mexico isn't going anywhere. Whether you're Asian, whether you're African-American, whether you're Mexican, whether you want to embrace your roots or not embrace your roots, Mexico isn't going anywhere. It's 2,000 miles along the border. It's right there.
The music we listen to, the food we eat, the gas in our gas tanks, the cars we drive, it's increasingly Mexico. And, you know, we have to kind of come to some kind of reconciliation over that. I mean, I always think about this book as, you know, love for the homeland, love for the family, redefining who you are. You know, reinventing ourselves.
And I think as immigrants, we kind of continue to reinvent ourselves when we're on the U.S. side of the border. But it's also reconciliation among the Mexicans in Mexico, but also Americans on this side of the border and Mexico itself.
DAVIES: Well, Alfredo Corchado, thanks so much for speaking with us.
CORCHADO: Dave, it was my pleasure.
DAVIES: Alfredo Corchado has spent years covering drug violence and the efforts to stem it in Mexico as the Mexico City Bureau Chief for the Dallas Morning News. His new book is "Midnight in Mexico: A Reporter's Journey Through a Country's Descent into Darkness." Coming up, FRESH AIR's jazz critic Kevin Whitehead has some music inspired by the open spaces of the American West and the Central Plains. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.