World Views
7:34 am
Wed December 4, 2013

Reporting Mexico’s Drug War From Oaxaca To Oklahoma

Reporter and author Alfredo Corchado covers a political rally in the border city of Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, in 1986.
Credit Billy Calzada
Listen to Suzette Grillot's conversation with Alfredo Corchado.

Alfredo Corchado has spent nearly 20 years covering his native country as the Mexico bureau chief for The Dallas Morning News.

Alfredo Corchado at his grandmother's house in his native Mexico.
Credit Provided / Alfredo Corchado

From first reporting on government protests in Ciudad Juárez in the mid-80s, through five presidential administrations and a violent drug war with no end in sight, he says he’s always left with the fact that it’s not enough.

The 2000 election of President Vicente Fox ended the 71-year rule of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (Partido Revolucionario Institucional, or PRI), and Corchado says so did Mexico’s traditionally-centralized government.

“Suddenly the decisions ended up at the statewide level,” Corchado says. “And that, I think, is what led to the drug war… the referee was gone, if you will.”

Since former President Felipe Calderón's 2006 election, government documents analyzed by the Washington Post estimate more than 100,000 people are dead or missing as a result of Mexico’s drug war:

The names on the list — many more than in previous, nongovernment estimates — are recorded in Microsoft Excel columns, along with the dates they disappeared, their ages, the clothes they were wearing, their jobs and a few brief, often chilling, details:

“His wife went to buy medicine and disappeared,” reads one typical entry.

“The son was addicted to drugs.”

“Her daughter was forced into a car.”

“The father was arrested by men wearing uniforms and never seen again.”

“There’s a real attempt by journalists, by civil society, to hold people accountable,” Corchado says. “The word ‘accountability’ is something that really didn’t exist. So it’s happening.”

Corchado documented his career in his memoir Midnight in Mexico. The title was inspired by the night a U.S. source told him he was on a cartel list of three American journalists who could possibility be assassinated within 24 hours.

“To me, it was the longest night, and I kept wondering, ‘Is it time for me to leave? Is it time for me to give up on this dream of coming back to Mexico and just get back to the States?’,” Corchado says. “And I think during the longest night, the darkest night, all you're left with is the promise, or the belief in the promise, of a new day.”

The veteran journalist says the drug war makes him wonder how long the country can withstand the violence and impunity. But he says in the worst of times in Mexico, he’s encountered the best of Mexicans.

“I think you’re seeing a very resilient Mexican population trying to build community, trying to create some kind of rule of law or strong institutions,” Corchado says. “It’s not going to happen overnight. Some sources tell me it could take 10-20 years. You might not even be alive to see it, but it’s headed in a different direction. And in that sense, in the long term, I remain an optimist.”

WEB EXCLUSIVE: Listen to Alfredo Corchado describe his 'idyllic' childhood in Mexico.

INTERVIEW HIGHLIGHTS

On how covering Mexico’s drug war brought him to Central Oklahoma

This was by far the most fascinating story. In a time when journalism is asking us to localize more, and make sure that our stories resonate more, it was actually back in 2005 or so that we discovered that there was a strong connection between Nuevo Laredo and the Zetas - this is a paramilitary group in Mexico - and North Texas. The person who later became the leader of the Zetas actually came of age as a criminal in North Texas. So there was this strong I-35 connection. Last year, that connection extended even further North on I-35 into the town of Lexington, Oklahoma, and that's where you found something like 400 horses being trained, being taken care of by the brother of the leader of the Zetas, José Treviño Morales. We later discovered during court records and court proceedings in Austin, Texas this spring that the Zetas were financing, I mean this was a way to money launder. Horse racing is a big tradition in Mexico, but it's also a way to money launder. So we go into Lexington, and we see all these beautiful horses running around. I think many of them are now under the protection of the U.S. government.

On what can realistically be done to end the drug violence

It would be a dream if all of a sudden Americans stopped consuming drugs. It would be a dream if Americans stopped sending guns to Mexico. But that's not going to happen. I think Mexicans have come to that realization - that it's not going to be a question of legalization. It's not going to be a question of Americans stopping using guns or sending guns. I think in the end, and more and more you see this from Mexicans themselves, they feel like they have to do a lot more on their part to try to build up their institutions. I think they need a lot more help from the U.S. side. Not just the government, but communities. Mexico right now is in transition. Mexico is trying to learn from the pitfalls, the ups and downs of democracy. Oftentimes you ask Mexicans 'What do you want from the United States?' They say 'We want a lot more guidance. A lot more help.' And at some level, the U.S. government is helping communities build stronger relations with the local police departments and so forth. A way to build communities, a way to strengthen civil society.

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FULL TRANSCRIPT

SUZETTE GRILLOT, HOST: Alfredo Corchado, welcome to World Views.

ALFREDO CORCHADO: My pleasure to be here, Suzette.

GRILLOT: Well, Alfredo, you have a very interesting background as a journalist, and the work that you've done in Mexico and on the U.S.-Mexican border regarding violence and the drug trade. But tell us, if you can, a little bit about your background and where you come from, and how you ended up working in this field. What brought you to the field of journalism?

CORCHADO: I started covering what, to me, felt like a social movement right across the border from El Paso, Texas in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, and this was the first protest demanding a more open government back in the mid-80s. And I guess the American idealist in me - I would say I have an American mind and a Mexican heart - but I think the American idealist thought, 'Wow, this is the beginning of change in Mexico.' And that really was what created all this passion. This is what I want to do, so I graduated from college and ended up in Mexico. And I've spent more than 25 years covering it, more than five administrations, but you're always left with [the fact that] it's not enough. Mexico I think, oftentimes, takes one step forward and three steps back. You just keep going and oftentimes people say, 'Well, when are you going to throw your hands up in the air and say it's over?' In the end, you either believe or you don't, and I continue to believe.

GRILLOT: So just to be clear, we all hear in the news about the trouble that is occurring in Mexico, and particularly around the border in Juárez, and elsewhere. But the tremendous violence. The drug gangs, the drug trafficking. It's really horrible what we hear in the news, and as someone who does not spend time like you do on the border and in the country of Mexico, how are we to make sense of this? Are you making any sense of this? Can you explain what's going on there? Can you help us understand it?

CORCHADO: Sure. In a way, when I left for Mexico, first of all I promised my parents I would never cover drug traffickers. My father would always say they're vicious people. They don't understand the word forgiveness - 'perdón'.

GRILLOT: So much for that promise, right?

CORCHADO: Right. But it's also a reflection of two things. One: journalism. We went from a 12-person bureau to a one-person bureau, so suddenly I had no choice. And second of all, during the democratic transition, if you will, in Mexico from a 71-year-old ruling party to the first opposition party in Mexico, you had what was traditionally a centralized government, where all decisions were made centrally, suddenly the decisions ended up at the statewide level. And that, I think, is what led to the drug war. Where suddenly drug traffickers - the referee was gone, if you will. So you had to negotiate with every state governor.

GRILLOT: So it was a breakdown in central governance, then?

CORCHADO: Exactly. So suddenly you had violence erupt in different parts of the country. Primarily at the beginning in the northern states. As you said, Ciudad Juárez, Nuevo Laredo right across from Laredo, Texas. Here we are six years later, since former President [Felipe] Calderón declared war on the drug cartels, 100,000 people dead or missing. Among them more than 60 journalists. What's even sadder and more horrible is that the impunity rate is over 95 percent. So it's something that gives anyone on either side of the border pause. And it makes you wonder how long can Mexico and Mexicans take this? But yet at the same time, I think during the worst of times in Mexico you've also seen the best of Mexicans. I think you're seeing a very resilient Mexican population trying to build community. Trying to create some kind of rule of law or strong institutions. It's not going to happen overnight. It's not going to take five years. Some sources tell me it could take 10-20 years. You might not even be alive to see it, but it's headed in a different direction. And in that sense, in the long term, I remain an optimist.

GRILLOT: Well that's pretty remarkable given, I think, what we hear in the news, but it sounds like...you mentioned reporting on Mexico with hope and dread. Clearly this is what we dread to see, the violence and the breakdown. But it sounds like you have some hope as well that there's some community that's coming out of this. And that's what we don't see in the news. Tell us a little bit more about that.

CORCHADO: You know I think for decades, if not since the beginning of Mexico, there's always been a paternalistic pattern where Mexicans kind of depend on whatever the government has for them for their own needs. But I think in some ways the drug war has brought Mexicans together in some way. The rich, the middle class, the poor, because everybody's been affected by the violence. Some people have left Mexico. Many people, especially in the middle class, have left. Many of them don't want to go back. But I think those who are staying are really questioning the government. I always tell people one of my favorite times of the day is in the morning when you actually listen to the radio, and you're reading the paper. There's a real attempt, at least in the 20 years that I've been there, a real attempt by journalists, by civil society, to hold people accountable. The word 'accountability' is something that really didn't exist. So it's happening. It's not leaps and bounds, and often times you're there in the morning, and it feels like, 'Wait a minute. It looks like we're going back.' I think it’s just a normal process of democracy.

GRILLOT: Well, let's move to your book, Midnight in Mexico. As I listen to you tell these stories, it's so fascinating to hear what you’ve done, but it's also quite dangerous, what you've done. And that is spending a lot of time in these dangerous areas and reporting so that we know what's going on in these parts of the world. Journalists like yourself and others that put themselves often in harm's way in order to report to us what's really happening on the ground. Tell us a little bit about that, and how that experience differs from others who are reporting on these issues, perhaps Mexican journalists that are reporting on these issues.

CORCHADO: Midnight in Mexico - some people ask me, well, that's a gloom-and-doom title. And I say no, the idea came during I think one of my longest nights. And that was hours after I had received a warning from a U.S. source who said I was on a list of three American journalists who could possibly be killed. A cartel list for assassination within 24 hours. So that obviously left me in shock and stunned. To me, it was the longest night, and I kept wondering 'Is it time for me to leave? Is it time for me to give up on this dream of coming back to Mexico and just get back to the States?' And I think during the longest night, the darkest night, all your left with is the promise or the belief in the promise of a new day. So that's where the title comes in. Now I haven't said that as a Mexican journalist. I was born in Mexico, but I have a little blue passport that says I'm a U.S. citizen. I think that gives me the kind of protection that my colleagues in Mexico don't have. I once asked a U.S. source what's the likelihood an American journalist will be killed in Mexico? He said, 'Good news and bad news. Good news? They don't want to mess with an American journalist. Bad news? You don't look American.' So stick your passport out, your credentials that says you're a foreign correspondent for the Dallas Morning News. And I think that gives me a sense of responsibility. There are regions in Mexico where journalists have been forced to censor for their own safety. People have been killed. People have disappeared. And oftentimes it's very difficult for us to know what's happening. And some of these regions are closer to the U.S. side of the border. Along the Texas border, for instance. So I feel like I have more protection. I also have the backing, the solidarity, of my newspaper, of my colleagues. And oftentimes, and it's happened in the past, I'll say, 'You know what? Things don't feel right.' And they'll say, 'Well, get on the next flight out and leave.' My colleagues in Mexico don't have that kind of protection, or support from their editors. Oftentimes, it's sad to say, you find publishers who will leave the country and kind of leave the staff behind in Mexico. So that does, I think, give you an extra sense of responsibility to try to cover and to try to make sure that killings and disappearances of 100,000 people do not end up being forgotten by societies on both sides of the border.

GRILLOT: That's why it's important to tell this story. The journalists in Mexico- what are we talking about here? Are Mexican journalists even covering this story anymore because it’s so dangerous? Because so many of them have disappeared and have been killed.

CORCHADO: It depends on the region. There are some regions in Mexico - in Mexico we call them 'Regions of Silence.' You don't hear much. And yet at the same time there is a growing, thriving journalistic community in places like Mexico City, parts of Monterey, parts of Guadalajara. So you have a little bit of both. It goes back to what I was saying earlier in the worst of times, you'll see the best of times. And I see that among my colleagues. There are some very courageous journalists, even in some of these troubled regions, where they will...it never ceases to amaze me how people cross the border to talk you. And to make sure that you know what's going on in their towns.

GRILLOT: Well, Alfredo, part of reporting this story means that you need to follow the drugs, and follow the news as it spreads out from the border. One of the stories that has emerged not too long ago, was the connection between the drug cartels, particularly the Zeta drug cartel, and a horse farm in Oklahoma. Is this very common? Do you see the drug trafficking and money laundering occurring in various places like a horse farm?

CORCHADO: This was by far the most fascinating story. In a time when journalism is asking us to localize more, and make sure that our stories resonate more, it was actually back in 2005 or so that we discovered that there was a strong connection between Nuevo Laredo and the Zetas - this is a paramilitary group in Mexico - and North Texas. The person who later became the leader of the Zetas actually came of age as a criminal in North Texas. So there was this strong I-35 connection. Last year, that connection extended even further North on I-35 into the town of Lexington, Oklahoma, and that's where you found something like 400 horses being trained, being taken care of by the brother of the leader of the Zetas, José Treviño Morales. We later discovered during court records and court proceedings in Austin, Texas this spring that the Zetas were financing, I mean this was a way to money launder. Horse racing is a big tradition in Mexico, but it's also a way to money launder. So we go into Lexington, and we see all these beautiful horses running around. I think many of them are now under the protection of the U.S. government.

GRILLOT: I think it makes something so invisible more visible to us. I think that's the work that you're doing, and other journalists are doing, is making these things visible to us. So finally, I just want to ask what is it that we're not doing right now that needs to be done?

CORCHADO: We as the U.S. government?

GRILLOT: Yes.

CORCHADO: I would say that it would be a dream if all of a sudden Americans stopped consuming drugs. It would be a dream if Americans stopped sending guns to Mexico. But that's not going to happen. I think Mexicans have come to that realization - that it's not going to be a question of legalization. It's not going to be a question of Americans stopping using guns or sending guns. I think in the end, and more and more you see this from Mexicans themselves, they feel like they have to do a lot more on their part to try to build up their institutions. I think they need a lot more help from the U.S. side. Not just the government, but communities. Mexico right now is in transition. Mexico is trying to learn from the pitfalls, the ups and downs of democracy. Oftentimes you ask Mexicans 'What do you want from the United States?' They say 'We want a lot more guidance. A lot more help.' And at some level, the U.S. government is helping communities build stronger relations with the local police departments and so forth. A way to build communities, a way to strengthen civil society.

GRILLOT: Well thank you Alfredo for the work that you're doing, and for being with us today on World Views to share your story.

CORCHADO: Suzette, it was my pleasure. Thank you for having me.

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