Drugs, Immigration and Juan Gabriel

A REVIEW BY MARCELA TURATI

Midnight in Mexico: A Reporter’s Journey Through a Country’s Descent into Darkness 
By Alfredo Corchado 
Penguin Press, 2013, 304 pages

In Mexico, the tradition goes, your heart will always remain where your umbilical cord was buried. This place will always be your magnetic pole. Your safe-haven. Your home. As far away as you may go, you will always return to that place.

Sometimes a blessing and other times a dangerous curse, this belief helps drive the well-known and courageous Mexican-American reporter Alfredo Corchado, who has covered Mexico for The Dallas Morning News for almost twenty years. This man bears the tattoo of Mexico on his soul ever since lack of opportunity led his family to migrate north to work in the harvests. Corchado—whose umbilical cord is indeed buried in Mexico—is deeply rooted in the country; and that attachment keeps him at his job even after warnings that he could be the next target for a dangerous group of drug traffickers angry with his journalistic revelations.

Corchado begins Midnight in Mexico by describing this threat. This is not simply one more book of the many that have been written about drug trafficking; it is the story of the spell cast over this persistent journalist who is obsessed with investigating, understanding and publishing stories about what is going on in his birthplace, always hoping that the country will get on the right track. But his exhaustive reporting leads him to encounter rotting structures of extreme corruption, poverty and impunity and to come face-to-face with the entanglements of the complex relations between Mexico and the United States.

As a reader, many times I paused exasperated because I wanted to ask the author, “Aren’t you afraid? Why do you mention the names of relatives and friends? What happens if this book falls into the hands of the enemies who are after you? What if it stirs up old resentments?” Maybe it’s because of my paranoia as a Mexican reporter, perhaps it’s because of our fatalism in the face of the cartels, perhaps because of my own inexperience in covering drug trafficking, but sometimes I feel that Corchado is invoking a curse on himself by recounting what he knows about those that no one dare name.

Yet, he felt—and feels—that he had no other option than to dig deeply into this hell to find explanations. “I had been determined not to focus on drugs or crime but cover other real-life issues: immigration, education, the economy, entertainment. I would try to help bridge my two countries. But we had all unwittingly become crime reporters, covering la nota roja—‘the red note,’ as the beat is known in Mexico,” he explains.

His extensive knowledge of Mexico makes Corchado an excellent guide to this netherworld where legality and illegality coexist. As he observes the scene, he begins to realize—and lets the readers know—about the murderous shadows emerging over time, about the parallel government incubated by the drug market. He offers meaningful explanations about the insistent violence that has overtaken Mexico since 2006 and that never lets up because poor and excluded youth are always ready to seek opportunities by enlisting in these new armies.

Corchado, a 2009 Nieman Fellow 2009 who has won both the Maria Moors Cabot and Lovejoy Awards, introduces us to a cast of characters: politicians who may or may not be dirty, citizens committed to improving their country, migrants who embrace the American dream, U.S. secret agents infiltrated among drug traffickers, journalists who have been silenced, small-scale traffickers, money launderers, lawyers with dubious reputations, U.S. embassy officials and people who are doomed to be assassinated.... 

After receiving a warning that he could be dead within 24 hours, Corchado dwells on his own past and those of his ancestors to try to explain today’s Mexico. We return to the childhood of this migrant worker, who, although in the country legally, always feared being stopped by the immigration authorities. We accompany him through his adolescence on the border as he watches Ciudad Juárez expand with assembly plants that gave work to thousands without providing them with basic services for a dignified life. He later witnesses citizens demonstrating for democracy, the signing of the Free Trade Agreement with the United States, the arrival of the long-announced political transition, disenchantment and the period of the “war on drugs.” He is a first-hand witness to the swelling violence, including the horrific murder of women in Juárez in which he discovers police involvement.

In both Corchado’s life and reporting, the entangled and tense relationship between his homeland and his adopted country is always a co-dependent one of love and hate for many historical reasons: among them, since the beginning of the last century, the U.S. need for cheap farm labor, a fact that benefited the Corchado family. In World War II, the United States also needed to provide morphine to its soldiers and even militarily protected Mexico’s poppy fields, which had a boomerang effect after the prohibition on drugs went into effect with repressive military operations carried out to enforce it—which only resulted in the expansion of drug cartels to other places.

Corchado—honest, brave and sometimes reckless—puts his cards on the table. He tells us about his fears, feelings, doubts, motives and attachments, as well as quite a bit about his journalistic tricks and sources.“I’d told him [a friend] how covering narcos hadn’t become an obsession, but a necessity,” he explains in a chapter in which he questions his addiction to covering the most difficult stories.

When this Durango native discovers information about Mafia-style pacts among drug traffickers or corrupt politicians or police who make up the armed forces for drug cartels, he keeps on asking until the replies he receives could be taken as threats: “Don’t make problems for yourself,” “Be careful,” “Better to forget that” and on and on. He once had to escape hidden in the trunk of a car after he and his girlfriend Angela Kocherga, also a reporter, obtained a film showing hitmen questioning a man about to be executed. Another time, in a Texas bar, he received a warning from a stranger that he shouldn’t snoop around in a place where the drug cartel Zetas could cut off his head.

“You have stopped being a reporter. You are part of the story now. You are so close now that you can’t even distinguish the lines, and it’s putting you and everyone close to you in danger,” Kocherga once complained, worried about his destiny and his stubbornness in refusing to leave Mexico.

The book is also a fascinating lesson in journalism. Corchado leads us through the process of finding information, verifying it, documenting it, developing sources and getting interviews. He shows us how he reports on this underworld where drug traffickers, money launderers, spies, protected witnesses and infiltrated agents all operate clandestinely. And everyone is double-dealing.

As a Mexican journalist, I’m struck by the immunity that a U.S. passport grants foreign journalists. It’s almost totally opposite to the situation of Mexican journalists, where no one cares if we receive threats and no one is about to dash to the rescue either.

Corchado is aware, though, that his U.S. citizenship does not provide blanket protection. The threats lead him to face himself and at several points, he questions the life he has chosen and that which he could have led. If he is endangering his own family, his loved ones, even his sources, he begins to feel toxic. He begins to distrust those around him. Just to know that he is on a hit list makes him feel sad and isolated. But at the same time, he feels that he cannot stop reporting on Mexico because, for him, it is more than just covering the news; it is personal.

“All I know is that I need to find out what’s going on. I need to be sure. Otherwise I will always wonder whether everything I grew up believing is a fucking lie,” he says when asked why he persists.As a Mexican, I am sometimes amazed and sometimes appalled to listen to the U.S. versions of what is happening in my country, and to contrast those statements with the facts that Corchado provides.

Another of the book’s subplots demonstrates how permeable the border is, allowing people, merchandise, drugs, arms and drug traffickers to easily pass from one side to the other. Midnight in Mexico is much more than a mere logbook by a reporter forced by circumstances to cover drug trafficking; it is also the history of a migrant fearful of immigration authorities, a fellow countryman, a pocho, a Mexican-American who belongs to two countries.

The critical look—both an outside gaze and a closeup look—at a Mexico that doesn’t quite manage to get on track is moving and at the same time uncomfortable. We hear these voices, like that of his mother who “In her mind, [knew] life in Mexico was over. Something was wrong—había un mal—in Mexico. Mal, maldición, a damning.”

“Mexico needs time,” her brother would tell Corchado’s mother. She’d respond that the country would empty out if things didn’t change, as she watched other neighbors head north. Juárez, the city that gave them stability and granted their dreams when the family invested their savings in the successful “Freddy’s” café across the border in El Paso embodies this contradiction. The promised land for thousands of workers, a pioneer in the struggle for democracy, an experiment in the Free Trade Agreement between two countries, it also was one of the first communities to face the difficulties of moving between two parallel governments, the legal and the illegal. Now his Ciudad Juárez is a war zone where so many are killed that the morgue runs out of space.

With his gaze trained to see these two worlds, Corchado narrates intimate episodes of the help the United States gave Presidente Felipe Calderón to wage his war on drug traffickers, his meeting with President Bush, agreements between the ambassadors of Mexico and the United States, petitions for arms and aid, and of the conditions imposed on this aid, as well as the guaranteed protection offered to Calderón in exchange for his stance on drugs, a protection which appears continues to this day.

But the symbiotic relationship between the United States and Mexico is not limited to drug politics. Corchado, with longing for his homeland, recreates an atmosphere that blends music, sounds, tastes, tacos, the songs of Juan Gabriel, the shots of tequila, the landscapes and the facts of history that forged the identity of the author.

Midnight in Mexico becomes a journey in search of hopeful change that never arrives. It is a song of nostalgia for the democracy for which many struggled. As the author writes, “This book, Midnight in Mexico, is about searching for a flickering light during the darkest night and believing in the promise of a new day.”

Marcela Turati is a Mexican reporter for Proceso magazine. Turati, who received the Harvard Nieman Foundation’s 2013 Louis M. Lyons Award for Conscience and Integrity is the author of the book Fuego Cruzado: las victimas atrapadas en la guerra del narco (“Crossfire: Victims Trapped in the Narco-War”.) She is also co-founder of Periodistas de a Pie, a network dedicated to training and protecting Mexican journalists.