Book Review: Reporter Seeks Source
When a story presents a mystery and solves it at the end, it’s called a whodunit. Alfredo Corchado’s new journalism memoir, Midnight in Mexico, is a whydunit. And the secret revealed at its conclusion is more compelling than Citizen Kane’s “Rosebud.”
Corchado is the Dallas Morning News bureau chief in Mexico. He covers drug-trafficking-related corruption and violence in that country and, often more tellingly, its roots in this one. In 2004 he was the first major-media reporter to expose the role of a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement informant in helping Mexican cartels commit murders in Ciudad Juarez. Corchado also discovered and reported that the Zetas, a vicious Mexican paramilitary group, were orchestrating major crimes in Texas. For stories like these you need really good sources. Midnight in Mexico begins with one.
It’s late one evening in 2007 in Mexico City when Corchado gets a call from a U.S. government investigator. The Zetas “plan to kill an American journalist in 24 hours,” the investigator warns. “I think it’s you. I’d get out.”
Instead, Corchado remains in Mexico for days, researching the death threat and infuriating his worried partner (herself a reporter). His delay raises the question the rest of the book grapples with: why does he put himself in constant danger to cover the drug war in Mexico—one of the most treacherous countries in the world for reporters?
Inching toward an answer, Corchado detours past the usual cops-and-robbers, guts-and-gore, drug-policy litanies of a literary world clotted with titles like Drug Lord, The Last Narco, Gangland, and Murder City. Like these, Midnight includes data, interviews, political analysis and, yes, gore. But Corchado also explores his deeply personal relationship to the current tragedy unfolding in Mexico. In so doing, he takes readers on the all-American journey of an immigrant child with high hopes for his future in a new country, and terrible regrets about leaving the old one.
“Mexico has never been foreign to me,” Corchado writes. He has lived in the U.S. since he was 6, but was born in a town a few hundred miles south of El Paso, with no paved roads and no opportunity for schooling beyond the sixth grade. During World War II his father worked in the U.S. as a bracero, or contract farm worker. That status enabled the Corchados to immigrate legally when Alfredo was a young child. He left his homeland kicking and screaming, and intent on returning.
The book’s early explanations fail to convince. One is that his umbilical cord was buried in Mexico, and it’s calling him back. Another is that his Uncle Delfino, an inveterate nationalist, inculcated little Alfredo with talk about Mexico’s grandeur and the perfidy of the United States.
But millions of Mexican immigrants have left umbilical cords buried in their tierra natal. It’s a folk tradition. And what Mexican doesn’t have an Uncle Delfino?
Maybe the answer has more to do with Corchado’s early life in America. In the 1980s and 1990s, his parents ran a café in El Paso, three blocks north of Ciudad Juarez. Midnight recounts how friendly, chatty smugglers would leave contraband in the restaurant for safekeeping, and describes one of Corchado’s distant relatives running money for a cartel. Starry-eyed with hope, Corchado’s mother donated food to Mexican democracy protesters conducting a weeks-long sit-in on an international bridge, little knowing that Mexican democracy would soon be stained by horrific violence. Childhood experiences like these are extremely rare among U.S. reporters covering Latin America. They’ve taught Corchado that midnight in Mexico isn’t black—it’s endless shades of gray.
But even darkness has its rewards. Before moving to Texas, the Corchados labored in the fields in California. Once, when Alfredo was 13, a reporter doing a piece on child labor tried to ask him questions. The way he recently told the story to an audience in El Paso, Corchado himself was a child laborer. His mother feared deportation if that fact were revealed, so Corchado pretended he didn’t speak English. The experience prompted him to study journalism. He has long lived and worked in the interstice between fear and inspiration.
Corchado wears a suit these days and keeps a home in an upscale Mexico City neighborhood. He loves Mexico, but he mourns it, and it’s the mourning that’s behind his “why?” The question gets answered as the book wraps up, and I won’t spoil the ending here, but you will shiver when you get there, and you may even weep. Either way, you will understand Corchado’s need to stay in Mexico and his need to bring us stories that we need to read.