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A Foreign Correspondent Does Not Run from Reporting its Threat and Promise

Mexico’s Truths

by PATRICK TIMMONS

Journalist Alfredo Corchado opens his investigative memoir about twenty years in Mexico with an anonymous death menace whispered down the ‘phone. The caller, a trusted informant monitoring organized crime for the U.S. government, says powerful people want him to leave Mexico in twenty-four hours, or face the consequences. But an itch to know who threatens him provokes Corchado, Mexican-born and a naturalized U.S. citizen, to scratch around for an explanation. He delays calls for his immediate withdrawal to the U.S., a place of relative safety so he can investigate if it’s the drug cartels, the government, or both, who might want him dead for his reportage. It takes several years told over the course of the book for Corchado to confirm the threat’s origins. He reveals he did not abandon Mexico because he loves it, seeing promise even though he has to recognize its danger.9781594204395_custom-2c4321d6765987a294794b0a3f01fb44185a894e-s15

Corchado interweaves his lengthier personal and professional story through the looming episode of his threatened assassination: born in 1953, taking American citizenship after his family traveled to California for grueling farm work; a high school dropout who became a talented university-trained, and highly regarded foreign correspondent. His decision to return to Mexico angered his worried family, but it allowed him to break news stories, survive the daily grind, and eventually find himself at home in his native country. His trajectory covers both sides of Mexico’s democratic divide – he welcomed with joyful expectation the fall in 2000 of the PRI (the authoritarian party that governed for most of the twentieth century). But within the decade he watched as corruption and violence renewed their force even under the interregnum of their democratic successors the PAN, occupiers of the presidency from 2000 to 2012. The book is an intimate account of a life spent observing political, social, and economic forces at work within Mexico and between the U.S.

Corchado describes the pitfalls of loving a turbulent country that he cherishes for its promise. He knows that hope is a tall order: after 2000’s democratic expectations evaporated during the Fox Presidency, by 2006 the subsequent PAN president plunged the country into war against the drug cartels. In Felipe Calderón’s drug war, as some critics refer to the conflict Fox’s successor started, homicides soared to 100,000 people, and 25,000 more disappeared without trace. The Mexican state is so weak that for years its impunity rating has hovered at around 98 percent, meaning only two percent of crimes are punished. Corchado tells the reader these facts in a light prose, and narrates the deflation of democracy’s hope with deft aplomb, marking the rising tide of violence as the government battled against organized crime.

His careful reporting captures events along the border, of natural interest for a foreign correspondent from a Texas newspaper. He does not fail to mention the extent of the violence in El Paso’s neighbor, Ciudad Juárez, a Mexican city infamous for an epidemic of killings, including hundreds of young women. At one time in his life, Corchado called Juárez home, and he still has family members there. Juárez started to slip in the early 1990s, coinciding with Corchado’s initiation as a full time foreign correspondent based in Mexico City. The decay in Juárez progressed over twenty years, and when his uncle dies one day in the city of a heart attack, it is impossible to store his body in the chilled yet overloaded morgue. Corchado writes that death in Juárez had become so endemic that when his uncle collapsed getting off a city bus, almost everybody failed to offer help. By this point in the book, so late in a story of frightening threats and failed promises, Corchado writes that he was so numb from his experiences living and reporting in Mexico that he could not cry over his much-loved uncle’s death.

Investigative reporting is one of Mexico’s most dangerous professions. In the past decade, scores of Mexican and a few U.S. print and photojournalists have died or disappeared covering their beat. Mexican newspaper offices are often targets of physical violence, especially in border towns. Convictions fail or are uncertain in almost every case threatening freedom of expression in Mexico. Corchado’s memoir of how Mexico’s powerful – corrupt politicians and craven drug kingpins – impose violence upon its truth seekers and tellers is a triple whammy: a personal thriller within a professional memoir within a recent national history. Corchado’s accessible literary style conveys contemporary Mexico’s pain and joy, offering a narrative panorama of a country bewildering those who wonder why any reporter with a U.S. passport would choose Mexico as their beat. His answer? It is a way to fulfill Mexico’s promise by staring down its threat in what is simultaneously his native and foreign country. This dual capacity makes Corchado an effective interlocutor between countries and an accomplished foreign correspondent.

Globally the foreign correspondent has become an endangered species. Correspondents die in international and non-international armed conflicts, while in more sedate environments publishers decimate news bureaus citing declining ad revenues. Latin America’s most prominent foreign correspondents are now dilettantes who circulate through its capital cities to report on multi-country beats, with few in command of specific subject areas. An almost extinct relict of the pre-internet news era is the nationally based foreign correspondent, the expert in its local affairs, and global politics, each informed by an eye to the country’s history. Corchado’s narration of his resumé is a case in point. When Corchado went to work twenty years ago in the Mexico City bureau of the Dallas Morning News, he joined a team of twelve reporters who covered various beats important to the U.S. and Mexico: the Borderlands, immigration, finance, politics, tourism, drugs, and corruption. Today, twenty years into neoliberal restructuring of Mexico’s markets, and the past decade’s shift to online news, Corchado works alone at his paper’s bureau. The News is unusual because most U.S. papers have turned to freelancers or the wire services for stories once reported by salaried journalists like Corchado, skilled in applying the knowledge of the country of their posting. The book could have carried an alternative subtitle: the final testimony of one of the last of Mexico’s U.S. foreign correspondents.

Remarkably, Corchado has lasted for two decades in one bureau with one newspaper – but he has endured, in part, because of the nuanced way he treats his sources. In the face of threats that would see him off or finish him for good, it is commendable that he has kept his sense of humor – again a quality that appeals to his sources, many of whom he has known for years. Parts of the book are extremely funny but Corchado never takes his eye from the tension underlying the country’s and his personal dilemmas, adroitly avoiding the woe common to stories of drug war Mexico, overwrought with emotive, outraged declaratory prose about the victims of its unbridled violence. In fact, one of the book’s subtle and as-yet-overlooked revelations is that the U.S. Ambassador to Mexico in 2006, Tony Garza, brokered the deal between Presidents Bush and Calderón, before the latter formally entered office, to result in the billion-dollar Plan Mérida security partnership, an initiative to attack organized crime. In Corchado’s account, Garza seems to have been indispensable to bringing the two presidents together over security policy. Nobody saw the carnage Mérida would wreak. But many will object to Garza’s praetorian involvement as U.S. Ambassador and will be angered by the northern neighbor’s arrogant, overbearing influence.

Corchado reveals these details behind Mérida as matter of fact, and without moralistic commentary. Human rights activists and experts have labeled Mérida a public policy disaster, a transnational security plan backed by the U.S. that emboldened a poorly trained Mexican military in its violent confrontation with the cartels. Mérida heightened the war’s viciousness with each victim of violence undermining Mexico’s newly minted democratic credentials. Corchado demonstrates that neither Garza, Bush, Calderón, and the State Department’s Roberta Jacobson (another Mérida booster) seems to have contemplated the possibility of the ensuing violence. Instead, Mérida fueled the drug war that created more than a hundred thousand (mostly) civilian victims. In an already tense book he offers a chilling peek behind the veil of diplomatic strategy.

Corchado does not feature as a victim of events: while the News drained the bureau of his colleagues, the lonesome Corchado’s beat changed exclusively to covering the violence of the drug war, culminating in the tidal waves of Mérida violence. It is not that he embraced covering stories of drugs and corruption – his father warned him not to touch these subjects when in 1994 he left the U.S. for Mexico – but Corchado’s significant leads, his cultivation of his sources, meant that he could not obey his father. In 2007 he received his fourth threat, and as before, continued reporting.

A witness to Mexico’s violence – what the book’s subtitle refers to as its “descent into darkness” – the reporter relates a dramatic trajectory that spans authoritarianism in the 1990s to democracy in the early 2000s. The book ends in 2012 with the recent return of the PRI, the old authoritarian party, whose leaders still promise democracy but deliver something more sinister: democratic authoritarianism marked by ignoring human rights violations. The story of these changes, and how one journalist breaks the professional taboo of becoming the center of the story – the target of not one but four destabilizing threats – reveals why financial cost is not the only reason media outlets pull foreign correspondents from Mexico.

Threatening intimations of death make for a good read, and Corchado’s story makes for great literature. Beneath the drama of the four threats, Corchado spins a richly textured narrative of his family’s flight in the 1960s from Mexico to a better life in the U.S., first as agricultural workers in Southern California, then as restaurant owners in West Texas. His mother vows never to return to Mexico after the drowning death of his younger sister in the family’s hometown of San Luis de Cordero in the northern state of Durango: she forced her family to abandon a country she felt had already deserted her. Corchado’s prodigal return to report on his native country in 1994 anchors the book. He disobeyed his mother’s advice, an act revealing the reporter’s love for his native land.

Sententiousness could rule this exposition, but instead Corchado offers ironic episodes and loving vignettes about Mexican music, food, drink, and daily life. These descriptions bring respite from the unrelenting closeness of his personal drama. The funniest sequence in the book comes at its end: in 2012 he takes his parents on a trip back to central Mexico from their home in El Paso, Texas. A Mexican transit cop pulls the family’s car over as they head south, breaking speed limits. Corchado wriggles from the patrolman’s power by telling him he is a reporter bringing his Mexican immigrant parents back from the U.S. to find out if the country has improved. The patrolman lets them continue, but warns them to stop only after they cross state lines. Corchado’s style is totally deadpan: he makes you think that he can talk his way out of anything, even a death threat. Comfort comes also from the snippets of the songs he listened to, usually Mexican classics like Juan Gabriel, Javier Solís, and Joan Sebastian. The musical references and Corchado’s repeated expressions of his love of fine sipping tequilas humanize the book’s immense literary appeal.

The book’s richness comes from Corchado’s elegant telling of the local experiences and global factors that influenced the familial and professional migrations – with the threats upon him provoking the reader to wonder why a foreign correspondent would want to live in and cover Mexico. Corchado’s story shows that plenty of journalists report about Mexico from remote locations. He nearly became one of them: that severe fourth threat, occurring in 2007, almost drove him from Mexico for good. For a year he took up a fellowship at Harvard, distancing himself even from his family, whom he thinks he let down, exposing them to danger. His loved ones include Angela Kocherga, a television reporter working on the US-Mexico border and Mexico City, a formidable talent in her own right, and Corchado’s significant other for many years. Corchado’s telling of the story often puts Kocherga with him in the foreground, completing their professional tasks but struggling with their romance as the threats mounted: they accompanied each other on the same stories, with her shooting for TV and him writing for print journalism. In Mexico City they share an office, and she faces being a target, too.

Death looms towards Corchado in 2007. He could have fled on the first U.S.-bound plane leaving the country. But Corchado disregards Kocherga’s and almost everybody else’s advice to leave. He hunkers down, and reaches out to his informants. Over the course of a week he travels the country to investigate who wants him dead. The answers sow confusion and clarity, involving the reader in a compelling drama with limited resolution, oscillating between organized crime and the government, with these powerful groups often one and the same. This tale doesn’t unravel but wind upon itself: in the end he finds that his central source, the U.S. government investigator, has fed the reporter leads in order to communicate with the drug cartels. Mexico is at midnight, after all, and, native-born Corchado, fluent in his country’s experiences and conversant with its historical memory, understands that uncertainties abound, threatening and promising in equal measure. Hidden interests suggest a national conspiracy to stifle truths reported by journalists. Midnight in Mexico is a bold, captivating description of a country that always manages to seem to match its promise with threat, balancing these on the backs of its endangered investigative reporters.

It obviously won’t spoil the book to say that Alfredo Corchado is still alive, reporting groundbreaking stories about Mexican matters. He hasn’t given up on Mexico. This isn’t a posthumous testimony, neither for Corchado’s life, nor his reportage. Which means to say: the threats did not succeed and Corchado is still a journalist for the News. There’s promise and hope in being able to write that, evidence of commendable support from his newspaper keeping him in Mexico, a country of still too many unreported truths and ignored intimate experiences of violence.

Patrick Timmons is a writer, human rights journalist, and language teacher with a PhD (2004) in Latin American History from the University of Texas at Austin. From 2011 to 2012 he was the Human Rights, Migration, and Security Policy Officer at the British Embassy in Mexico City where he reported for the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office on a wave of killings of journalists in the Mexican Gulf state of Veracruz. He is finishing his first book Plucking the Plumed Serpent: A Memoir of Madness and Sensibility in North America. He divides his time between Mexico City and Colchester, England.