Darkest Before the Dawn

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

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