Border Tales

A Q & A with Alfredo Corchado, Mexico correspondent, about reporting on drug cartels
January 8, 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. In September, El Diario de Juárez published a desperate front-page editorial asking the cartels, “What do you want from us?” 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. A longer version of their conversation can be found here.

What did you make of El Diario de Juárez’s editorial?

People thought, “They’ve thrown in the towel.” But as a border resident, I think we’ve long realized that the cartels are de facto governments. I wanted to believe that the editorial was also asking civil society, “What do you want? What kind of country do you want?” The idealistic part of me is hopeful that society will demand a much better-trained and better-paid press. The federal government denounced the editorial, and said, “We are the government; we are the deciders.” But the CPJ got the government to agree to make it a federal crime to kill a journalist. I think it helped in adding to the pressure on the Mexican government.

Do the risks differ for American and Mexican reporters in Mexico?
I may have been born in Mexico, look and sound like a Mexican, but I have U.S. citizenship. I can call my editor at any point and say, “This situation feels a little iffy, I don’t feel comfortable,” and leave. And if the cartels know that you’re American, they will most likely let you go because they don’t want to bring too much attention to themselves. For a Mexican colleague, it’s very different. Every step you take, every word you say, every photo you take, it’s a life or death decision.

What strategies do Mexican journalists use to get their work done?
They work in pairs or groups—there’s safety in numbers. Then there are some extreme measures. If you’re at the crime scene, you wear a wig or pretend you’re a taco vendor to blend in. But once you make a name for yourself, you almost live in paranoia. I’ve been around journalists in Mexico City and we’ll be having lunch, and they’re just looking around, they’re so nervous the whole time. Others live like hermits.

Do successful journalists try to avoid drawing attention to themselves then?
Yes, especially in the provinces and on the border. There are some areas of Mexico where journalists have more freedom than in others. In Juárez, because it’s so vast, reporters have more freedom to report than in a smaller community where you stick out like a sore thumb. But you’re right: once you make a name for yourself you almost live in paranoia. Then there are others who have made such a name for themselves that, though they’re not invincible, it helps their security situation.

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How do you know which sources to trust?
The number one challenge we face is finding sources. It really comes down to: whom do you trust? It’s kind of the same challenge that the U. S. government or an honest cop in Mexico faces. Then, when you find someone that you feel you can maybe believe, 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. It’s a credit to my editor that he trusts me when I say, “Look, this guy’s legit.” I will vet that person as much as I can, with other colleagues in Mexico, or sources in the U. S. Oftentimes we get burned. I try not to portray people as this or that, because when you cover the border, it’s not black or white, it’s always gray. It’s the underbelly, not just of Mexico, but of both countries.

What are your personal limits? When do you decide it’s too dangerous to proceed on a story?
It depends what day of the week you ask me. Sometimes I wake up in the morning and I just feel so scared, I know that’s the end and I’m not going to cover that story anymore. Then there are days when you’re talking to a victim, and you feel their sense of resiliency and hope, and you think you have to find a way to put a human face on this issue. I don’t know whether it’s the fact that I was born in Mexico, but I do feel a deep sense of responsibility to get the story out, one way or another. So I try not to let fear be the ultimate editor. But I do listen to fear a lot, because I think it can help you stay alive.

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