behind the news

Border Tales

Full version of the Jan/Feb 2011 magazine Q&A with Alfredo Corchado
January 4, 2011

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.”

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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?

The number one challenge we face is finding sources. It really comes down to, “Who do you trust? Or, can you trust anyone?” I think it’s kind of the same challenge that the U.S. government faces, or that an honest cop in Mexico faces. And when you find someone that you feel you can maybe believe, you ask, how do you protect that person? We’ve had a lot of conversations at The Dallas Morning News about anonymous sources. I think it took a while for them to warm to the idea, to understand the danger of the situation in Mexico. I think it’s a credit to my editor that he trusts and believes me when I say, “Look, this guy’s legit.” I mean, I will vet that person as much as I can, with other colleagues in Mexico, or sources in the U.S. I think we’re always looking for the next Eliot Ness; we’re always looking for that honest cop who’s going to make the difference.

You can’t believe the number of times I miss covering stuff like immigration, or U.S. policy for Cuba or Mexico. When you think of drug trafficking, right away your stomach kind of goes grrrrr—it’s a whole different situation.

There must be very different risks for Mexican journalists than there are for American journalists working temporarily in Mexico.

There’s no comparison. Really, there’s no comparison. I may be Mexican-American, I may have been born in Mexico, look like a Mexican, and sound like a Mexican. But I have U.S. citizenship, and I can call my editor at any point and say, “You know what, this situation feels a little iffy, I don’t feel comfortable.” It’s happened a few times. He’ll say, “Get out of the country now. Get to the airport.” And if the cartels know that you’re an American, they will most likely let you go; they don’t want to bring that much attention to themselves.

For a Mexican colleague, it’s very, very different. Basically, you have to measure every step you take, every word you say, every photo you take; it’s a life or death decision. I don’t know how many times a day I’ve been around colleagues, the kind of wrangling they go through, the personal debates: they tell their wives or their husbands, they examine the situation, blah blah blah. It’s just a completely different situation.

What are the kinds of strategies that Mexican journalists use to get their work done?

Oftentimes they try to work in pairs, or in groups. They feel that there’s safety in numbers. And then there are some extreme measures that we’re seeing more and more of. If you’re at the crime scene, you try and wear a wig, or pretend you’re a taco vendor, to try to blend in and not look like you’re a photographer or a reporter. Often the killer will hang around to make sure the job was done, and if they see someone taking pictures or taking notes, that person may or may not pose a risk by providing leads into the case. Although there’s so much corruption that they may just get away with it—the impunity rate is about ninety-five percent. That’s a 95 percent chance that you’ll never get caught.

Nonetheless, if you think it’s difficult for me to trust someone, it’s much more difficult for them. Once you start talking to someone, whether it’s someone with a uniform, or in a military outfit, or just a regular Joe, that person may be representing a drug cartel. And once you begin associating with that person, you’re basically putting your life on the line because that person may feel he or she owns you.

Another strategy that I’ve seen, especially with my Mexican colleagues, is that they will reach out to the foreign press. They’ll say, “Here’s a story that I have verified, but we can’t run it. You may want to check it out.” It can work both ways: they’ll have to vet it with colleagues, because they may be working for a cartel, and trying to sell you a storyline. So you have to be really careful.

It seems like a journalist working down in Mexico is in a position where they wouldn’t actually want to make a name for themselves, they wouldn’t want to be known as a good investigative journalist, because they wouldn’t want to draw attention to themselves.

Yes, and it’s especially true in the provinces, outside of Mexico City, and on the border. It’s all based on geography. There are some areas of Mexico where journalists have more freedom than they do in others. For instance, in Juárez, because it’s so huge and so vast, reporters surprisingly have more freedom to report than in a smaller community, where everybody knows who you are, and where you stick out like a sore thumb. In Mexico City, I still think you have some very good investigative journalists. But you’re right: once you make a name for yourself you almost live in paranoia. I’ve been around journalists in Mexico City when, we’ll be having lunch, and they’re just looking around, they’re so nervous the whole time. Other people live like hermits; they barely get out. Then there are others who have made such a name for themselves that, though they’re not invincible, it helps their security situation. In the end, if you get that close, if you threaten their pocketbooks so much, there are journalists who have been pulled out, or who have on their own have left. Some have gotten political asylum [in the U.S.]; others have gone to Canada or to Spain. It just depends on how deep you’re getting.

What are your personal limits? When will you say, “I started work on this story, but now I realize it’s not worth it, it’s too dangerous”?

It depends on what day of the week you ask me. There are days when I wake up in the morning, and I just feel so scared, that I know that’s the end, I’m not going to cover that story anymore. And then there are days when you’re talking to a victim, and you feel their sense of resiliency, their courage, their sense of hope, and you think, you have to find a way to put a human face on this issue, otherwise they all become numbers. So you’re constantly balancing the two: the fear versus the total silence. I mean, there are some regions of Mexico that have fallen into silence: you don’t hear much, you don’t see much, you don’t know much. I don’t know whether it’s the fact that I was born in Mexico, but I feel, personally, a deep sense of responsibility to try to get the story out, one way or another.

I do find myself limiting what I can do. But more and more I think it’s gone from the country of my ancestor’s roots, to covering a country at war. You have to think of it that way: in the end this is a war. What’s even worse about that is that it’s not a war of ideology. It’s really a war based on greed. And so it’s really a lot easier for people to kill you, because no information is good information for them. So I try not to let fear be the ultimate editor, but I do listen to fear a lot. I think that factor, the factor of fear, can help you stay alive.

Why do you think cartel violence has gotten so bad lately? Is there any way to analyze the scope of it, the trajectory of it? Can you predict where it will go; is it just going to keep getting worse all the time?

There are generally three factors that tell you why it got worse. One is, in the late eighties and early nineties, when the United States basically ended up blocking the drug trade from Colombia to the United States via the Caribbean and South Florida, the U.S. successfully pushed the flow into Central America and into Mexico. That was a huge policy shift. And then, number two, you had the democratic opening in Mexico in the late nineties and early 2000s, with the election of Vicente Fox, the first opposition government in seventy-one years. That left a political vacuum in Mexico. In the old days, cartels and the government kind of operated side by side: [the cartels] were there, but the government was able to kind of control them, kind of limit what they could and couldn’t do. After 2000, the cartels saw a vacuum, and they basically took over. They took over city governments, they took over police departments, even NGOs and, eventually, the press. And then the last factor, I think, has been the economic recession in the United States. It’s affected Mexico; you almost have a narco-economy. You have all these people who used to have regular jobs, who are now working as watchmen [for the cartels], from the drug carrier to the assassin. It’s like this whole economy has developed.

Unfortunately, I think everybody agrees that things will get worse before they get better. Whenever I talk to Colombians, they depress the hell out of me. They say that things are not as bad in Mexico as they should be, and they will get worse. And until civil society wakes up and decides what kind of Mexico they want to see, you will just see it gradually get worse. I think Juarez is about to set a new record, probably by the end of the week. Last year [the number of homicides] was 2,600, and right now [October 25] we’re up to about 2,590, or something like that, and we’re two months away from the end of the year.

Mexico is our neighbor, but it’s so underreported in the United States. Why is that, and what can the American press do to rectify it?

I think we’re slowly grappling with the significance of what this all means. For the longest time, Mexico was a place you vacationed in; you went to Cancun, you liked the food, you liked the Tequila, you liked the mariachi music. It was just a country, kind of like Canada, it was just there. Now, even when I talk to my colleagues and other foreign correspondents, there’s a new sense of urgency. We’re making the turn, we’re making the change, we’re all adjusting to the fact that this is a country at war.

As foreign correspondents we used to travel all over the country; now we don’t. We’re basically locked up in Mexico City. We get on a plane, we fly in somewhere, we get in, and then we get out.

Mexico doesn’t have a nuclear bomb, and I think that’s one of the big factors. But in terms of security, the issues are slowly creeping into the U.S. side. Editors are beginning to realize that the Mexican border is moving inland to places like Dallas, or even to New York City. Yes, we’ll rightly engage with Pakistan and Afghanistan. But I think there’s a realization that if this thing gets out of hand, it’s going to affect us much more than these other countries ever have or will. If you look at El Paso, just one city, the most conservative figure that we hear is that 30,000 Juarezans have picked up and moved to El Paso. I mean, it’s having a daily impact. And you see that in other cities across the border.

Were you surprised to see the editorial from El Diario de Juárez?

People looked at that and thought, “Wow, my God, they’ve thrown in the white towel, they’re basically saying it’s over.” But as a border resident, I think we’ve long realized that the cartels are de facto governments. They’re side by side. I think El Diario was just stating something that’s already been there for a while.

I wanted to believe that the editorial was also aimed at civil society, asking civil society, “What do you want? What kind of country do you want?” And the idealistic part of me is hopeful that society will demand a much better trained press, a better paid press, and that they will ask much more from these very wealthy media moguls. A lot of times our [Mexican] colleagues are very poorly trained and very poorly paid. It’s almost like having a cop on the street—they are very vulnerable to cartels.

That editorial did get a lot of attention here in the U.S.

That was the genius part of it, yes.

But I haven’t really seen what kind of response they got down in Mexico. What was the reaction down there?

Well, the federal government denounced it immediately and said, “We are the government, we are the deciders, blah blah blah.” And [the editorial] also came as the Committee to Protect Journalists led a delegation into Mexico, and they were able to get the federal government to agree to make it a federal crime to kill a journalist. Which is good, I mean, Mexico has great laws on the books, but they rarely enforce them. I think it helped in adding to the pressure on the Mexican government.

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