THE CALL CAME on a rainy afternoon in July 2007. Alfredo Corchado was in his apartment in Mexico City’s La Condesa neighborhood, getting ready to meet friends to celebrate an award he had recently won for “extraordinary bravery and enterprise” in reporting. The voice on the other end of the line, a US investigator and longtime trusted source, told him that the Zetas, a paramilitary group-turned-cartel known for their ruthlessness and brutal violence, “plan to kill an American journalist within 24 hours. Three names came up. I think it’s you. I’d get out.”
Thus begins Midnight in Mexico: A Reporter’s Journey Through a Country’s Descent into Darkness, Alfredo Corchado’s part-memoir, part-chronicle of modern Mexico. Corchado, the oldest of nine, was born in the northwestern Mexican state of Durango. His family moved to the United States in 1966 following the death of his sister Lupita. Corchado spent much of his childhood working alongside his parents, “picking every imaginable crop” in the fields of California’s San Joaquin Valley. Later, his parents moved the family to El Paso, where they opened up a small restaurant a few blocks from the border. A former high school dropout, Corchado went on to earn degrees from El Paso Community College in 1984 and the University of Texas at El Paso in 1987. His journalism career started at the now defunct El Paso Herald-Post, followed by stints at the Ogden Standard-Examiner in Utah and The Wall Street Journal in Dallas and Philadelphia. In 1994, nearly 30 years after he left Mexico, Corchado returned as a correspondent for the Dallas Morning News, where he is now the bureau chief.
In addition to Corchado’s personal narrative and investigation into the threat against his life, Midnight in Mexico explores how major political and economic changes — from the implementation of NAFTA in 1994, to the end of the PRI’s 71 year reign in 2000, to the rise of cartel-related violence that resulted in 100,000 people killed or disappeared during the last sexenio, to the PRI’s return to power in 2012 — have transformed the country over the last two decades. The book details the (often corrupt) relationship between the cartels and local, state, and federal officials. It also offers insights into the many challenges journalists face in the fledgling Mexican democracy. Throughout, Corchado is optimistic about the country’s attempt to reinvent itself, but remains realistic about how far it has to go and seems uncertain if it ever will.
Corchado has been on a breakneck book tour across the United States and Mexico since the book’s release in May. At the same time, he has continued to write for the Morning News, recently breaking the story of the capture of Z-40, the Zeta’s leader and the man who threatened him in 2007. We talked at a café near his apartment in La Condesa.
— Adam Goodman
ADAM GOODMAN: Midnight in Mexico isn’t strictly a memoir. How did you find a balance between memoir, providing a historical overview, and offering a contemporary snapshot of Mexico?
ALFREDO CORCHADO: In some ways it’s what we do as journalists. I talked to a lot of historians. Someone who really helped me a lot was John Womack. He was the one who kicked my ass the most. Any time I thought I was on to something new he would kind of [snaps his fingers] dispel it, and that was really important. The contemporary stuff was just being on top of your job, you know, what’s happening today. The hardest part was the being a writer — the emotional part. That I think is really learning to undress yourself and being comfortable with yourself. Sometimes when I say this people say it’s funny, but it’s not: it took a lot of tequila. Because that’s not what you do [as a journalist]. You’re on the sidelines, and you’re constantly watching other people’s responses and so forth.
AG: How did the idea for the book come about?
AC: You need a couple of Argentineans and a Swedish woman who know nothing about the United States, who are not afraid at all. We were Nieman Fellows at Harvard, and it was spring break, and they looked and said to me, “We need to go to New York. What are you doing for spring break?” I said, “I’m going back to Mexico City.” Their reaction was, “Oh, we need someone with points, hotel points, okay? And if you come with us, we will introduce you to all these mega-hitters in New York City.” So, long story short, I had Hilton points, ended up in New York City, spent two days with them, and they had a list of who’s who in the publishing world, in the agent world, literary world. We were seeing people like David Remnick, Simon and Schuster, Penguin, Random House. Our very first interview that morning was with the Andrew Wylie agency, and I said, “Look, I have no book idea. I mean, I have nothing.” So we’re sitting there at Wylie with a guy named Scott Moyers, and everybody else is pitching their idea. I’m just there by myself, kind of listening to them, kind of a fly on the wall, and at the end of the conversation Moyers looks at me and says, “Well, what’s your pitch?” And I’m fumbling, and the Swedish woman and Argentinean woman said, “Oh, he’s Roberto Bolaño except he’s real.” And the guy looks at me and he says, “What do you mean?” She says, “Well, he’s covered the women of Juárez, he’s been covering all of this violence in Mexico, he’s an immigrant who’s back in Mexico trying to prove his mother wrong.” Something like that, you know. And this guy was just hooked.
AG: They had your elevator speech down before you did!
AC: [Laughs] And the guy looked at me, and as we’re walking out he gave me his card and he said, “Please stay in touch,” and I said, “Okay.” At the end of the night we get home to the hotel, and I’m looking at email, and he sends me an email, and he says, “Listen, I’ve Googled you, I’ve done all this research, you may already have an agent by now, but if you don’t, I’d love to be your agent, and I think you have a book.” I didn’t call him, because I was like, “What do I tell this guy?” The next morning we’re with Remnick, and these Argentineans are on my ass: “You need to call him back. You need to acknowledge it. At least acknowledge it — he’s going to be pissed.” And Remnick walks in, and we’re discussing, we’re arguing, and Remnick is, you know, “What the fuck’s the problem here?” It was very ... [snaps fingers twice]. We’re there, I’m enjoying a sandwich, and the guy says, “You know what the line is for people to see Scott Moyers? It’s from here to Philadelphia. If this guy wants to see you, you get the fuck out of here, get your sandwich, and get out of here.” So I called him, we met, and he had it all figured out before I did. He said, “It’s a personal book, and everything else is kind of the fondo, the background.” So he says, “I’m giving you a few months, get a proposal ready, and let’s start pitching it.” That, right there, I think was the hardest time. Yes, I can pull the history. I knew the bracero history — I mean, I didn’t know everything. I had to talk to a lot of experts, and we had done a big series of articles on braceros at the Morning News with Ricardo Sandoval. So I had some history. Obviously my father [who was a bracero] provided a lot of history. But it was going back to that incident — how do you expose yourself? One of the guys we met was Tracy Kidder, the writer, who came up to me and says, “If you ever end up writing a book, you need a personal editor. You need someone who’s just going to kick your ass, and someone who knows you well enough to tell you — remind you — when you’re a journalist and where you need to be.
Lauren Villagran is a freelancer here in Mexico City, and we met. She was doing a story on the Nieman year, and at the end of the breakfast I said, “So what do you do for a living?” She goes, “I’m a freelancer, but I’m also working with authors.” I’m thinking to myself, “Jesus, someone brought her down,” you know? She was very, very helpful. Because, (a) the discipline — there’s so much discipline that this thing takes — but, (b) I think she began knowing me well enough to know who I was, and she always knew when the journalist came over the human being. So a lot of times we sat right here, right inside there, and she would read what I was writing and say, “Okay, this is too much of a journalist. You gotta change that. Show me how you feel, tell me how you feel.” And then Benjamin Alire Sáenz, a fiction writer, was also able to help me. “What was the day like? Did it rain that day?” You know, these little things.
Those people were really key in forcing me to be a human being, [while] I wanted to continue being a journalist. I don’t want to write a book and then, suddenly, I’m not a journalist anymore. And that was, I think, the most delicate dance.
AG: Were you at all apprehensive that your colleagues, your fellow journalists, might critique the book or critique you for writing a memoir instead of straight journalism?
AC: I was. I think I was way too sensitive about that. I worry more about, you know, the group of a dozen journalists — people who I know really well — than about the overall audience. Yeah, that was heavy on my mind. One of the first people I gave the book to was Dudley, Dudley Althaus. He’s kind of the dean of correspondents here. I gave it to journalists to read certain sections, because of that very thing you were talking about.
AG: What was their reaction?
AC: They were very supportive. In fact, Dudley, I think, was most supportive in the sense that he was kind of like Lauren. He kept saying, “Look, you’re a journalist. You’ve put in 25 years or more in this profession. You have a track record. Don’t get all bent out of shape over this. You have a reputation, but you’re also a Mexican, and the reason you got into journalism is that you wanted to come to Mexico. You know? It’s like the stars have aligned. You need to just find that comfort zone, find that voice. And I don’t think that that voice is going to go off on a rampage and say how shitty the United States is, or how shitty Mexico is. You’re just going to try to tell it like it is.” At times I felt, when we moved to California when we were kids, I woke up in the morning, I didn’t want to go to school because I was like, "I don’t have [any] idea what the hell I’m doing." And so your parents would kind of push you and push you. At times I felt like that writing the book, not only that I had no idea what I was doing, but that I was afraid of what I was doing. I was afraid of what it would mean for my career. And would the Morning News still be there and say, “You’re our correspondent”? I mean, these are not easy days in journalism, you know? I also had my editor read big chunks of it just to make sure. Everybody in this book, everybody with a significant role, read the book.
Often times, I was more concerned about the journalistic part of the book. Angela [Kocherga, television journalist and Corchado’s longtime girlfriend] read it. I don’t think anyone really came down on me as a journalist. In fact, I think people came down on me because I was so determined to be a journalist. From Penguin on down. It was always this chorus of, “Where are you? I can’t hear you, I can’t read you.” So I think that was what helped me find my voice.
AG: Toward the end of the introduction you write that Midnight in Mexico “is about searching for a flickering light during the darkest night and believing the promise of a new day.” Throughout the book you discuss the constant tension between “hope and fear, fear and hope,” describing Mexico as always “on the verge of greatness.” Where is Mexico today?
AC: On the day of the election it was drab. I certainly didn’t think, having covered the PRI most of my life, that I would ever go back to the PRI headquarters.
AG: You described it as one of the saddest days of your career.
AC: It was a sad day, yeah. And I thought it was surreal, going back to that office, or going back to that building. So there was a lot of dread. I think today there’s a lot of dread, in the sense that whatever gains Mexican society has made in the last six years, whatever hope that we’ve seen — it is really being tested today. I mean, how much has society changed? How much have the rascals really changed, you know? I think we’re living in this period of real, real dread — can they really hold these people accountable? I was in Juárez last week. I’ve become very close with the people of Villas de Salvárcar [the January 2010 massacre in which gunmen targeted the wrong house, killed 15 young people, and wounded another 30]. Any time I go through this period of, “Shit, what happened to this country?” I go to this place, and I find hope in these people. It’s hard to be around them — you feel their fight, you see their hope — and walk away thinking all is gloom and doom. I mean, these people had the choice of leaving Mexico, and they could have left Mexico, and not one of them did that. They’re all there, they’re all fighting.
AG: What would you say are the greatest challenges Mexico faces today?
AC: Obviously, the violence. I mean, I’m working on another follow up story right now on the violence, and it’s looking at how the first six to seven months of Peña Nieto’s administration have been kind of, not hunky-dory, but it’s been, “See, see, I told you, you know, we can change the narrative; we can change the page. There are other things that are happening.” But all of a sudden the past is very much present, and I think this is really the big test for Peña Nieto. I have this Google alert on Mexico violence, and it’s surprising in the last few months. You may get one or two stories, and sometimes they’re all stories recycled. I mean, in the last few weeks it’s been bam bam bam bam bam bam. And you kind of think, “Okay, this guy is going to have to come back and deal with what Calderón dealt with.”
AG: There’s a tension now, for foreign correspondents as well as Mexican correspondents, in terms of what they should be covering. There’s the narrative of progress that the Peña Nieto administration is pushing hard, the idea that post NAFTA the middle class has grown by leaps and bounds, Mexico is advancing, growing — it’s an economic success story. Yet, at the same time, you note in the book that the number of poor in Mexico has increased by millions. Some statistics state that the number of poor in Mexico increased to 52 million in 2012. How much has changed, or is it just the narrative that has changed?
AC: That’s really a hard question, but it’s a really good question, because many of us — especially people who have been here for a while, journalists who have been here for a while — that’s one of the questions we’ve been debating the last few months. I think anybody who covers Mexico has felt that pressure, from the administration of, let’s change the story — and, to be fair to them, I think sometimes, you feel like you’re covering two, maybe three countries.
AG: So, what would those countries be?
AC: I think the north is much more tied to the United States. There’s more accountability, although I was interested in that poverty report, saying that one of the states that poverty went up in was Nuevo León, which kind of surprises. I’m going on a tangent here, but one of the things I thought was interesting, talking to an analyst this week who was saying, “Look at those states and find out how much the organized crime had an impact.” Because, it really forced a lot of people who were already on the marginal side — puestecitos, selling their tacos, selling their corn on the cob, you know, they’re paying extortions. Some of them were forced out. So you wonder, "Okay, to what extent did that have an impact on them?" I don’t know. That’s something that I’m looking at. But look, I have met with Peña Nieto’s people, and I’ve gotten the rollo and the crema — a lot of crema. And I agree with them that there are a lot of stories in Mexico. I mean, one of the stories on my budget list — and it’s been there for six months — is looking at the central part of Mexico and its aerospace industry, the auto plants, and the impact this may have on Dallas in the long-term, because this is our bread and butter as far as [immigration]. So I’m looking at that. But you can’t get away from security. No matter what the hell the administration does, I think security will continue to undermine the promise. But also consciously for someone who has been covering this, especially the last six years, you’re almost being dishonest with yourself. You have 100,000 people killed or disappeared, and what do you do? You just change the page?
AG: And the violence continues.
AC: And the violence continues. And I don’t, you know, maybe my editors will get mad, but I sat through that. If you guys want a whole new narrative, you want a whole new page, bring someone else in. Because me, consciously, not that I’m moralistic or want to bring morality into it — I don’t know how I can suddenly look the other way. It’s not going to happen. Do I challenge myself and do these other stories? Of course. It’s fair. We have to. But if this thing is still happening — and it’s happening — you cannot consciously look the other way. They might say that the numbers are 14 percent off, this and that. It’s all numbers, things haven’t really changed. And I think Michoacán, in many ways, you look at [the recent violence], and you think, “Duh,” you know? What we’re seeing in Michoacán, I think we’re going to be seeing in Tamaulipas, in Chihuahua, in the coming weeks.
AG: I don’t necessarily see the issues as disconnected from one another. The story of the violence — the nota roja — is almost inextricably connected to other issues, such as the economy, education, and immigration. It’s something you discuss in the book: as the economy struggled in the 1990s, the drug trade boomed in Mexico, and as formal economy jobs plummeted, cartels had an easier time attracting new recruits. It’s almost as if these questions of political economy — the state of Mexican education, the state of the Mexican economy, the role of the government — are inextricably tied to the rise of the cartels. I don’t know if you have to separate the two stories or if it’s even possible to.
AC: That, I think, was my own personal journey. In many ways, what you just said was the personal journey that I went through. I mean, I came here, and I thought, “I’m not going to lower myself and be covering drug traffickers." You know, that’s just not my story. And I would tell Tracey [Eaton, journalist, former Havana bureau chief], “Tracey I’m so happy you’re passionate about this shit, because I just don’t really give a shit. I grew up on the border, and I saw that, and it was just greedy men trying to get to the US market. You know, you got all these gringos that want to do drugs, y ya." But that was the conclusion that I came to: you cannot separate that — you cannot tapar los ojos con un dedo. If you really want to understand Mexico, if you really want to understand why this country can’t seem to get its shit together, can’t progress, you have to look at that. It’s kind of like the example I just gave you about, you know, these guys in Nuevo León who are trying to sell their corn on the cob and sell their burritos, and now they’re being extorted every week, 250, 300 pesos. They’re not on the marginal sides anymore. They’re jodidos. They’re shut down. That’s why I’m saying — I don’t know how Peña Nieto and his administration can try to say, “Ya estuvo. Hay que cambiar la página," you know? It’s not going to be so easy.
AG: There’s also the story about the growth narrative, about the rise of the Mexican middle class. You call this into question at various points by quoting your driver, Samuel, who refers to the middle class, at one point, as “that label the government promotes these days,” and then tells you it’s “insulting” to refer to people who make $10 a day and struggle to put food on the table as middle class. Yet, it seems that Peña Nieto, as well as other academics, analysts, and politicians, tout the rise of the middle class solely based on these macroeconomic indicators, while failing to really take into account the reality on the ground for so many.
AC: It’s my own personal struggle, because there’s a part of me that — I do see a different Mexico. I mean, 20 years ago, there are places that you go to now and you have paved roads, you have cars, you have a lot more TVs — and so sometimes you buy the talk that, you know, wow, Mexico has a middle class. But I think in the end you come to the conclusion that yeah, maybe things are better in some ways, but it’s just that people have more access to this stuff. They have more access to cars, they have more access to TVs. There’s a lot more access to dollars in the United States, also. And you have this elite that continues to grow, and they’re becoming more powerful. But the average “Joe Blow,” like Samuel — these people kept me grounded. Because on the one side you’re writing these stories, and you’re [thinking], “Oh yeah, things are getting better.” And then you talk to them, and you go, “Puta madre,” you know? Or they invite you to their house, and you go to their house, and you see the very limited opportunities that they have. I know some of these analysts, and I agree with them that things have gotten better, but not that much.
AG: The Mexico that you’re describing — where the vast majority of Mexicans live — is not the Mexico of la Condesa, where we are now, it’s not the Mexico that most US analysts come and see while they’re here.
AC: One of the things I try to do when I’m in Mexico is I try to get the hell out of here as much as I can — out of Mexico City — because of what you just said. You live in this little paradise, and everything’s great. Samuel is coming in about an hour or so, and we’ll drive around, we’ll do things, and he always gives me shit. He says, “Oh, this is your little world. Mira otro restauran’ que acaban de poner. Que bonito,” you know? I get it.
AG: When you discuss the PRI’s demise, the end of its 71-year reign in 2000, you note that political decentralization also created a power vacuum, almost implying that the “democratization” gave way to the rise of the cartels, which you refer to, very provocatively, as “Mexico’s modern-day conquerors.” Dante, the lawyer for the Juárez underworld described in the book, once told you, “The more you Americans insist on democracy, the more sewage you will find. This country has illusionary institutions, and it will take decades to even begin to clean the shit.” Midnight in Mexico does a good job of revealing some of the contradictions between electoral democracy and the persistent problems of corruption. You note:
Mexico’s “democracy” belongs to the politicians, intellectuals, idealists, to the elite and the opportunists, but their vision for Mexico does not always involve consulting the majority of people who live day to day. There is no local ownership. For Mexicans, the higher one’s income, the more deeply a person believes in democracy, at least on paper.
What is the state of Mexican “democracy” today?
AC: I think in some regions it’s better than others. One of the stories I’m working on right now is looking at the judicial institutions across Mexico, looking at which ones are stronger, what’s worked, what hasn’t worked. I think Mexicans are still really trying to figure that out for themselves. For example, if you look at Chihuahua, if you look at Nuevo León, you see a little more progress. I don’t think Mexicans really voted the PRI back in because they gave up on what they at one point envisioned. I still think — and we did some surveys — I still think it was more that they wanted the violence to calm down. I think they wanted the PRI to come in and do some pacto or something, you know? Try to get everybody together. But I also believe that Mexicans believe that this country can do better. Is it a US-style democracy? I doubt it. But I think they still want accountability. They want more freedoms in the press, at least you hear that from reports. I mean, shit, you’re living in a country where if you’re 35, 40, it’s over for you, you know? I’m always struck by the cab drivers, and I say, “Qué edad tienes señor?” "35, 36." “And what did you do for a living?” “I was an engineer, but I couldn’t get the next puesto because of my age,” and you look at these people — I think they want a better country. But you also learn, especially as a Mexican immigrant, someone who has grown up on that side, to look at it differently, and say, “Okay, maybe it’s not what we live under, or what I grew up with, but they want a better Mexico.” I still think the best time of the day for me is in the morning, when I’m listening to the radio, and I’m hearing people being held accountable. I think Mexicans want that kind of a country, you know?
AG: Judicial impunity is another thing you discuss extensively in the book.
AC: What is it, five percent? The conviction rate is less than five percent? I mean, when Peña Nieto came in and said, “We’re going to lower the violence and the country’s changing, blah blah blah.” I still think you have to measure it that way. You have to look at the impunity rate; you have to look at the conviction rate before you know whether democracy is making any real inroads. You talk to the Americans and they say, “Look, you gotta look at Tijuana as an example, and look at Chihuahua.” Those are the measuring sticks and, if that’s so, they still have a long, long road ahead.
AG: Something you address in the book, that also has been discussed at length elsewhere, are the differences between foreign correspondents and Mexican correspondents — in terms of what they’re able to report, what they’re able to say and not say, and whether they have to self-censor or not. You’re very open about the fact that in many cases your Mexican colleagues face more danger than US or other foreign correspondents do. Your Mexican colleague, Marcela Turati, wrote in a review of the book:
As a Mexican journalist, I’m struck by the immunity that a US passport grants foreign journalists. It’s almost totally opposite to the situation of Mexican journalists, where no one cares if we receive threats and no one is about to dash to the rescue either.
What do you see as the relationship between foreign correspondents and Mexican journalists? What role does each play?
AC: I think it’s getting better. For the longest time, the whole issue was mistrust. Which is the same issue that a lot of good Mexican journalists have about their own colleagues. You know, who do you trust? You’re in a newsroom, and you’re thinking, “Shit, that police guy, reporter, is he part of that?” For us it’s been the same thing. There’s been a few of us — Mike O’Connor played a big role. Tracy Wilkinson, and Dudley [Althaus], Keith [Dannemiller]. I don’t want to say the old-timers because they’re gonna get pissed off, but people who have been here for a while. I think we increasingly see it as part of our mission to bring us [Mexican journalists and foreign press] together more. Build more solidarity. For example, I’m going to an event tonight — Keith Dannemiller is releasing a photo exhibit. I’m making sure that some of the Mexican colleagues are there. And I think we’re doing that more and more consciously, to try to build the sense of solidarity. Because, I mean, what’s happened to them [more than 70 Mexican journalists have been killed since 2000], as a Mexican American, there has been a lot of anger. When you realize, shit, I’m only here because of my US passport, but otherwise I don’t know that I’d still be writing these stories. I’d either self-censor myself, or live in silence, or could have been killed.
AG: You mentioned in another interview, as did Karla Zabludovsky in a piece on the book, that there are times in which Mexican journalists may not be able to say things, but what they can do is contact American colleagues to make sure the story gets out, and to make sure that the silence isn’t furthered. Can you share any examples?
AC: Yeah, I think I’ve talked about it before, but yes. The Knight Program [at University of Texas, Austin] established a server list, where there are 30 journalists, half from the United States and half from Mexico, and we’re all in contact. If something goes wrong, a Mexican journalist can just get on this thing, and it will send a mass email to all of us. You know, “¿Qué pasó en Saltillo? ¿Qué pasó en Hermosillo?” So we’re helping one another. Aside from that list, I think all of us have also built personal relationships with a lot of journalists. It’s something that has happened throughout the years — you come to a comfort level where you trust someone. You even have codes, you know? I won’t get into the codes, but it tells you that they want to talk, and it’s important, and we talk. For example, I won’t go to certain cities in Mexico to meet with a colleague because I’m just putting that person’s life at risk. There’s so many halcones — and the phone is out of the ... you’re not going to use the phone. So sometimes you try to find places in the United States where you can meet, and that has become very helpful.
AG: It seems, at the same time — regardless of whether it’s a foreign correspondent or a Mexican journalist — that anytime a journalist touches upon or threatens the power of either the cartels or the government, they seem to find trouble. That certainly was the case for you. When you uncovered the story, which starts the book, of the peace pact between government officials and cartels in 2007, jeopardizing up to half a billion dollars a year in kickbacks; or later, when you uncovered the connection between Vicente Fox’s top drug czar and the Zetas. Those were times in which you yourself fell under threat, and as one of your contacts, Paisana, said, “Alfredo, there’s not much difference between the cartels and the government. They’re both the same motherfuckers, you understand? You’re a fly to them — no more, no less. They’ll swat you in a second without a blink.” So in some ways, Mexican journalists and foreign correspondents are facing some of the same general challenges in doing your work, in fulfilling the role of a journalist in a functioning democracy. But as you say throughout the book, your US passport and identity as a US citizen and foreign correspondent made a difference.
AC: Yeah, but I’ve also discovered that there are limits. I think as a journalist you’re curious about these things. In the back of your mind you’re saying, “How far can I go? How much can I ...?” And a lot of us, American and Mexican journalists, have talked about this, often, like, you can talk about people being killed, you can talk about body counts and all that shit, but when you really start to follow the money and the corruption, and the senators and the diputados, and the government officials ... I don’t think we’ve done it yet, and I think some Mexicans that I’ve talked to will say, “Ahí está el límite.” It will be interesting for us as Americans, too, if we someday get that smoking gun. I haven’t gotten it yet, but I’m still waiting for that document that puts two and two together. I know that based on what I’ve done — the reporting — I know that el pacto [the 2007 peace pact story] was, to me, the limit. There was a part of me that kept thinking, “They don’t give a shit if I’m an American citizen.” They can make it look like an accident, you know? You’re in a cab and — I don’t know. Maybe it’s a conspiracy. Maybe I’ve been living in Mexico too long. You know, you get into conspiracies. But you also know that paisana’s right: you’re a little fly to them, and they’ll find a way to swat you. So I think the optimism that I have, or the sense of security and confidence that I have in my US passport also has certain limits.
“NEVER FULLY AMERICAN, NEVER FULLY MEXICAN”
AG: Another of the book’s themes is you navigating your dual identity as Mexican and American — as someone who was born in Mexico who largely grew up in United States, and then later returned to Mexico as an adult, where you’ve worked for the last 20 years. On the book’s first page, you refer to Mexico as “my country,” and throughout you refer to it as home. Although there is a point later in which you say it became foreign, or felt foreign to you. You write:
I had spent years trying to shake the feeling that I was hopelessly American in Mexico and Mexican in America — never fully American, never fully Mexican, often feeling less than one, sometimes more than two, depending on the moment.
In the end, you realize that you don’t have to choose between Mexico and the United States.
We are the same geography, one blood, two countries dancing out of step, two souls still clashing. My feet were planted on U.S. soil. Mexico was in my sights. I did not want to be anywhere else or anyone else. At least at that moment, in my search for home, I felt I didn’t have to choose anymore.
Can you discuss a little bit about how you came to that realization?
AC: Of the entire book, the whole identity part is what brought the most tears. I mean, even now, you reading that, I get kind of choked up. It was very emotional, trying to figure out who you are and what you are. I mean — I’m a son of Mexico, and you feel that rejection here in Mexico from Mexicans themselves who will never really see you as a son of Mexico. Yet, you also feel that rejection in the United States because you’re from Mexico. I think growing up in California as a kid, it was very clear to me from the beginning that I was Mexican. I think in many ways that helped me, back in those years, in the formative years of my life, when there was the Chicano Movement — I mean, people didn’t really know who the heck they were. I think even my mother and her love for Mexico, the music, the whole culture, really gave me an identity, who I was. And that was very helpful, having this illusion, and the nostalgia of saying, “I am Mexican, but I want to fit in here.” What I’m trying to say is that I never stopped feeling like I was Mexican, and I think that was important. Because I see a lot of friends of mine who to this day debate the Aztlán and the Chicano. Where, to me, there was never any doubt about that.
AG: I spent some time on the border, in McAllen, Texas, and at times I almost felt like the border was a place unto itself. As someone who grew up in El Paso and spent a lot of time on the border, I wonder if you ever felt that way.
AC: Absolutely, I mean, without offending chilangos, the border is really the place where I feel most at home. Just these two worlds come together, and often times you kind of feel like, if they just left you alone, you really are a different country; you’re a different society, although the violence has exposed our divisions a lot more than we thought. There are people in El Paso who haven’t been back to Juárez in years. It’s kind of different, that’s a story I want to do in the future. If you look at Nuevo Laredo, the two Laredos, they remain much more united throughout the tough times than Juárez and El Paso. El Paso just kind of bailed out on Juárez. That was one part in the book where I did just kind of let go. Angela was a little surprised. We were driving along the border in Marfa, and I talk about [how] there’s no fence, there are no drones to separate “us” from “them.” That was a line that we debated. She said, “Do you really want to say that? Because you’re going to cover immigration and you’re going to get all these anti-immigrant people who are going to say, ‘Oh, this guy wrote that line, blah blah blah.’” But, you know, you gotta be honest with yourself. I did it.
AG: Your family, like many, is split between the United States and Mexico. What are your thoughts are about the possibility of immigration reform in the United States?
AC: I have a lot of relatives who are illegal, living in the United States, and you think about it for them, just reuniting with their families. I have an uncle who’s in his 80s. It breaks your heart that every three or four months he comes from Durango thru El Paso on his way to visit his family because they can’t come visit him. I think about it as a kid growing up, and I was always separated from my dad. Eight months, 10 months, but I always knew he would come back. You see it today. You see all these kids who will never have that chance. They never can get to know who their father was, or who their mother is. So I think it’s really about families, about families coming together.
AG: Given the many connections and ties between the United States and Mexico, and Mexico and Mexican immigrants in the United States, what role do you think Mexico should play in the debates in the United States right now on immigration reform? Peña Nieto was largely silent during Obama’s recent visit and subsequently, and some heavily criticized him for that decision.
AC: I covered the Fox effort first-hand, and I thought it was disastrous. 2000 was very different from 2013. This was before 9/11. I think at first it was helpful. That you had a guy with Irish roots from Ohio going out there and speaking English and all that. I think all that was helpful. But it almost became a caricature after 9/11. You had people kind of making fun of Fox and this and that. I kind of think that Peña Nieto is taking the right strategy. You have enough fuel already on the Republican side that anything that Mexicans say is only going to spur things up more, you know? The key right now is the Latino vote. They’re the ones that have kind of pushed this to this level. I talked to many Mexican consulates in the United States who are saying, “Yeah, you kind of wish you could do a little more, you kind of wish you could prod things along, but if the Republicans see any of that, it’s doomed.” They’re just waiting and looking for something to grab onto. I feel uncomfortable as a journalist talking about what the hell the policy should be, but I actually think the Mexicans are doing the right thing on this issue. It’s so volatile, that anything could just [makes “poof” sound].
NARCOS AND NARCOCORRIDOS
AG: You use vivid descriptions of tequila, food, neighborhoods, and colorful characters, interspersed with concise snippets of the country’s history, to give readers a sense of Mexico, both past and present. But maybe more than anything else you rely on music to mark specific moments — memorable moments — and to humanize the text. Why music?
AC: I think I say in the book, but at one point I did want to be in music — a songwriter. Music has always been a big, big part of my life, and I’ve always had this habit where I will take cassettes or CDs to mark a certain moment or a certain period. If you go to my house in El Paso there’s tons of CDs, and on some of them I might just write “1994,” “2001,” whatever. It’s that music that takes you back. When I did the Nieman program, the best class I took was on Mozart. It was about how music opens up [your sensory recall] and really helps you get back in the moment. I know people talk about tequila, but I think music was really the big factor in figuring out the story. When we lived in Durango as kids, listening to my mother’s music: Javier Solís, José Alfredo Jiménez, Trío Los Panchos, or Lupita, my sister’s, “Las Golondrinas.” There was also a lot of soundtrack music. I once went to Zócalo, and I was listening to Inception, the song called “Time,” by Hans Zimmer. That song was just stuck in my mind. Poor neighbors. You wake up at 5:30, 6:00 in the morning, and you [makes sound of orchestra reaching crescendo]. But it would just get you in that mood.
AG: There’s even been a playlist created on YouTube of the songs you mention in the book.
AC: You saw that? That’s been that most flattering thing ever. A lot of songs, by the way, were cut out! [Laughs]
AG: There’s a lot of Mexican rock, there’s some ranchera music, there’s US rock, there’s jazz, but given the book’s themes I was a little surprised you don’t really mention or discuss narcocorridos.
AC: You’re the first person who has pointed that out to me, but yeah you’re right. First of all, it didn’t appeal to me, but second of all, I didn’t even think about it. I do listen to them, but I listen to them more to try to understand things. But I’m not a big fan. I think at one point I mention, we’re driving in El Paso, and we were probably listening to some narcocorrido. But I’m not a fan.
AG: Why not?
AC: Because it glorifies. Because you can’t be covering some of this shit, you know, some of these victims — you walk away, and you’re carrying their pain, and you’re carrying their loss, and you’re carrying their sorrow. I remember when Villas de Salvárcar hit. I was heading back to El Paso, and it was a rainy, rainy day, and we were there in some parking lot. I was there with Angela, and Angela has this thing where she always has the window down to make sure that people know that we have a blond woman, we’re not hit men and so forth. On the way back, I mean, you’re just torn. You are heartbroken. Part of you was just crying because of what you saw. And there was this bus, and they’re playing this narcocorrido, and it was like [exhales heavily] — I mean, it just, it was tough. And so, I haven’t been a fan. I know it sounds Puritan or something like that, but you can’t consciously listen to that stuff — especially when they’re glorifying people. In old Laredo, you go there, and Nuevo Laredo, and you have halcones peddling this music. It’s really promoting the Zeta logo and promoting the Zeta music and [Zeta leader Treviño Morales] 40.
AG: You had written in the book that 2007 was the last time you felt safe in Mexico. Has that changed since 40’s capture?
AC: No. I thought it would, I thought it would. There was a part of me that night that thought, “Okay,” but to be honest with you, there are times now that I’m even a little more worried. Because if what people tell me is true it does worry me: that this guy could have been negotiating, and by you publishing this — making it public — you ended all negotiations. I mean, come on: he’s got a brother, he’s got a lot of friends, a lot of allies. There’s a lot of money in this. Marcela Turati was the one who called me and said, “Promise me you’re out of here tomorrow.” One of the shitty things about 40 is that there are so many allegations about him, and as a journalist I’d love to sit down with this guy and talk about these allegations. I would love to go a court hearing, a trial, because you know that damn well he couldn’t have done all this stuff without some kind of help. There’s got to be a whole structure.
AG: Do you think he’ll be extradited to the States?
AC: I think it’ll be a cold day in hell before that happens. I think he knows so much: who’s on the take, how much money — but I do think that if the Americans ask for his extradition, I do fear that things may get a little hairy for Americans here. That’s my sense. I don’t know. Again, there’s something that happens when you land in Mexico City, you kind of take the American chip out, and you put the Mexican chip in, and it becomes a world of conspiracies, you know? [Laughs]
AG: How did you get the lead?
AC: Sources, on both sides of the border. But yeah, again, sometimes as a journalist, you’re in the moment, and you don’t really think about these questions, these consequences. Not until afterwards do you start thinking, “What the hell did I do?”
AG: Something you’ve talked about is the potential impact your reporting and the book might have on your colleagues and on your family.
AC: My biggest concern right now is that the book’s coming out in Spanish in September. I have been preparing my mother for the last few months, talking to her about the book. Angela and I had dinner with her, and obviously you don’t tell her the day-to-day on every page of the book, but you kind of give them a real sense of what happened. So, I thought I had her prepared. Two days ago, Random House sends me the first version in Spanish, the translated, and we’re going through errors and all that. But I left it with my mother. I said, “Read it.” Because I thought it’s better for her to read it now. That poor woman — she’s just been crying and crying and crying. It’s like this hidden life I led for the last 10 years, 12 years or so.
AG: Was your family still unaware of much of what you discuss in the book?
AC: Much of it, yeah. Again, I think this year I was much more forthcoming. It was funny that, the day after 40’s arrest my mom calls me and says, “Hey, that man who has been chasing you, or you were afraid of, well he’s been caught.” I said, “Really mom?” “Yeah, it was on Univision.” And I thought to myself, I should just come clean, and I didn’t. But it’s been hard because it’s reliving, really, 50 years of our lives. I was in Dallas yesterday and talking to her, at night, and she’s just bawling. I’m glad I did [give her the book]. I talked to Angela, and she says, “Well, maybe you shouldn’t have done it.” And I said, “Look, I’d rather she read it before it comes out in Spanish. At least she’s prepared.”
AG: Did the process of research and writing the book affect your relationship with your family?
AC: In some ways, I think it affected me more. My mother and I, maybe you can tell by the book, we’re very close. But I feel like for the last six years, eight years, I kept a lot from her. It went back to the whole premise of the book: the son trying to prove the mother wrong. I was like, “I don’t want to tell you how shitty things are, Mom, because then you won. Because then your whole idea, or your whole vision of getting us out of Mexico would be proven right.” I kind of wanted to show her that things were moving, were changing. But the last eight years I sort of closed off. For one, I didn’t want to worry her. I mean, she’s very religious, very devoted to the Virgén de Guadalupe, and I could just imagine her every night. But, two, I thought Mexico really needed more time, and I wanted to be here. Because I thought the day they become too damn worried, I’m going to have to start thinking about Plan B, and I don’t know that I want to leave. So in a way it pulled us apart, and that affected the relationship. When I took them to Durango, and we were reliving Lupita’s death and were leaving, and my mom showed me the spot where we stood that day and all that, you know, that was hard enough. It was painful, but it was also kind of good for us to be there together, for solidarity. Right now, I feel like they’re really hurt that I didn’t share all that with them, and my father is more pissed that I didn’t listen to him. That when he told me, “Hey, these guys weren’t joking. They knew where you went to school, they knew you were an intern, they knew everything about you. These guys do not understand the word forgiveness.” I mean, this is a conversation I had last night with them. “Yet you went out, and you did exactly what I told you not to do.” And I was like, “Yeah, I did.”
AG: The book has been widely reviewed, and you’ve just finished two months of your book tour. Has the reception differed depending on where you’ve been, either between the United States and Mexico, or even within the United States?
AC: Oh yeah. In the United States, I think I’ve been pretty lucky that it has gotten mainly positive reviews. I would say that in the Southwest it’s been a little more about cartels. Not much, but the biggest difference has really been Mexico and the United States. I don’t really get the sense that Mexicans really care that much about the immigrant story. I think it’s still a point of shame for them, that so many of us have left. It’s almost like they don’t want to be reminded of that; they don’t want to acknowledge that to reinvent yourself, often times, you have to get the hell out of here, and it’s almost like a slap in the face to them. I mean, there have been some interviews where I try to push people, la historia del inmigrante, la familia, and it’s like, no, no, they want to talk about drugs and Calderón, and wasn’t Calderón a bad bastard, and this and that.
AG: Do you think interest in Mexico will change when the Spanish version is released?
AC: You know, when I wrote this book, I didn’t really think much of the Mexican audience. I thought more about the US audience. So it will be interesting to see how it’s received here. Some people have read it, and they’ve reviewed it, and it has been positive.
AG: How would you respond to critics who might say that the book perpetuates easy stereotypes of Mexico, be it about the violence or the country as a whole?
AC: I think it’s a valid criticism, and I totally get it. Because I think of when I came here 20 years ago: my goal was to dispel all of these stereotypes. I was one of those Mexicans who thought I could just look the other way and came to the conclusion that everything is linked. And if you can’t really write about that, you’re really ignoring all this reality in Mexico. I don’t know how 100,000 killed or disappeared people become a stereotype. I think I’m a stereotype in many ways.
AG: How so?
AC: In the sense that you’re a high school dropout, and you kind of reinvent yourself. You’re that Mexican immigrant who left. Maybe not many of them want to come back. Well, I think a lot of them do want to come back if they had the opportunity to come back. I had the opportunity.
So when I hear that criticism, I think it’s valid, but I also want people to know that I spent most of my life trying to dispel all of those stereotypes. I thought for a while I had done a pretty good job of it, and then reality bit me in the ass.
This interview has been edited and condensed.