Alfredo Corchado is the former Mexico City bureau chief for the Dallas Morning News, a position he held from 1993 to 2015, before which he was a reporter for the Wall Street Journal and El Paso Herald Post. Born in Mexico, Corchado received his bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Texas at El Paso in 1987 and has been in journalism ever since. He is considered a leading expert on drug-related violence in Mexico and is a co-director of the Borderlands Program at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University. He is the author of “Midnight in Mexico: A Reporter’s Journey Through a Country’s Descent into Darkness,” and is working on a second book: “Shadows at Dawn: the Last Great Mexican Migration.”
The Gate: The interactions between the United States and Mexico right now have no doubt been affected by the new Trump administration, as well as the continuing violence in Mexico. What do you think is the state of US-Mexico relations and what is the biggest issue facing Mexico itself right now?
Alfredo Corchado: Probably Donald Trump’s tweets! I would say Mexico has gone from the “holy crap!” moment to a sense of real fear and you could see that with the November, December, and January devaluation of the peso. The peso has really taken a dive, and that’s one way to measure it. Lately you don’t see that fear anymore. You’re looking at a country that’s slowly coming to understand the Trump administration, to understand that not everything he says is true, although they very much continue to feel like the bogeyman, like the piñata. If everything doesn’t go well for Trump, there’s a sense that Mexico will get the brunt of his outlash. The Mexican government did something really smart; it was probably in late January or early February when they said, “Mr. President, our relationship with the United States will not be just based on NAFTA, on free trade; it’ll be based on everything.” The US-Mexico relationship is not a relationship based solely on economics; it’s based on immigration, security, cultural and political ties, etc. The Mexicans were smart in reminding the Americans that what they really fear is terrorism and massive migration from Central America—Mexico want to be an ally, and the ball’s in the United States’s court now. Based on that, you’ve seen a change on how Mexico reacts. It’s not, “Hey we dodged that bullet,” it’s “What will he or someone in the administration say next?” But for now, it’s a sigh of relief.
Gate: Moving away from US influence: you have a lot of experience on reporting the cartel wars and related issues in Mexico. How do you see the issues with the cartels in Mexico moving forward? Is there hope, or do you foresee the fighting continuing as it has been?
Corchado: Right now, Mexico is going through one of its bloodiest periods in history, and it pains me to say that. For a while, we saw a different side to Mexico, which was encouraging, but for the last couple of years, there’s been a very important spike in the drug violence. The numbers that have come out lately suggest that by the time the current president of Mexico leaves office, he will have been part of this bloodiest time. You always hear in Mexico that his predecessor, Felipe Calderón, was the president who left with his hands washed with blood, but this president has been every bit as bad when it comes to drug violence. It’s obviously not just residents, but I think the numbers I saw recently was something like over eighty thousand have been killed since he took office, and he still has one more year left. By all accounts, it seems like certain states are worsening.
Gate: What do you think is causing that?
Corchado: The continuous splintering of the cartels. They’re smaller. They’re bloodier. People who don’t really think of the consequences. You can’t really talk about a cartel anymore as an organization; they are now just smaller, more vicious, more savage criminal groups, which is a big problem for Mexico. In the old days, maybe even five years ago, people would say, “It’s really a war among themselves, within themselves because of the complicity between the government and the cartels, among themselves because it’s criminals vs. criminals,” but now I think you see a lot more average Joe’s and Juanita’s much more concerned about what’s happening in their neighborhoods.
Obviously, it’s been a particularly bloody time for journalists. Since March, six journalists have been killed, the most ever for Mexico. We lost a big one about a week ago, probably the most prominent journalist was killed in the state of Sinaloa, which is part of what we’re talking about: the splintering of cartels. These people who don’t really think of ramifications.
Gate: You’ve now had several death threats. With more journalists being killed, what keeps you coming back and continuing to put yourself in harm’s way?
Corchado: If you’re a foreign correspondent, there is an extra sense of responsibility, and there is the fact that you are that much more protected. I was born in Mexico, raised in the United States, California and Texas, and along the way I was able to get a US passport. That passport alone gives you much more added protection. Probably the hardest thing I’ve ever tried doing was to walk away. I have tried. I have left Mexico for periods of time. But especially when you hear about colleagues who are dying or being killed, it weighs on you at an emotional level. You feel like your situation is not as bad as theirs; my situation really pales in comparison.
You have a choice sometimes: do you keep telling these stories, or do you contribute to what we’ve already seen in Mexico, which is that regions of the country have grown silent. People are too afraid, journalists are too afraid to write, to report, to see, to tell, and so you have several regions of Mexico where people just don’t know what’s going on. Not that correspondents are going to save the day, but you feel a sense of, “Let’s try to help as much as we can.” Especially, oftentimes, when journalists themselves will reach out to us and say, “Hey, here’s what we know. Here’s what we can’t report, but maybe you guys can check this, maybe you guys can make this into a story.” It’s an old cliché, but it’s really true. We’re seeing it in Mexico, maybe we’re seeing it in the United States: democracies really don’t work without a free press, and that’s what we’ve seen in Mexico for too many years.
Mexico at one point had this incredible political apparatus where you had a very centralized power: all of it through Mexico City. After the first opposition government came into office in 2000, it’s almost like the power moved to different states. There was a power vacuum. The power went into different states, and it was in these states where cartel was suddenly kingpins. They’re the ones controlling city council, local police, security groups, and journalists themselves. In a lot of newspapers in Mexico you have a halcone, a lookout, working for the cartel, who works as a wannabe or as a likely journalist or reporter, who’s there watching everyone. He’s the eyes of the cartel. It’s a very different, very difficult situation to live in. Our resources have been cut tremendously, so you’re already slammed on one side, but there’s always this sense of responsibility, of trying as much as we can to get the story out.
Gate: In the new Trump administration, do you see with the increasing lack of trust and belief in traditionally unquestioned and respected news sources and the administration’s pushback against news deemed “fake” as changing the landscape of journalism permanently, or is this just a passing trend?
Corchado: It’s the most exciting time to be a journalist in the United States. I’ve been here for about a year now, working on a second book, and I see what’s going on. Journalists in Mexico are literally being killed, journalism in the United States is under fire. There is something someone said recently that I thought summarized everything in a very cohesive way. It was a comedian at the White House Correspondent’s Dinner, which says a lot. He said, “We’re living in a time where trust is more important than truth.” I think that’s where we are. I was brought up, and my whole career was about, “You look for the truth, the best version of the truth, or as close as you can get to the truth.” These days, papers like the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Dallas Morning News, the Wall Street Journal, they’re doing some of the best journalism I’ve ever seen. They’re kicking butt.
I’ve never been around a society like the United States, where readers, viewers, don’t believe the truth. This is what people in Mexico are dying for. When I talk to readers, I say, “Here are the facts. Why don’t you believe this?” And they say, “Well, I just don’t trust that newspaper,” or, “I just don’t trust CNN, I’m a FOX viewer.” That’s the challenge that we’re in now. It’s not just about truth, it’s about having people put their trust in you. I still think that stories matter. Only through storytelling can we get beyond that. Yes, it’s an incredibly divided country.
One of the things I did on November 9 was that I decided that I wanted to go back to journalism after I finish my book. I want to go back to journalism, but I also want to back to people, to sources, and try to listen just a little bit more. If I’m missing something, I want to get that story, because somehow along the way, I probably screwed up. You say, “Hello, my name is Alfredo Corchado, I was born in Mexico and raised the United States,” and immediately they pigeonhole you: “This guy will never understand our disgust, our being irate with illegal immigrants, so why should we give him a shot?” I feel like I need to try harder to really talk about borders, talk about fences and walls, and I think only through storytelling can you bring these so-called fences down.
Gate: What’s next for journalism? Will the field go back to storytelling, or will we stay with the Fox-CNN divide? Will the fences become walls?
Corchado: I hope not. I think the future of journalism is just telling stories as accurately as possible. There’s a reason why things are clichés; they’re so true. But especially these days, you just have to find a way to hold the powerful accountable. At least the numbers I’ve seen, the growth of subscribers here, those are good signs, but we can screw up. We have to keep telling these stories as factually, as truthfully as possible. Over time, I believe people will see the light. If I didn’t believe that, I wouldn’t be doing this. If I thought that for one second, it would be over. I don’t know, maybe I’d become a full-time fellow or an academic. I really believe that, and I believe it falls on every reporter individually to tell that story as accurately as possible, and connect to the point where they can trust you.
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Ridgley Knapp is a third-year Political Science major interested in domestic policy and economic theory. This summer, he was an intern for Senator Richard Blumenthal in Washington, D.C. On campus, he is a member of varsity crew and the UC Democrats. He also sits on the Executive Board of College Democrats of Illinois. When he isn't working, he enjoys spending time with friends.