As drug cartel and gang violence escalates, Mexico is becoming one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a journalist. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) says more than thirty journalists and media workers have been murdered or have disappeared from Mexico since December 2006. Last year, El Diario de Juárez published a desperate front-page editorial asking the cartels, “What do you want from us?” CJR assistant editor Lauren Kirchner spoke with Alfredo Corchado, foreign correspondent in Mexico for The Dallas Morning News, who recently accepted the 2010 Lovejoy Award from Colby College for courage and excellence in journalism. This is an edited transcript of their conversation.

How did you first get started in journalism?

I was really struck by something when I was working in the fields with my parents at age thirteen. This was at a time when there was an ordnance that you couldn’t be underage and in the field full-time. So my parents would put this big shirt on me and try to make me look older. Once, there was a TV crew that came out to do a story on underage workers. My parents didn’t want to be seen to be breaking the law; we were fairly new arrivals to the U.S. But when they came up to me and asked me how old I was, I was very blunt, and just said thirteen. Bam! My parents were scared out of their minds; they thought we were going to be deported or something. But it awoke something in me, like, “Wow, these guys wanted to give me a voice.” That was important. But it’s kind of complicated because two years later I dropped out of high school. I never thought I would go to any kind of higher education, or pursue any kind of career, whether journalism or anything else. But eventually I moved from California to El Paso and ended up in community college. I ended up joining the newspaper as a gopher for extra credit. It was never really with the thought that this was going to be a career. It was more just fun.

When did you realize that you wanted to go down to Mexico to report, as a professional journalist? Did you always have that in the back of your mind that you wanted to work down there, or did an assignment just land on your desk?

It really happened from day one; from the moment I joined a newspaper at the community college. I sat down with my adviser and he said that I should be a diplomat or a journalist. I had taken an aptitude test, and it said that I had an affinity for words and languages. He said that if I liked journalism, there was the possibility that I could be a foreign correspondent. Just the idea of returning to my homeland—I was born in Mexico, I left at the age six—was really inspiring. I said, “You mean people would actually pay me to go home to Mexico and report?” That kind of stayed with me.

My first internship was at the El Paso Herald-Post, and on my first day at the job, I came in and told the editor—I don’t know what I was thinking at the time, I was just so cocky, it was me and a colleague at the time, a photographer, we were right out of college—“You know, we think we can do a better job in Mexico. Just give us a chance; you don’t even need to pay us or anything, just give us a chance.” Obviously, he didn’t send us to Mexico, but he said, “Okay, we’ll do some border stuff, and let’s see what you can do.”

Covering the border, these stories in Ciudad Juárez at the time, was really inspiring. But also at that time—we’re talking about the early 1980s—Mexico was beginning the whole fight for democracy, the democratic movement in Chihuahua. You were thrown in to a situation where people were fighting to make change. You had the turmoil in Mexico, you had the childhood thing where you wanted to kind of go back to your roots, language, and culture—it was a myriad of factors for me. Ironically, when I told my parents that I wanted to be a journalist, and I wanted to go cover Mexico, their only rule for me was, “As long as you don’t cover drug trafficking, we’re fine.”

When you’re reporting on drug cartels, how do you get and protect sources?

Lauren Kirchner is a freelance writer covering digital security for CJR. Find her on Twitter at @lkirchner