Corchado’s Hour Of Darkness

“We realized as reporters that we were as traumatized as a lot of the country,” Alfredo Corchado tells Michelle García in this exclusive interview for the Dart Center from Mexico City. Corchado and García discuss the drug war, most recently chronicled in Corchado's memoir Midnight in Mexico. With an exclusive photo essay by Katie Orlinsky. 

The rains once swept across the desert sky of his childhood home in Durango, they nourished the crops that he picked as a child in California and years later, cleared away the smog that loomed over his home in Mexico City. Rain, writes Alfredo Corchado in his new memoir, heals the spirit, and brings forgiveness. He prayed for rain that day in 2010 when a procession of hearses carrying terribly young bodies made its way down a narrow dirt road in Ciudad Juárez. A few days earlier gunmen had burst into a home in the suburb of Villas de Salvárcar where a birthday party was underway; more than a dozen teenagers were killed.

The hearses advanced and he prayed, coffins loaded up and he prayed. The veteran reporter prayed until, at last, the clouds answered and with the rain streaking down his face, he was free to cry.

“I think that was when I felt the emotions come back,” says Corchado, a longtime Mexico correspondent for The Dallas Morning News. “You felt that anger again and it's almost like that classic Mexican moment when you say, 'a huevo, (f--k yeah) I'm here.' It was like a game changer in feeling that I still belong or that I had a role to play.”

With those rains Corchado reclaimed what he had begun to lose three years earlier, in 2007, when evening showers drenched Mexico City and Corchado received word from a source, a U.S. investigator, that someone had ordered his death.

Corchado's determined effort to uncover who was behind the threat speaks to his decades of experience as a correspondent and forms the narrative premise and propeller of his memoir, Midnight in Mexico; A Reporter's Journey Through A Country's Descent Into Darkness (Penguin Press, 2013). Click here to buy it in hardcover. The paperback will be released May 27. 

But the animating spirit of Corchado's book lies in his unflinching self-examination. With an unassuming tone and unsparing honesty, Corchado seizes on themes of fear, trust and betrayal to produce a vivid portrait of a society unraveling—and the toll it takes on his spirit and humanity.

Corchado describes traveling to Juárez to bury his beloved uncle Delfino who died steps from his home from a heart attack. “I spotted a maggot nibbling on his neck,” he writes. “I stood there and tried crying. But I couldn't. I had become numb.”

Katie Orlinsky / A young boy in Mexico's first "drug war refugee camp" in Miguel Aleman, 2010. 

By offering readers a deep look into his interior world, Corchado illuminates the complex forces at work in Mexico´s “descent into darkness.” He focuses squarely on the fallout from Mexico´s transition from an autocratic government to a fledgling democracy, which destabilized power structures among organized crime groups.

He trades the gore that has dominated headlines about Mexico to concentrate on political machinations, corruption and manipulation, underpinning forces of a violence often reduced to the simplistic term, “drug war.”

I spoke with Alfredo Corchado at a cafe near his home in Mexico City.

Michelle García: You mentioned that when it started to rain, you started to cry.

Alfredo Corchado: It's so ingrained in my mind. You have this one street and you have a whole caravan of hearses, black. It was six or seven in this one little street and they all pull up. And you go to these little houses with very tiny, little living rooms. In the one I went to, there were two caskets, just the wailing, the crying. And then you see these politicians arriving in their big vans to express their condolences and you think about all the hypocrisy. All I kept thinking was damn, I hope it rains, I hope it rains.

Following the massacre of the teenagers, President Felipe Calderon immediately responded by suggesting the Villas de Salvárcar massacre was gang related and that teenagers, honor students, and athletes were involved in criminal activity. He later apologized.

MG: In the Villas de Salvárcar era there was so many attempts to draw lines among narcos and the Mexican government, which with U.S. help, was fighting to put them down. The reality has been much more complex.

AC: A lot of grey areas.

Katie Orlinsky / The military outside a club in Miguel Aleman.

MG: You already have the emotions but how do you position that grief within a very nebulous area when your readers are going to think: “drug war.”

AC: It was very clear from the beginning I had to convey to readers that this was not black and white this was not good guys vs. bad guys. This was in many ways a war within itself within the government itself, within society itself. That even on the U.S. side you have to be very skeptical of every side.

On the Mexican side you learn to try to find the humanity without looking for the good guys or the bad guys, and try to explain that ambivalence to your readers. It's very difficult to do in today's journalism.

After Corchado receives the threat, he describes a scene with Angela Korchega, his longtime partner and a journalist, which quickly establishes the themes that unfold in Midnight in Mexico. Corchado says he will stay on in Mexico to hunt down the source of the threat against him. Korchega admonishes him by saying: “How can you follow a story—how can you expect to get at the truth—when you can't trust anyone?” As she prepares to leave she tells him, “Don’t be afraid of being scared. A little bit of fear is a good thing these days. Be fearful of not being alive. That also takes courage."

MG: Why did the fear become strength?

AC: The last threat wasn't the first; obviously there had been others. I think there was a part of me that didn't want to go there. I didn't want to have that touchy-feely moment. I don't know if it's a product of who I am or what it is. Angela tried to really put that in me. She would remind me to embrace the fear; it's ok to be afraid. I would say, ok, fine. But I didn't really, really feel it.

In 2008, the year after receiving the threat, Corchado received a Neiman fellowship at Harvard University and then returned to Mexico and began working on Midnight in Mexico.

MG: Were there certain things you did to take care of yourself?

AC: I think that's the worst thing. The Nieman year was good and being with the Dart people helped me. In the end, I think we realized that as reporters we were just as traumatized as the rest of the country, and to this day, I don't think a lot of us have really dealt with that. This may sound odd, but I have tried not to read certain passages of the book because I know it takes me back and it's almost like you want to move forward. So I think the only thing we've done, and I don't advocate this, is we started drinking like hell. Tequila became our savior in many ways. I think this may be the most I've talked about this in a long time.

Katie Orlinsky / A crime scene in Juarez.

MG: The element of fear and your honesty about it gives the entire book a sense of vividness. Obviously there have been many books about the violence in Mexico and, in most cases, the author does not talk about that. Fear made people real, it made you real.

AC: I really feel that writing the book was like therapy for me. In fact, now that I'm doing the book promotion I miss that intimacy, I miss that moment when it's just you and your computer and your music and a tequilita. I think a lot about the whole intimacy of it — pouring my emotion into saying how I feel.

One of the most compelling incidents occurs in Laredo Texas when he arrives at a restaurant with two journalists, Ramón Cantu Deándar and Cecilia Balli. A man walked by their table, looked at Corchado and pointed his finger “as though he was cocking a gun.” Balli insisted they leave but Corchado refused, a decision he immediately regretted.

MG: You were so honest about mistakes you made, mistakes in judgment. You didn't listen to people. You are very honest about your thought process and that you're wrong. Why was it important, or was it, to put yourself out there not as someone who has it all down?

AC: I'm not much of a Catholic, even though my family is. I really think the book was not just therapy; it was a confession. It was Monday morning quarterback. I was always mindful of bringing myself to that moment: What happened? What was going through my mind? What was I right about, what was I wrong about? There were a lot of mistakes and I thought it was important not just for me to learn from my mistakes but hopefully for others to learn from them too.

In another incident in Laredo Texas, Corchado spots the “moneyman” for the Gulf Cartel and Zetas, who is responsible for handing out bribes, and he is dining with American officials. He is later told that they were gathering intelligence.

MG: At that time and the years that followed, the violence was being reported in a way that seemed to reinforce this line. You saw it in El Paso/Juarez: how could it be that the safest place in the United States is across from the most dangerous place, that there is this line that you completely obliterate. In other instances you are with high-level officials and you seem to hint that everybody is complicit to something unseemly.

AC: There were times when I would look at certain people and kinda just come to terms with: how can you be so naïve? How can you believe so much when the corruption really goes back and forth? There were a lot of times you just wanted to walk away and hide and not trust either side. I think one of the most difficult parts of this book was learning to trust. It's almost like a relationship where every now and then te marean (make you crazy) and you have to find a way to trust again.

In the summer of 2012 Corchado meets with the source, the “U.S. investigator,” who had tipped him off about the threat years earlier. Initially the explanation seems clear that the Zetas were behind the threat but in a perfect fitting to a narrative rich in nuance that spares no easy answers, Corchado discovers that he had been the pawn of his trusted source and the Zeta leader Miguel Trevino Morales aka Zeta 40.

“So this whole time — all the tips you gave me, all the stories — I was really your mouthpiece? Your way of communicating with Forty,” he says to the investigator.

MG: Even at the end of the book, you talk about — I got played. We (journalists) don't talk about that. You got played by one of the “good guys” and you put it out there.

AC: I put it out there but also to credit them. There were a lot of these moments when they knew we were on the record, when they knew I was taking my notes down and they were very honest moments... It was important to see how people also wanted the story out and they were also going after the same thing I was, which was: Let's just be honest about the whole damn thing; This person (the investigator) was admitting: you know what, we were wrong. We thought we were going to come in and transform this country. I felt like all that was incredible honesty.

It's almost like a human condition: you want to believe and you're out there putting everything on the table. Forget the book. It's really about believing in that person in front of you ponerle todo, (give it all). But it's no longer about a reporter it's about a human being—crees o no crees (you believe or you don´t.)

Katie Orlinsky / A body is unloaded at a morgue in Acapulco.

MG: if you cant trust the people closest to, once you lose that, you’ve lost it all.

AC: When you're talking about a story this complicated and a story this dangerous, there were many, many times when it was just you and that source. And it's like, you're in the most vulnerable moment, where, if someone wanted to disappear you, if someone wanted to do something else they could at that moment. But I think it was important to prove to myself that I can still trust someone, that I can still believe in someone.

MG: Women play a dramatic and significant role. In a lot of articles and books, women are the grieving mothers, the whores, the narco girlfriends, the hapless peasant in Sinaloa or somewhere. Not in this book.

AC: I didn't deliberately say I need a strong woman figure. As the editors started reading toward the end, they pointed that out. I started wondering, why am I doing that, and the only conclusion I could come up with was that I think the women are the ones who have provided the most hope for me. When you look at Ciudad Juárez, for example, the bread and butter of everyday there were alto of women covering Juárez. When I look at the mothers, I don't see these victims, I see people saying, “Fuck it, enough is enough.” And, when I look at Villas de Salvárcar, it was these women that really gave me life again and that was very important.

MG: Do you think there is a pressure on male journalists to come off a certain way?

AC: As tougher? I certainly felt that pressure. When Angela would say "embrace fear" I would say that's not who I am but I have learned to do it. And I think it has made me a better journalist in some ways and I think I have seen that in some male journalists, though not all.

MG: Where does it come from?

AC: Probably inside me. It probably goes back to being a kid. I'm the oldest of nine, seven of us are male, and there was always pressure for me to show them the way, to be the leader, to take the rest of the brothers and show them the light. I think that was part of it and part of it was I'm an American journalist; of course I can do things you can't do. It was this whole mixed bag that comes with it.

MG: Do you find yourself moved by very subtle things now?

AC: Yesterday I was in the Estado de Mexico, (the state of Mexico, which surrounds Mexico City). We were looking at young people who were affected by violence. The day before we were looking at unaccompanied minors coming from Central America and you hear their stories and right away you feel choked up -- that's something that didn't happen before. You always feel you were trained as reporter but you realize no one really trained you for this. You were trained to listen and analyze stories but we weren't trained to deal with our emotions and I think that has been the most difficult part over these last few years in Mexico.

Billy Calzada / Alfredo Corchado, then of the El Paso Herald-Post, covers a PRI rally in Juarez, 1986.