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Journalist Alfredo Corchado says it's 'Midnight in Mexico'

His memoir about life in the country is dominated by his reporting about drug cartels, which sidelines much of the positive news.

June 14, 2013|By Hector Tobar, Los Angeles Times
  • The cover of "Midnight in Mexico" and author Alfredo Corchado.
The cover of "Midnight in Mexico" and author Alfredo Corchado. (Penguin )

Journalist Alfredo Corchado has had a front seat to many of the most important events of recent Mexican history. In the 1980s he covered the protests in Northern Mexico that foreshadowed the end of one-party rule, and he was later a Mexico City correspondent for the Dallas Morning News. In 2000, he conducted the first interview with President-elect Vicente Fox, the opposition candidate who broke the ruling party's 71-year hold on power.

And when Mexico's organized crime groups went on a killing spree in the first years of this century, Corchado was among a handful of U.S. reporters working high-level sources inside the U.S. and Mexican governments, trying to make sense of what was going on.

Now Corchado has written a memoir based on his experiences: "Midnight in Mexico: A Reporter's Journey Through a Country's Descent Into Darkness." Unfortunately, Corchado only sporadically manages to transform the history he's witnessed into anything illuminating.

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The Mexican-born son of a family that migrated to the U.S., Corchado arrives in Mexico City in the 1990s thinking he can make a difference. But in "Midnight in Mexico" he ends up perpetuating easy stereotypes.

"This is Mexico. Everybody is corrupt," Corchado's Mexico City driver tells him. The driver has been arrested for having a counterfeit registration sticker on his license plate and Corchado pays a hefty bribe to get him out of jail. The driver blames the corrupt officials who sold him the sticker.

"Everybody is in on it?" Corchado asks the driver, who is also one of his closest friends. "Were you in on it too?"

Time and again, Corchado tells us in "Midnight in Mexico" that he doesn't know whom he can trust. It's an understandable predicament, given that he's become obsessed with writing about the most evil aspect of Mexican society — the drug "cartels" that are responsible for thousands of deaths.

The drug syndicates operate with impunity in many corners of provincial Mexico. Corchado gives us a poignant account of the wave of violence consuming Ciudad Juarez, for example. But he uses the violent truths of Juarez to arrive at some questionable moral judgments about the Mexican people themselves.

Corchado has no qualms about associating Mexicanness with fatalism. All the Mexicans in his orbit seem to have accepted that their country is inherently evil and unfair. It's a cliché found in countless superficial works about the Mexican people and one that Corchado repeats in his book again and again.

In Mexico, "you do what you can, not what you want," he writes, paraphrasing his own Mexican mother. "Faith is all we have." But Corchado is a U.S. citizen and thus has access to American optimism. "Yet my American side believed that hard work and good intentions could change history, eradicate corruption, pave the way for democracy, create the rule of law — even in Mexico," he writes.

Actually, a lot of people in Mexico believe that too. There's a growing anti-corruption movement in Mexico, and many brave officials have risked their lives, or sacrificed them, in the name of the rule of law. But their stories don't fit into Corchado's tabloid vision of Mexican history.

Instead, Corchado seems to think that Mexico will make sense if he can understand what the country's most powerful drug kingpins are up to and if he can prove that they're in cahoots with the country's leaders. One of his news stories about those links gets him into trouble. He learns from a source that he's on a cartel hit list.

Corchado spends the next 80 pages trying to find out if the threat is credible and wondering whether he should leave the country. His attempts to create drama out of these personal experiences are undermined by stilted dialogue and thinly drawn scenes. At any rate, the threat isn't deemed serious enough by his friends to cancel a dinner party that night.

Other books have covered similar terrain with great literary flair, conveying the dread and absurdity at the heart of the "drug wars" — most notably Sebastian Rotella in "Twilight on the Line" and Charles Bowden in "Down by the River." Corchado is at his best when he abandons the memoir and commentary and simply reports, as with an unforgettable sketch of an underworld lawyer he meets in Juarez.

In the end, you can't understand modern Mexico — and whether it really is "midnight" there — by simply looking at its crime blotters. The illicit-drug economy itself is built from a vast international division of labor — including guns that flow southward from the U.S. — though none of that interests Corchado much. Nor does the relative stability found in the vast majority of Mexico not consumed by the drug wars. Corchado notes other journalists' coverage of the rise of Mexico's middle class but then has his driver quickly dismiss it.

"You're joking, right?" the driver says, and Corchado quickly concedes that his driver is right.

Recent Mexican history deserves a more nuanced assessment than that. A reader looking for one is not well served by "Midnight in Mexico."

Midnight in Mexico
A Reporter's Journey Through a Country's Descent Into Darkness

Alfredo Corchado
Penguin Press: 304 pp., $27.95

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