Darkest Before the Dawn

The Dallas Morning News Mexico bureau chief wrestles with the past and future of a country in turmoil.

May 2013By Comments

Photograph by Jeff Wilson

JAKE SILVERSTEIN: Your new book opens with a threat that was made against your life because of your reporting on drug trafficking in Mexico. Why start there?

ALFREDO CORCHADO: It was the fourth threat I’d received but the first that [I heard about through] someone I knew, someone I trusted. From that moment on, something changed. I began to ask the internal question, Where did I go wrong in thinking that democracy and change in Mexico would lead to a better country? And that’s when it hit me: it was midnight in Mexico. 

JS: Which is the title of the book—Midnight in Mexico. Were you concerned that by writing a book about how you no longer feel safe in Mexico, you would be betraying the country of your birth? 

AC: I hope I can put Mexico in context, that people will see that amid the bloodshed, amid the beheadings, amid the violence, there’s a new society rising. I’m not in the business of generating hope, but as a Mexican, as someone born there, I want to believe that something positive is happening.

JS: And yet the title of the book is Midnight in Mexico.

AC: When I told my parents I was writing this book, they said, “¡Buenísimo!” But when I told them the name, their faces were just like, What? I said, “Look, Mom, it’s midnight, it’s dark, but you don’t know what the dawn’s going to look like. It could be a better day.” 

JS: A recurring theme in the book is your belief in Mexico’s future and the tension between you and your parents, who see it a little differently.

AC: My mother and I have had this long-standing argument. She brought me to the United States when I was six years old. I didn’t want to leave Mexico, but my father was part of a guest-worker program in the U.S. and he had the opportunity to get us green cards. I always wanted to be back in Mexico. And so it started this debate with my mom, back and forth, over the years. That night, after I got the threat, I felt like, damn, she was right.

JS: After growing up in the United States, you returned to Mexico as a journalist for the Dallas Morning News in the early nineties. What sorts of stories did you imagine you would be writing?

AC: I went there so idealistic. I wanted to tell stories about policy and immigration and culture. But something happened in the nineties that we’re still wrestling with. There was a narrative back then that the country was booming, but I think many of us feel like we missed the story. There was another story, and that was corruption. When it exploded in the 2000’s, a lot of us were kicking ourselves. 

JS: One of the precipitating events of the turbulence was the PRI [the Partido Revolucionario Institucional, which had ruled Mexico since 1929] losing power in 2000 with the election of Vicente Fox. At the time, did you think real democracy had come to Mexico at last?

AC: Absolutely. Just thinking about it I still get kind of teary-eyed. That was July 2, 2000, and it was the biggest celebration I’ve ever seen. People went home that night thinking, “It’s over, the witch is dead, we have a new country.” And then we just saw it disintegrate. 

JS: Looking back, is the story that the transition to democracy unleashed the violence or that the violence threatened the transition to democracy?

AC: I think it’s a little bit of both, but also that at no point in Mexican history have we had a real civil society. On July 2, 2000, a new history began, and Mexico wasn’t prepared. There had always been very centralized power, and when power shifted to the states, things started to disintegrate. As a journalist, you’d keep looking for the black and white, the good guys and the bad guys, and then you’d realize, “Wait a minute, this is really a war within the government itself.” 

JS: In that situation, how do you even know what story to write? How do you even take one step forward?

AC: That’s something we wrestle with all the time—who do we trust, who do we talk to? You’re dealing with U.S. informants, Mexican informants, Mexican officials who turn out to be corrupt, U.S. officials who are maybe trying to steer you this or that way. It just takes a lot of reporting. I spent a lot of time with sources, hoping to find a shred of truth. You’re constantly processing information, looking for something you can hang on to.

JS: As of last December, the PRI is back in power. Do people have mixed feelings about that? 

AC: There’s a sense that the father is back, someone’s in charge again. But civil society has changed since the PRI left power. So it’s going to be fascinating to see how much Mexico’s emerging democracy can really hold this government accountable. It’s definitely a new era. You look on Facebook, you look on Twitter, and you see all the criticism. I think the PRI must feel like they can’t really go back to their old practices. 

JS: Why has Mexico had such trouble building a civil society?

AC: It’s always had some kind of authoritarian government. In 2000 there was a lot of celebration, but no one really took responsibility. In retrospect, it took the violence for people to realize that real change has to come from within. Sometimes you hear people say, “Hey, this is something inherent in Mexicans, we just can’t get it together.” But you take a city like El Paso, which is one of the safest communities in the United States, and 80 percent of the people have Mexican roots. So you can’t simply blame it on history. 

JS: This is also a very personal book. You write movingly about your sister’s death at the age of two, when you were six. What happened to her?

AC: It was the Saturday after Good Friday, and my mother was making chuales, which is one of the traditional dishes for Holy Week, and she asked me and a cousin to watch over the kids. I’m the oldest of nine. At the time our town [San Luis de Cordero, in the state of Durango] didn’t have running water, so we had these big bins of water, and next thing I know, I turn around and all I see are my sister’s feet and I run to her, and I saw her face and I saw her doll that she was playing with and she wasn’t moving. And I started screaming. My mom came out and fell to her knees. I remember running—we were trying to find the doctor, but he was on vacation or just not there. We ran to my grandmother’s house, but it was too late. It’s the first memory I have. That day. And me screaming for my sister to wake up and come and play with us again. 

JS: The way you treat it in the book, it’s as if you’re drawing a parallel between the struggles of Mexico and your sister’s death.

AC: By the time I was getting to the end of the book, I really felt like I had to explain—Why do I keep doing this? Why do I keep going back to Mexico? Why do I keep trying to see something that’s maybe not there yet? 

JS: And you think it has to do with your sister?

AC: Yeah, I think that’s why it’s so personal. I was there, I was supposed to be taking care of her. It’s something that still hurts.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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