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Reporter Offers Reflection on Violence and Resilience in His Tale of Two Mexicos

July 15, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Margaret Warner talks to journalist Alfredo Corchado about his new book, "Midnight in Mexico: A Reporter's Journey Through a Country's Descent Into Darkness," which draws on his nearly 20 years of reporting and on his personal relationship with his birth land.

TRANSCRIPT

JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight, to Mexico, and a personal look at the United States’ neighbor to the south through the eyes of a journalist.

Margaret Warner has more.

MARGARET WARNER: Mexico is a country of riches and promise, now the second fastest-growing economy in Latin America, yet it is plagued by violence and corruption fueled by the drug trade that has killed some 80,000 people in the past decade.

A new book by Dallas Morning News correspondent Alfredo Corchado seeks to understand why. Corchado was brought to the United States as a small boy, yet in 1994, he felt drawn to return to Mexico as a journalist. His new book, “Midnight in Mexico: A Reporter’s Journey Through a Country’s Descent Into Darkness,” draws on his nearly 20 years of reporting there, and on his personal relationship with his birth land.

Alfredo Corchado joins me now.

And welcome.

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ALFREDO CORCHADO, author of “Midnight in Mexico”: Thank you.

MARGARET WARNER: Last time we saw each other was Mexico City.

ALFREDO CORCHADO: Right before the election.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, the book opens with this harrowing tale of you getting a phone tip from a source that saying someone is about to kill an American journalist in the next 24 hours, and your source is convinced it’s you. Everyone tells you to get out of Mexico, and you stay to investigate.

Why? What did you think you would learn by trying to follow the thread of who was after you?

ALFREDO CORCHADO: Well, you know, that was a real turning point. We left as — I was only six years old when we left Mexico, and I always thought I would come back someday.

And my mother always felt that really our opportunity, our prosperity lied in the United States. And I thought, well, Mexico is a country that it’s also — has the potential to give back. So I wanted to go back to Mexico and prove my mother wrong. That evening, I kept thinking, is my mother right? Why do I feel so betrayed by Mexico?

MARGARET WARNER: So what is your conclusion after all these years of coverage about why Mexico descended into this darkness of corruption and a drug trade and violence and killings?

ALFREDO CORCHADO: Well, we had the big change in the year 2000. The opposition government for the first time took office. They kicked out the regime which had governed Mexico for 71 years.

So, essentially, you have the power going from a central power to more to a state level. And suddenly I think organized crime just took advantage of that power vacuum, and the monster came out, if you will.

MARGARET WARNER: You also — a persistent theme in this book has to do with the Mexican character. And you have just flicked at that a little bit talking about your mother, but you describe a kind of fatalism. And it comes — it reappears.  What do you mean by that?

ALFREDO CORCHADO: As a kid growing up in the U.S., you hear so much about Mexico and the Mexican character. Are we — is it a culture of corruption? Is it a part of our genes?

I live in Mexico City, but I spend a lot of time on the U.S.-Mexico border. El Paso is one of the safest cities in the United States. Yet, Ciudad Juarez for many years was marked as one of the most violent cities. So I think I have always been skeptical about that.

Is it really a culture of fatalism, or is it really a lack of rule of law? Is it weak institutions?

And that’s something that has always been a source of my curiosity as a journalist.

MARGARET WARNER: And so what have you concluded?

ALFREDO CORCHADO: I have concluded that, sometimes, amid the worst moments in Mexico, I have seen the best of Mexicans. And I have seen a resilient spirit.

I have seen a people fighting to really construct communities, oftentimes from the ruins of what we have seen in the last few years. A hundred thousand people were either killed or disappeared.

But people, I think — in some ways, the violence has brought people together. And it’s kind of made them try to hold government much more accountable than they have done in the past.

MARGARET WARNER: And now Mexico really does have this rising middle class. I think net migration is down to zero, at least between Mexico and the U.S. There are civil society groups.

Do you take any hope in these trends, that Mexico’s — that the sort of balance will shift, and you will have stronger institutions, and you will have citizens saying, no, we need better here?

ALFREDO CORCHADO: I often feel like, as a journalist, covering Mexico is like covering two countries. There’s that troubled side of Mexico, the country where the violence is there.

But there’s also, I think, a much more prosperous side of Mexico. I often think, as an American, that someday Americans will miss Mexicans, because the birth rate has gone from seven to two. You don’t see Mexicans migrating. It’s interesting.

I was just in a region in Central Mexico. People, I asked them, do you have the same desire to migrate like other generations? And they say, well, if I do, it’s more of curiosity than out of necessity.

And I think someday there will be a time when Americans say, where are the Mexicans?

MARGARET WARNER: But,I mean, within Mexico, Mexico has a new president now, Enrique Pena Nieto.

Do you see any kind of new era dawning? Or do you think that the two worlds, the two Mexicos will continue to have to coexist, that is, the prosperous rising middle-class economy and this whole other hugely profitable, hugely corrosive underbelly?

ALFREDO CORCHADO: I think, if you ask most Mexicans, they want the others shining — they want that central part of Mexico to become much more of a — replicate other parts of the country.

But I think as long as you have the security challenges, the economic potential, the prosperity will be undermined by those challenges. I think, in the end, the question is, can Mexico have peace without justice?

And that’s — as a journalist, I think the next few years will be the most fascinating time to cover. Just how much have Mexicans really changed? I mean, can they hold the old regime accountable?

MARGARET WARNER: And so you’re staying?

ALFREDO CORCHADO: I’m staying. I’m staying. I don’t have — it’s not that I have a death wish. I’m staying because I really believe in the Mexicans themselves and I believe that the story has to be told.

And I hope that the book, I hope that my reporting continues to serve hopefully as a bridge of understanding between these two countries.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, Alfredo Corchado, author of “Midnight in Mexico,” thanks.

ALFREDO CORCHADO: Thank you, Margaret.